LOS ANGELES — Only one lesson really matters this weekend, right? If No. 3 Notre Dame wins, it will secure its first trip to the College Football Playoff. Win sloppily, and the Irish are in. Win in a blowout, in. Win in overtime only reached by a touchdown drive in the final minutes capped with a two-point conversion? In.
If Notre Dame beats USC, then the 2018 season will have surpassed any and all summer expectations.
Drawing much more in the way of on-field considerations from the regular season finale can be difficult, both as it always is and as it pertains to the Trojans. No matter how Saturday unfolds, the Irish will not play for another month. That could come after a win, leading to a hyped matchup of unbeatens against Clemson, or after a loss, possibly making for a foreboding and disappointing date with Alabama thanks to backing into the Playoff at 11-1. If not the Playoff, Notre Dame could become the Central Florida litmus test in the Fiesta Bowl.
Whatever it is, it will be a month away. Saturday night’s lessons will be only so applicable by then.
That month off should provide time to fix anything not proven solid against USC. Usually this portion of the week focuses on the Irish opponent’s strengths, viewing them as chances to beat something notable, to win a strength vs. strength challenge. But the Trojans do not really do anything all that well.
Yes, USC has the skill position players to do damage, as always, but those players have not shown up much this year.
“A very dangerous football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “When you look at the skill players that they have,” receivers Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Velus Jones. “In the backfield, [Aca’Cedric] Ware has been really good. J.T. Daniels, a freshman who has incredible arm talent, very smart quarterback.
“It’s a big-play potential offense. They can make plays all over the field.”
None of those receivers average more than 4.5 catches per game, St. Brown’s 50 in 11 games leading the way. Team-wide, they have caught passes for fewer than 200 yards in three of their last five games. Ware flashed for two weeks to start the month, but he then managed only 27 yards last week at UCLA. Daniels has nearly matched his 13 passing touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
For the Irish to shut down these players will be a norm befitting the Trojans’ season rather than a stellar showing by a Notre Dame defense already quite established.
If there is any piece of the Irish to stand out this weekend and instill confidence about late December, it is the offensive line.
“What we’d like to be better at is controlling the line of scrimmage, a little bit better, more physically within what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “I thought our sense of urgency was good. … But I want to be more physical at the point of attack on both offensive line and defensive line.”
The Notre Dame ground game has been good, but only occasionally better than that. Since the idle week and a reshuffling along the offensive line, the Irish have just as many strong rushing performances (Navy, Florida State) as stuttering ones (Northwestern, Syracuse). If facing a front like Alabama’s or Clemson’s or even Michigan’s again, a middling performance up front will not be good enough. The Irish line needs to gel once and for all if they want to extend their dreams past a first appearance in the Playoff.
If some combination of Tommy Kraemer (inconsistent), Trevor Ruhland (elbow injury, arguably undersized) and Robert Hainsey (quick feet, too quick) can shore up the right side of the line, then suddenly Notre Dame will have put to rest all debates.
The Irish will be in the Playoff.
They will have rattled off a second undefeated regular season under Kelly, a mark matched at Notre Dame by only Knute Rockne’s five and Frank Leahy’s two. No one game should be considered a referendum on a coach, but the 2018 season as a whole should establish the view of Kelly as an established and successful coach at a place few have found such achievement.
For that matter, Kelly will have notched firm bragging rights over a USC coach and, frankly, over the program as a whole.
To date, Kelly is 5-3 against USC, last year’s 49-14 win over the then-No. 11 Trojans being the most significant, along with the 2012 victory that sealed a moment in the national championship game. Kelly has a winning record against Lane Kiffin (2-1), Ed Orgeron (1-0) and current head coach Clay Helton (2-1), the outstanding loss credited to Steve Sarkisian in 2014.
That is largely a footnote to a rivalry. Kelly’s standing in his ninth season presents a broader view, one in which Notre Dame just may challenge for a national title for the second time under him.
But first, it must … beat SC.
Some other scheduling items:
In order for the Irish to have Playoff life despite a loss to the Trojans, at least some other upsets will need to become realities, namely the Big 12 and/or Big Ten (and maybe the Pac 12) champions will need to pick up a second loss. That is most likely to occur this weekend, as all those front-runners face tougher challenges during rivalry weekend than they will in prospective conference title games.
Friday; 8 ET; ESPN: No. 6 Oklahoma at No. 13 West Virginia. Notre Dame fans should cheer for the Mountaineers.
Friday; 8:30 ET; FOX: No. 8 Washington State vs. No. 16 Washington. Irish fans should cheer for the Huskies.
Saturday; 12 ET; FOX: No. 4 Michigan at No. 10 Ohio State. Notre Dame fans should cheer for the Buckeyes, a potential conference champion the Irish would remain ahead of even with a loss.