Trouble Spot #4: USC

O'Malley's annual "Trouble Spots" countdown continues its look at Notre Dame's toughest game situations for 2013...

Click the links below for the first three installments in our Trouble Spots series:

#12 Temple and for a full explanation of the rankings.

#11 Navy

#10 Air Force

#9 Brigham Young

#8 Purdue

#7 Pittsburgh

#6 Arizona State

#5 Michigan State

Trouble Spot #4 -- USC

Thanks to November 2012, previous dates such as 1995 and 2001 are again relevant to Trojans football.

The former marked the last time USC lost to arch-rivals Notre Dame and UCLA in the same season -- that is until 2013. The latter was the most recent time USC lost six games in a season -- one of those courtesy lame duck Notre Dame head man Bob Davie. It happened again in 2013, with Lane Kiffin's troubled Trojans dropping six of their last seven including a no-show bowl "effort" to Georgia Tech.

Prior to 2013, and despite heavy NCAA sanctions, things had been flowing quite smoothly for the Trojans. A No. 1 pre-season ranking on the heels of an unexpected 10-2 season was part of the preview to 2013.

Unranked and unprepared, the post-script.

Notre Dame held USC to one touchdown last season. UCLA scored 38; Arizona 39; Oregon a ridiculous 62 -- all part of the end-season carnage in Troy when a 6-1 start dissolved into a 7-6 finish.

And yet, they're still dangerous. 56 returning lettermen including 29 former starters, plus 13 incoming four- and five-star prospects, many of which enrolled early, are at head coach Lane Kiffin's disposal next fall.

Why #4?

Frankly, if you've been following and know which teams come in at 3-2-1, USC can't rank any higher. But that's more due to location and the forthcoming matchups' slotting on the schedule than comparative talent level to the Trojans, which might be second-to-one (Oklahoma) if not none.

USC's defensive front seven should be improved, with linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard -- the latter returning from injury -- on the outside, while 2012 freshman defensive end Leonard Williams continues the lineage of top tier talent at the position that annually finds its way to Troy.

Penn State transfer Siras Redd is back for another season of running angry in the 'backfield, and USC has -- pound-for-pound -- the best player in the nation in junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. (His understudy, Nelson Agholor, is the next big thing.)

There's ample talent in place, including quarterback, where late-season strong-armed whipping boy Max Wittek competed this spring with 2011 four-star prospect Cody Kessler; 2013 five-star early enrollee Max Browne is waiting in the wings as well.

If the Trojans offensive line can return to some semblance of its previous form (consider the unit was likely the "MVP" of the 2011 upset of the Irish in South Bend), USC will again be able to score with anyone (Oregon isn't on their schedule), at any time.

USC isn't a six-loss football team. The maligned Kiffin probably isn't a six-loss coach, at least not with this program and talent-level at his disposal. (Aggregate score between Kiffin and Brian Kelly in three seasons: USC 60 ND 59).

Whether they can hold up over a three-month span is immaterial for this rivalry contest: the now-underdog Trojans will be dangerous in any one-game scenario next fall.

Both Notre Dame and USC will be battle-tested, with the Trojans traveling to Arizona State and taking on Arizona in the two weeks prior. The Irish face USC in the season's eighth week following its first of two byes. Prior to taking on the Trojans, Kelly's Irish will encounter (among others) Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Arizona State.

Crucial Components

A look at the ancillary factors surrounding Notre Dame's matchup with the Trojans:

Fast Fact: Trojans wide receiver Robert Woods moved onto the NFL after his junior season. In three games vs. Notre Dame, the ultra-competitive Woods compiled 27 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns including a diving game-clincher in 2011.

Look-Ahead Factor? Non-existent, ever, vs. USC...

Puncher's Chance? See 2011, when the Trojans ripped through Notre Dame as 8.5-point underdogs en route to a 31-17 victory. USC out-gained the Irish 443 to 267 on the evening, the first prime-time game in South Bend since 1990.

Likelihood of an Irish defeat: Its hard to argue anything but a 51/49 ND advantage heading into this 7:30 p.m. kickoff, one for which Notre Dame will have two weeks to prepare (as it did in 2011). USC also has an extended prep time for the contest, facing Arizona on Thursday, October 10, prior to traveling to South Bend for the October 19 battle.

Introduction to the Series

For the last, oh, 32 seasons, I've been off. Off by at least one, usually two and often three games in a comparison of my pre-season prediction for Notre Dame's end-season record and the actual mark. And then there was 2007 when I missed by five, but hey, who's counting?

But if you need someone to identify a trap game on the Irish schedule, one in which the South Benders will inexplicably struggle, then this is the column for you.

In 2009 this annual summer series pegged Purdue (a last-second Irish win). 2010 identified Tulsa (straining to pat myself on the back). 2011 it was Air Force (way off, 59-33 ND) and Wake Forest (a fourth-quarter Irish win, 24-17). 2012? Both Brigham Young and Pittsburgh, two games in which the Irish prevailed by a total of six points with three overtimes included.

Why does Notre Dame -- and for that matter, nearly every other college and pro football program -- struggle vs. lesser teams? Its a game played by humans. The ebb and flow of a season is often overlooked as fans and media attempt to predict outcomes.

But not here -- we have you covered.

I can't tell you if Notre Dame will win 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, or 8 games next season, but I can rank, from #12 through #1, the biggest Trouble Spots on the Irish schedule.

Taking into account the game's timing on the schedule (Is it a trap? Does the dreaded "sandwich" game apply?). Projecting the home crowd for Notre Dame (predictably dead vs. both BYU and Pitt last year), and of course considering the location of the contest and ability of each opponent, we present the fifth annual Trouble Spots for 2013.

Consider yourself warned.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories