U.C.L.A. coach Bob Toledo, after losing to U.S.C., announced that he is certain that U.S.C. will win the game (perhaps Toledo is auditioning for a spot on ESPN's crew for next year). There's little question but that the point spread will favor U.S.C. by a touchdown or more and that the network "analysts" will overwhelmingly choose the Trojans.
It all sounds more than faintly reminiscent of the predictions that the Irish would be thrashed by more talented Michigan and Florida St. squads. So let's take a step back and try to look at things as objectively as possible.
At the most macro level, it's amazing that there's such a consensus in favor of U.S.C. N.D. is 15-3-1 in its last 19 games against U.S.C. N.D. in 2002 is currently 10-1 and U.S.C. is 9-2. N.D.'s and U.S.C.'s schedules have consistently graded out as the two most difficult of the top contenders, though N.D.'s schedule strength took at hit with the Navy and Rutgers games. Nonetheless, there's nothing about recent history or this year to point strongly to U.S.C.
There can be little doubt that the consensus in favor of U.S.C. is due partly to the Trojans' strong performances in their last 6 games. U.S.C.'s good play of the last two months has come, however, entirely against Pac 10 teams. The Pac 10 this year is a lackluster 6-7 against teams from other B.C.S. conferences (I include N.D. for this purpose), and three of those wins have come against hapless foes Michigan St., Baylor and Mississippi St. N.D. itself is 7-1 against non-Pac 10 B.C.S. conference foes (though Michigan St. and Rutgers certainly belong in the hapless class).
U.S.C., however, is the owner of two of the quality non-conference wins. U.S.C. played a close game against Auburn that the Trojans won 24-17, though they were helped by an injury that sidelined Auburn running back Williams in the second half. U.S.C. blasted Colorado 40-3, though Colorado did appear to be having its legendary beginning-of-the-season woes. Kansas St. thoroughly dominated U.S.C. taking a 27-6 lead late into the 4th quarter before two late touchdowns made the margin 27-20 (and Kansas St. later lost to Colorado, suggesting that the Trojans probably caught the Buffs the right week).
N.D. and U.S.C. have had only one common opponent, which was Stanford, and the results were similar and quite representative of how each team has played this year. N.D.'s 31-7 win was fueled by a defensive feeding frenzy; recall that this was the one game that Pat Dillingham started for the Irish. U.S.C. won 49-17 as its high octane offense mowed over the Cardinal. None of this is to diminish the Trojans' performance this year, but it does suggest that the hyperbolic assertions about U.S.C.'s prowess relative to N.D.'s are a little silly.
As far as the most recent history goes, the only players on the Trojan squad to beat either N.D. or a Willingham-coached Stanford team are in their 5th year. Both N.D. and Willingham have won three straight against U.S.C. N.D. twice accomplished it during losing seasons and Willingham twice during this period defeated U.S.C. in Los Angeles on his way to bowl games. Parenthetically, Willingham was 4-3 against U.S.C. during his Stanford career, and 2-2 against the Trojans in Los Angeles. Last year's Stanford squad dominated U.S.C. on its way to a 21-0 lead and only a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown made the score an apparently close 21-16.
Carson Palmer, the centerpiece of the Trojans' offensive attack, has struggled both against N.D. and against Willingham-coached Stanford squads. His performances against N.D. have been somewhat better than against Willingham-coached Stanford teams. Against N.D., in losing efforts in 2000 and 2001, he was a combined 36 of 65 for 481 yards and 4 touchdowns. This works out to a reasonable 55% completions for 7.4 yards per attempt. Palmer did, however, throw 4 interceptions (2 in each game). In neither of those years, however, did N.D. play particularly good pass defense. The 2000 squad surrendered 7.7 per pass attempt and last year's team gave up 7 yards per attempt. This year's N.D. team gives up only 5.4 per attempt and only allows about 45% completions.
Against Kent Baer's Stanford defenses, Palmer struggled considerably in two losses. In those two games he was a combined 37 of 72 for 430 yards and no touchdowns. This works out to a very modest 51% completions and 6 yards per attempt. Against Baer's defenses he also threw 4 interceptions (also two in each game).
If we look at each team on what I consider the three most fundamental statistics, we can see that the two squads grade out quite similarly. In scoring margin, U.S.C. holds a modest edge: the Trojans are +15.7 per game and N.D. is + 11.4. In yards per pass, N.D. is slightly superior: +2.0 (7.4 for and 5.4 against) to + 1.8 (7.8 to 6.0). In yards per rush, N.D. is again slightly superior: +0.9 (3.6 to 2.7) to +0.6 (3.3 to 2.7).
Both teams have been positive on turnover margin this year. U.S.C. stands at +15 and N.D. is +8. As with most games, if either team generates a +2 or more advantage in turnovers, the chances of winning exceed 90%.
N.D. also has a substantial advantage in what is sometimes called "hidden" yardage. "Hidden" yardage affects field position without directly affecting offensive or defensive statistics. If one combines net penalty yardage, net return yardage and net punting yardage, N.D. is on average +11 per game and U.S.C. is -14. Though this may not seem like a lot, a net two or three first downs in what promises to be a close game could be determinative.
In the end, it's clear that these are both very good teams by almost any measure, but N.D., because it has been less flashy and more dependent upon its defense, continues to be vastly underestimated.