Of Brian Kelly’s 107 wins at Notre Dame, the 7 against USC may be most impressive

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Much of 2021 was always going to be spent discussing Brian Kelly’s legacy at Notre Dame. In 2019 or so, it became rather clear Kelly would reach Knute Rockne’s Irish record of 105 career wins, and this season’s big-picture reflections began getting scheduled then.

But one piece could have gone awry in the interim: Kelly has turned the Notre Dame-USC rivalry on its head, but a loss in the last couple years would have clouded that bullet point on his Irish résumé, but the fact of the matter would have remained true despite one loss, a loss that never came anyway.

When Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, the Trojans had won the previous eight meetings by the casual score of 40-15. Only two games had been within a possession, while five had been decided by more than 30 points.

This was no longer a rivalry. As Corey Robinson outlined at the end of a bonus episode of the ND on NBC Podcast this week, rivalries need two things to truly be rivalries: A long-standing history, and dating back to the 1920s with only four years off (World War II, pandemic) certainly qualifies as long-standing; and “You can’t have a one-sided affair.”

USC owned Notre Dame. It was a one-sided affair.

Then Kelly showed up.

Some dismiss his 107 wins with the Irish as the result of longer schedules featuring some MAC opponents, and doing so entirely overlooks the sheer accomplishment of keeping this program running at such a high level 12 years into his tenure, but they are facts that Notre Dame plays 13 games each year nowadays and at least one of those 13 games is against a lesser foe.

But there is no way to diminish what Kelly has done to the Irish fortunes against the Trojans. He has flipped them.

Under Kelly, Notre Dame has gone 7-3 against USC, winning the last three by an average score of 34-19. Even those have not been the close, the Irish giving up touchdowns in the final minute in each of the last two meetings when the games were already decided.

Kelly will face his fifth USC head coach this weekend, including now three interims. When he tied Rockne, he pointed to that exact turmoil out West, days after the Trojans had fired Clay Helton.

“We’re going to play our rival, and they’ve had a number of different head coaches at their university,” Kelly said after beating Purdue. “I’m talking about our rival on the West Coast, and this is not to smear them at all. It requires consistency to get to these marks.”

Now USC once again does not know its direction, needing to replace Helton just as it replaced Steve Sarkisian before him and Lane Kiffin before that. Yes, Kelly and Notre Dame have maintained this stability for so long that the Trojans head coach he first beat on the back of Robert Hughes has had enough time to rebuild his career and now be a frontrunner for the LSU head coaching job. Kiffin’s successor was fired from USC, regathered himself, coached circles around the Irish defense in the Rose Bowl last year and now Sarkisian helms Texas.

That turnover is the norm, but three tenures in 12 years is the kind of turnover Notre Dame was suffering through before Kelly’s arrival when Pete Carrol had the tables flipped on the Irish. These thoughts might be more poignant if Kelly had been the one to hand Helton his final loss, but the timing of USC’s administration’s decisions should not actually impact what Kelly has done in one of college football’s most-storied rivalries.

If — when Kelly adds a fourth straight win against the Trojans and reaches 8-3 against them on Saturday in primetime (7:30 ET; NBC), it will be the best Notre Dame stretch in this series since it went 12-0-1 from 1983 to 1995. To some fans, 1995 feels like yesterday, but let’s be clear: most graduate students were born after that stretch.

Kelly may not ever win a national championship with the Irish, and cynics can dismiss winning at least 10 games in four (and likely to be five) straight seasons as they ignore the realities of college football scheduling in 2021, but it cannot be argued Kelly has returned Notre Dame’s standing in its most important rivalry to a Holtzian level.

When the Irish received a kickoff trailing by a field goal with six minutes left in 2010 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, their chances of ever regaining footing in this rivalry seemed about as slim as their chances of finding footing in that night’s wet sod. Four Robert Hughes carries for 36 yards brought Notre Dame down the field, into the end zone and to a win that night, part of a four-game winning streak to end Kelly’s first season in South Bend. That 20-16 victory also brought a change to this rivalry.

A rivalry everyone in college football missed last year, even if right now it might violate one of Corey Robinson’s two requirements, just in the exact opposite way it used to.

Nowadays, Notre Dame owns USC.