Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the rankings.
Trouble Spot No. 3 – USCEight was enough.
The Trojans' eight-game winning streak vs. Notre Dame and its deposed coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, ended last November, with new head coach Brian Kelly's squad taking a hard-fought, battle-of-the-backup-quarterbacks, 20-16 slugfest in the Coliseum.
Situation (date, time, location): Saturday, October 22, in South Bend. Kick-off is set for 7:30 ET – the first prime time kick-off in South Bend since 1990.
USC/Irish Game Slot: USC travels to rival California for a Thursday, October 13 battle on ESPN. The Trojans will have an extra weekend to prepare for the Irish under the lights in South Bend. USC must face an explosive Stanford team following its matchup with the Irish.
Notre Dame enjoys its bye week prior to USC's visit, then takes on Navy in South Bend one week later.
National View of USCLindy's ranks the Trojans 20th nationally; 1st in the newly-formed Pac-10 South, while Phil Steele similarly ranks the Trojans first in the South and 17th nationally. Athlon's views the Trojans as the fourth-best team in the Pac-10; 27th nationally.
My View of the Trojans: Dangerous if in good health, but much more fragile than in recent seasons. Junior Matt Barkley is far ahead of last year's fill-in, Mitch Mustain, the first USC quarterback to lose to the Irish since Carson Palmer in 2001. And while the defensive line remains explosive, if not consistent, the offensive front, an underrated program strength during the first seven seasons of the Pete Carroll era, has dropped off significantly.
The Trojans have, potentially, a top 5 2011 quarterback in Barkley, one of the nation's best receivers, Robert Woods, with talent flanking him along the perimeter, a potentially explosive running back tandem, a top tier safety, and two defensive linemen that would start for 110-115 teams.
With proper guidance, they'll challenge for more than third-place behind perceived Pac-10 favorites, Oregon and Stanford, this fall.
Coaching ElementWith an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, former head coach Carroll excelled as a defensive strategist, showing a knack for halftime adjustments to blow open previously contested battles. Conversely, new head coach Lane Kiffin remains a question mark as a leading man for a power program such as USC.
Sheer talent can get a college football powerhouse to eight, sometimes nine wins, but a strong leader and staff keys BCS runs and extended success.
There are at least seven, and as many as 10 opposing coaches among Notre Dame's 12 foes, with an earned respect level that exceeds that of Kiffin entering Year Two in Troy. Though I doubt he's the simpleton opposing fans hope him to be, there's no doubt the jury is still out on the thus-far 15-win, 11-loss collegiate head coach.
Assistant head coach Monte Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron should field a much stronger defense than the disappointing unit of 2011.
Trap Game PotentialNot applicable – it's the game of the year for Notre Dame and will prove to be among the toughest game day tickets of the past 10 seasons in South Bend.
Key elements to the Trojans' Defense/OffenseWith the notable exception of a 2005 runner-up season, the USC defenses of 2002 through 2008 ranked among the nation's best units. The group began to wane during Carroll's final season of '09, then dropped off considerably last season, allowing a decade-high 26.7 ppg.
With five front seven and three defensive backfield regulars returning, defensive coordinator Orgeron and the legendary elder Kiffin's first task: restore the unit's core strength that was noticeably lacking last fall – tackling.
Barkley directs a pro-style offensive attack built much like the 2009 Irish: skill and perimeter talent can hit foes in waves, but a leaky group up front could hamper the team's ability to put up more than three touchdowns vs. the better teams on its late: likely the minimum number required to win at Notre Dame, vs. Stanford, and at Oregon, next fall.
Sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods could be the team's first unstoppable collegiate pass-catcher since Dwayne Jarrett exited campus following the 2007 season.
Advantage Irish? Lost in the wake of top-tier quarterback and wide receiver performances of the series' recent past was the absolute domination USC enjoyed over the Irish at the line of scrimmage. From 2002 through 2009, there was little doubt the Trojans could run the ball when necessary, and stymie Notre Dame's rushing attack (at will). That changed last season when the Irish won both battles up front en route to an upset win in Los Angeles.
Both of Notre Dame's scrimmage units return intact from that late-November victory: the offensive line should be the best at the program since at least 2005; the D-Line the top unit in South Bend since 2002, only with greater and better developed depth.
USC could again win the perimeter battles, but the Irish will control the trenches.
Relevant StorylinesIt's the greatest intersectional rivalry in football, and the tide has turned in favor of the program in South Bend. The Notre Dame/USC series has historically been a dominated by extended winning streaks, and though the Irish won't likely win eight straight, it's no longer an annual matchup that features the hammer (USC) vs. the nail (ND).
Puncher's Chance for an upset? Not applicable. The perceived favorite could easily win or lose by double digits this October.
Final Verdict/PredictionPossibly the hardest Irish contest to forecast entering 2011, the prime time battle with USC promises a frenzied, sufficiently lubed-up crowd, emotional on-field encounters, and one of the best atmospheres of the upcoming college season.
Both teams' game night performances will partially dictated by their national standing entering the contest: Will the Irish be a Top 5 (no loss); Top 15 (one loss); or two-loss team? one sitting outside the top 25 in desperate need of a victory?
Will the Trojans enter South Bend 5-1 or 6-0, fresh off an ESPN whipping of rival California one week prior? Or has attrition and a coaching change damaged USC's previous resolve and ability to answer the bell week after week?
Regardless of their records, the game will offer attendees the best the sport has to offer: a contentious struggle (if you're on hand, remember to watch the north tunnel, pre-game)…but a battle of one-loss, or (especially) undefeated teams would take the evening atmosphere to a new level.
If USC enters undefeated (Hawaii, Utah, Syracuse, Arizona State, Arizona, Cal) it's advantage, Irish, regardless of Notre Dame's record.
But a highly ranked Irish team would likely receive a few haymakers from the talented Trojans should they drop a game or two prior to their trip east.
I lean toward Notre Dame in a close one, with at least 14 more total points scored than in last year's defensive struggle…but I'll change my mind multiple times by game week.