Believe it or not, there really is no question that Notre Dame can beat Southern Cal on Saturday. The Irish are 30-point underdogs against USC, but Stanford was a 40-point dog when it beat the Trojans last season.
It is a football game and Notre Dame can beat USC.
Despite all of the issues surrounding the Irish and the future of their coach, the only real question is, ‘Will they?'
Will the Irish pull off the upset? Probably not, but that does not mean that they won't and Charlie Weis does not even expect them to think about it.
"'Think' is not the answer, it's ‘believe'. There's a big difference," said Weis. "They better believe they're going to win or else you have no chance. 'Think' is too much of an abstract, you have to believe you're going to win."
Other teams, like Stanford again, have had reasons to believe that they could beat USC this year, but those thoughts did not last very long.
"The one thing that happens a whole bunch of times is people will hang around with them for about a half. It seems like after halftime all of a sudden (the Trojans) just start pulling away," Weis said. "You can't just be happy to be hanging around with them for a half. If you're going to have a chance to beat them, you're going to have to be ready to play for 60 minutes."
But Weis will still use those games as models to show his team how important it will be for it to play well in all three phases.
"There's evidence that teams hang around for a while, then usually the game ends up getting away from them," he said. "Stanford is playing a really good game in the first half. They're up 17-10. They kickoff after they go up 17-10, Stanford has two guys on the 18-yard line unblocked to make a tackle on the kickoff return. They both miss. Next thing you know, the guy takes it to the house, it's 17-17. Now they kickoff to start the second half, (USC) takes another one for 60 yards. If the guy doesn't barely step out of bounds, that one is going to the house, too. The game did not change on offense or defense in the Stanford game. The game changed on two kickoff returns."
It will be crucial for Notre Dame to continue playing its game, even when USC starts to flex its muscles.
"Teams start pressing as the game starts getting away from them offensively. Because now all of a sudden that 17-17 game is now is a two-touchdown deficit, and now they start pressing," Weis said. "If you can hang with them and the score's relatively close, you think about Stanford's game last year when Stanford beat them at USC, they just hung in there until the end. They just hung in there. They were just hanging around, hanging around, hanging around. At the end of the game, they throw a fade ball for a touchdown and they win. Usually against these guys, that's the way you beat 'em."
A lot of people have said that Notre Dame would be lucky just to hang with the Trojans and have wondered if that would be enough to save Weis' job. Weis is not looking at it like that.
"You can't go there hoping to lose a close game. I mean, you can't go there with that intent. I mean, listen, they've lost one game on the road to Oregon State where Oregon State was holding on for dear life," he said. "This is a good football team, one of the best football teams in the country. You can't go in there, ‘God, I hope we lose a close game.' You just can't go in thinking like that."
Last year the Irish hung around with USC early, but in the end could not even keep it close, losing 38-0. But Weis believes that his players gained valuable experience that day.
"Last year when they came in here, you hung around for a quarter, then the game slowly started to get away from you," he said. "Well, I'm taking a lot of those same people now that saw you hanging around for a quarter."
In 2005, Weis took a team into a game against USC that knew it could win although it came up just short, losing 34-31.
"I think that a lot of the older kids on our team went into the game not feeling, let me say the word's not 'intimidated', but not at all in awe of USC's team," he said. "I think if your team has an awe factor of the team they're going against, then you have no chance, OK? I can tell you one thing, I'll be shocked this week if our team goes in there with the awe factor."
Fifth-year senior linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr. played in that 2005 game.
"I think the one thing that I can draw from that is just the idea that it can done," he said. "It just has to be a group collective effort; that everyone on the team has to buy in and just be ready to go and show no fear."
Weis said that he will make sure that everyone who makes the trip to Los Angeles will believe Notre Dame can win.
"Before we leave here this week, we're going to have a pretty good idea of which guys do believe and which ones don't. I'll have to leave it at that," he said. "We obviously have a plan."
And the plan for the guys who don't believe?
"They won't go," he said. "They won't come."
Crum does not expect to leave anyone behind.
"I hope not, or else I'll have a serious issue with that guy," said Crum. "The coaches won't be the only people looking for just guys like that. I'm pretty sure the coaches and the leaders on this team are going to make sure that the message is clear. And for guys who don't get it, we're going to have a problem."
So how can the Irish beat USC?
"I think the first thing you better do is make sure that in the game of ball possession it doesn't turn into a one-sided affair, where you don't go in offensively and have a bunch of three-and-outs, have the defense on the field all day," said Weis. "Second thing, you've got to make some big plays. Big plays can come from any of the three facets. It can come from blocking a punt, like last week. It can come from Golden (Tate) hitting a home run on a go. It can come from a turnover, interception or fumble. But you're going to need some big plays in this game. Whether it be a turnover or just a big play by any of the three facets, you're going to need some of those to win this game."
USC is ranked first nationally in scoring defense and second in total defense, so Notre Dame cannot count on 80-yard touchdown drives all night, but will still need to run the ball in order to control the ball.
"I think you have to have that in the game because I think if you don't run the ball at them, get a bunch of three-and-outs, you really put the defense at a big disadvantage, leave them on the field too much," said Weis. "I think you have to try to play as much as you can ball control in the game, but you're going to need some people to make some big plays."
Aside from controlling the football and making big plays on offense, defense and special teams, Notre Dame will still need to play solid throughout and in the end probably get a good bit of luck too.
Can the Irish beat USC? Sure, all they need is belief and a bunch of other things to go their way.
Will they? We'll see.