Top-ranked Irish hope to add to historic rivalry with USC

Posted: November 21, 2012

IF YOU HAD told Notre Dame Harvey way back when that the Fighting Irish would be 10-1 heading to Southern California, he wouldn't have argued. Well, at least not too much. Heck, He might've settled for 9-2. And even Lou Holtz wouldn't have been nuts enough to predict 11-0. Mark May would've laughed him off the set.

Who's smiling now?

With 2 weeks to go in a season that's seen the top three unbeatens go down in the last two Saturdays, Notre Dame finds itself back atop the college football world for the first time in way too long. And the only thing left that can keep the Golden Domers from making it to Miami for the Jan. 7 BCS final is a familiar adversary: USC, at the LA Coliseum.

It's been by far the best intersectional rivalry, maybe in any sport. Except for the fact that it hasn't been much of one lately. That's what happens when one side owns it. There was a time, during the Holtz days, when ND did the same thing. So be it.

And to think it all started in 1926, when Knute Rockne, in lieu of a bowl game (he'd taken what became the first of his three national-championship teams to the Rose 2 years earlier with the Four Horsemen), chose to end the season with a trip to the sunny Left Coast. And it's been that way every other year since then.

You want history? Each program claims 11 national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners. The last time ND got a ring, in 1988, the top-ranked Irish beat No. 2 USC out there, 27-10. ND is 5-2 against USC when it is No. 1. But, there have been seven times when ND was in position to win a title and lost at USC.

The last 2 years, neither team was ranked when they met. Two years ago, ND won out there, 20-16, its first victory since 2001. This is the first time since 2000 that the Irish have been ranked higher than the Trojans.

Brian Kelly is trying to join Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Holtz by lifting a trophy in his third season in South Bend.

"Now that we've been given this opportunity, we've got to make the best of it," Kelly said. "We're not doing this to be No. 1 for 3 or 4 days. We want a program that's in the hunt every year."

OK. I'm sure Holtz felt the same way. But the best he could do after '88 was a pair of runners-up in 1989 and '93. The reality is you never know when you're going to be back in this spot. Or even if.

USC, the preseason No. 1, has lost three of its last four. And the Trojans won't have Matt Barkley (shoulder injury). Instead, they'll use freshman Matt Wittek, who's completed eight of nine passes for two touchdowns.

Barkley didn't play in the 2010 game, either. But here's the kicker: The guy from UCLA who knocked Barkley out last week was Anthony Barr, son of Tony Brooks, who played on ND's '88 team.

Cue up the theme music from "The Twilight Zone."

Hey, the Irish have a chance. That's more than most of the 25 teams that were ranked ahead of them in the preseason can say. So smile away.

Trivial pursuit

Linebacker Manti Te'o could be a Heisman Trophy finalist. Who was the last Notre Damer to finish in the top 5? No hints. See Answer Man.

Big East Bit

Pitt hasn't turned it over in its last five games. Of course the Panthers still went 2-3 in those games.

Answer Man

Brady Quinn was third in 2006. Golden Tate did get 10th 3 years ago.

Spotlight On ... SEC vs. ACC

Can the ACC get some more love?

We'll never know where Florida State might be, if it hadn't turned a 16-point halftime lead into a last-second one-point loss at 6-5 North Carolina State in early October. But the Seminoles were ranked third at the time, so odds are they'd be first or second. Instead they're 10th, heading into Saturday's home game against No. 6 Florida, which also has one loss but is fourth in the BCS standings.

Then there's Clemson, whose lone blemish came on Sept. 22 at FSU, where it led by double digits in the third quarter before losing by a dozen. The Tigers are 12th, going into Saturday's home game with No. 13 South Carolina (9-2). Should we mention that another two-loss team, Stanford, is 11th, or that a pair of two-loss SEC clubs, LSU and Texas A&M, are Nos. 8 and 9?

That's what happens when only one other member of your neighborhood, North Carolina (which is on probation), even has as many as seven wins. Right now, only three other ACC teams (and one of them is Duke) are going to bowls, since Miami opted out to potentially lighten its pending NCAA sanctions. And Georgia Tech might go at 6-7 if it loses to Georgia and to FSU in the ACC final. Yuck.

Obviously, the conference's rep could get some much-needed enhancement if FSU and Clemson could pull off a sweep. Since losing to Georgia, Florida hasn't looked like much against Missouri, Louisiana and Jacksonville State, all at home. And quarterback Jeff Driskel will play with an injured ankle. FSU has won the last two meetings, with the Gators managing to score only seven points in each.

South Carolina is trying to beat Clemson four straight for the first time since 1954. Since losing at LSU and Florida, the Gamecocks have also been somewhat pedestrian in beating Tennessee, Arkansas and Wofford. Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney aren't exactly chummy. The other USC is trying to win 10 times in consecutive seasons for the first time. And this is the first time both are in the top 15 when they've collided. Clemson supposedly still has a shot to get into the Sugar Bowl, a year after losing to West Virginia in the Orange, 70-33. But Tiger Nation travels well.

Hey, if all else fails, maybe Wake Forest can upset Vanderbilt.

Sidelines

HAVE YOU NOTICED?

* South Carolina and Clemson are meeting for the first time when both are in the top 15. The Gamecocks are trying to win 10 in a season for the second straight year, something they've never done before.

* Tennessee is going to have three straight losing seasons for the first time in just over a century.

COUCH POTATO:

THURSDAY

4 Tuskegee at Alabama State, ESPNU

7:30 TCU at Texas, ESPN

FRIDAY

11 Syracuse at Temple, ESPN2

Noon Nebraska at Iowa, 6ABC

2 Marshall at East Carolina, CBSSN

2:30 LSU at Arkansas, CBS3

3:30 West Virginia at Iowa State, 6ABC

3:30 Washington at Washington State, FOX29

7 South Florida at Cincinnati, ESPN

10 Arizona State at Arizona, ESPN

SATURDAY

Noon Michigan at Ohio State, 6ABC

Noon Georgia Tech at Georgia, ESPN

Noon Rutgers at Pittsburgh, ESPN2

Noon UAB at UCF, FCS

Noon Tulsa at SMU, FX

Noon Illinois at Northwestern, BTN

12:30 Miam at Duke, CW57

2:30 Grambling State vs. Southern State, NBC10

2:30 Texas Tech vs. Baylor, FOX29

3 Oregon at Oregon State, Pac-12

3:30 Auburn at Alabama, CBS3

3:30 Florida at Florida State, 6ABC

3:30 Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, ESPN

3:30 Wisconsin at Penn State, ESPN2

3:30 Southern Miss at Memphis, TCN

3:30 Tulane at Houston, FCS

3:30 Air Force at Fresno State, NBCSN

3:30 Michigan State at Minnesota, BTN

4:30 Southern Mississippi at Memphis, TCN

6:30 Stanford at UCLA, FOX29

7 South Carolina at Clemson, ESPN

7 Missouri at Texas A&M, ESPN2

8 Notre Dame at USC, 6ABC

10:30 Louisiana Tech at San Jose State, ESPN2

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Email: kernm@phillynews.com.

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