Set to be favorites vs. national powers USC and Notre Dame, plus chief rival California intermixed, the Cardinal would also receive an early December shot at a final poll position impression with a likely rematch against UCLA in the Pac-12 championship game.
Glass half-full Notre Dame fans thus viewed the upcoming Thanksgiving Saturday matchup vs. David Shaw's squad as not only a late-season litmus, but spoiler special.
Knocking the new rival Cardinal from championship contention would have to do with the Irish out of it themselves.
Instead, Traveler rides again.
Left-for-dead after a 14-10 loss to Notre Dame on October 19, the Trojans and their sub-50 scholarship traveling squad have fought back to 7-3, same as the Irish. They've won four of five games under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, whose power of positive thinking approach has the Men of Troy playing inspired football again.
They're ranked, Notre Dame isn't, and USC is back on the relevancy map as the 2013 season heads down its defining home stretch.
Brian Kelly, his staff, and the remaining 60-plus healthy Irish bodies are thus tasked with following the Trojans lead.
Notre Dame is a home underdog to 7-3, unranked BYU. Both programs lost recent winning streaks after road defeats (BYU lost 27-10 to a strong Wisconsin squad on November 9; we won't re-hash Notre Dame's unconscionable slip to Pitt in the Steel City the same Saturday).
The Cougars punishing running attack had the full attention of Notre Dame's seniors during last week's media interview sessions, but with the new wrinkle of road favorites in the House that Rockne Built…on Senior Day?
How about some Fighting Irish spirit?
Quality Wins but Work RemainsNotre Dame's quality wins this season have unfortunately been overshadowed by a healthy mixture of close calls against poor (Purdue is historically bad) and average teams (Navy), with two more victories over teams with no shot to compete (Temple, Air Force).
The Irish schedule trended down overall, and that includes the loss at Pittsburgh, the Panthers mired at 4-5 with wins over only Old Dominion and Notre Dame since September.
But the Irish beat USC. They beat Arizona State. They beat Michigan State.
The Spartans have lost only to the Irish and are one upset win in the Big 10 Championship game away from the Rose Bowl. The Sun Devils lost only to Notre Dame and Stanford and are likewise positioned to battle for Rose Bowl riches. So is USC.
Notre Dame has three wins vs. "ranked teams" (for those of you that care about such things). Each has played its best football since.
Now they need two more.
Two more wins, one as a mild home underdog to Brigham Young -- a stunning development considering you could have wagered on the Irish as favorites of eight points vs. the Cougars back in late September -- and another as a certain touchdown-plus dog at Stanford.
Both opponents are legit. Both subscribe to power football. Both are capable of going into bowl season and beating teams from power conferences. (Stanford would be favored vs. all but about five teams in the nation.)
Both could hammer Notre Dame if the Irish aren't engaged for 60 minutes.
But wins over both would re-set Notre Dame's disappointing season. Wins over both no longer seems an unattainable goal. If USC and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast can stymie Stanford, why can't Bob Diaco and Notre Dame?
USC's win over the weekend gave a large sect of shaken Notre Dame fans hope.
It also put pressure on head coach Brian Kelly and the Irish program.
"What though the odds be great or small?
Old Notre Dame will win over all…"
Why shouldn't they?