Trouble Spot #2: USC

USC ranks as the best team on Notre Dame's schedule, but this end-season matchup is a much more tenable game situation than another on the squad's daunting 2012 slate.

As noted previously, "Trouble Spots" doesn't rank only the overall strength of each foe, but also takes into account the slotting of each on the Irish schedule.

Click here for the introduction and an explanation of the series, as well as Trouble Spot #12 for 2012, the Naval Academy.

Click here for Trouble Spot #11 (Wake Forest) and here for Notre Dame's 10th toughest game situation, Boston College and for the contest that finished 9th, a neutral site battle vs. Miami in Chicago.

This week's rankings examine Purdue, and the matchup vs. the Boilers following a potentially taxing schedule that includes two cross-Atlantic flight in five days, plus the season's ultimate "trap," a home date vs. Pittsburgh to open November.

Thursday we looked at the dreaded "Sandwich Game" and a home tilt with Brigham Young. Yesterday we examined Stanford, a potential Top 15 foe, but one that falls at an opportune time on the 2012 slate.

Saturday's installment focused on Michigan State, the season's first true road game for Brian Kelly's Irish, while Sunday featured the season's biggest home draw, The Michigan Wolverines.

USC Game Slotting/Situation

The Irish travel to Los Angeles following the only relative break on their schedule: on the heels of a trip to Boston College in mid-November and just after a senior day tilt with another ACC foe, Wake Forest in South Bend. November could be a month of healing for the Irish, likely to be double digit favorites in three straight (Pittsburgh precedes the BC/Wake duo) before heading off to face the Men of Troy.

USC draws the Irish on Thanksgiving Saturday one week after battle at their second biggest rival, the UCLA Bruins. November could be taxing for USC with home games vs. top tier Oregon, solid (bowl quality) Arizona State, and back-to-back rivalry games at UCLA and the home finale vs. ND.

Inside the Trojans

Heisman front-runner Matt Barkley, he of the five touchdown passes vs, one interception, 604 passing yards, and 2-0 record vs. the Irish as a starter returns. So too does top target Robert Woods (20 receptions, 201 yards, two TD in two games vs. Notre Dame), as well as sophomore speed burner Marqise Lee, and undersized but hard-nosed runner Curtis McNeal (118 rushing yards last fall in South Bend). Third receiver George Farmer will be a dynamic No. 3 receiver if he can stay healthy after a spring hamstring injury.

The Trojans have the best weapons in the nation…and oh yeah, for of five starting offensive linemen return, though the lone departure, left tackle and No. 4 overall NFL Draft pick Matt Kalil, is notable.

The entire back seven returns to the defense as does veteran defensive end Wes Horton. Phil Steele notes that though three starters are gone, five of the top eight in the rotation from 2011 return. The returning starters at linebacker are sophomores/redshirt soph's while the back line features three seniors and a junior, the latter in the person of 2011 defensive MVP vs. the Irish, Nickell Robey.

USC has the most first string talent in the nation heading into 2012.

Outside Looking In: Lindy's Sports has the Trojans ranked second nationally while Athlon Sports USC as its national champion and No. 1 overall squad. Phil Steele placed them 4th on the strength of 16 returning starters, acknowledging the Trojans would likely be the Associated Press's No. 1 ranked team to start the season.

Final Thoughts

More than a touchdown favorite, Notre Dame the brand name dominated the pomp and circumstance of game week before last season's prime time tussle vs. USC. The Trojans football team came out thereafter and took it to Notre Dame's when the first whistle blew through the final gun, winning 31-17 in South Bend.

USC's offense will be among the nation's best and the defense should be at least Top 20 caliber. If clicking, its hard to imagine Notre Dame's pass defense being able to handle the Barkley/Woods/Lee-led attack.

But thankfully for Irish fans, this matchup takes place at the end of the season and not in September. While USC could prove to be the nation's best by that time, its also likely the Irish will be playing their best football by season's end. Attrition, adjustments, depth developing better than expected over the next four months: each gives the Irish a far better chance vs. the powerful Trojans than would a mid-season matchup between Barkley and an offense without a leader in South Bend.

In my estimation, USC is the best team on Notre Dame's schedule; it certainly has the best collection of starters if not proven depth. But this season-end scenario offers hope, as Notre Dame's rookie cornerbacks and unproven offense would get hammered in an early season matchup vs. such an experienced offensive juggernaut.

Until last season, Brian Kelly's football teams had historically peaked in November. They'll have to again to stay close vs. this title-calibur foe. Look for Notre Dame to be at their best in Los Angeles, something I don't expect to happen in Trouble Spot #1 to be reviewed tomorrow.

Next in the Series: Our top "Trouble Spot," a late-October trip to Norman, Oklahoma for a battle with the Sooners, will be published later today.


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