If we rewound the clock 40 years, and USC’s game next week was between the 1973 Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the 1973 Trojans instead of the 2013 editions of each team, there would be a whole lot more anticipation and excitement heading into the matchup.
USC was at the height of the John McKay era, having just won a national championship the year before, and came into the matchup at 5-0-1. Notre Dame was led by legendary coach Ara Parseghian, who led the team back to national prominence with a national championship in 1966, and the Irish came into the game 5-0.
Notre Dame had the advantage that year, going on to win both the Battle for the Golden Shillelagh and the national championship that year. But the Trojans would avenge the loss a year later with an epic 55-24 comeback win led by a young Pat Haden at quarterback en route to another national championship in the 1974 season.
Unfortunately, for both Irish and Trojan fans alike, we no longer live in the 1970s. No longer do the two dominate the national scene; no longer are the two teams even ranked; no longer does the showdown between the two annually have a huge effect on the national championship picture.
Despite a big 38-31 win last night against Arizona, the Trojans will head into South Bend next week with a record of 4-s and likely unranked by the AP Top 25 poll.
Notre Dame started the season with higher expectations, but losses to Michigan and Oklahoma have knocked the Irish out of the Top 25 already. Last week, they narrowly beat the same unranked Arizona State squad that embarrassed the Trojans two weeks ago.
The Irish are only a year removed from playing for the BCS National Championship, in which they turned in a rather dismal performance against a much better Alabama team after an otherwise great regular season. But the team, which has arguably the most storied history in the sport, hasn’t claimed a national championship since 1988, back when Lou Holtz was their head coach.
Though USC fans like me have been much luckier to have seen a national championship this millennium, the program has struggled to reassert its dominance in conference play since the Pac-10 added two teams and expanded to the Pac-12.
For two teams rich with so much history, it shouldn’t be that hard to entice recruits based on promises of national exposure and futures in the NFL. Both teams, however, have lost the once-intrinsic reputation of excellence they were built upon. Now they both have to earn that respect back.
The winner of next week’s game will take home more than just the Jeweled Shillelagh; they’ll establish what direction their program is taking. It’s a possible springboard game for both teams — a chance for Brian Kelly to show that last year’s national title game appearance was more than a fluke, and a chance for Ed Orgeron to show that this year’s team has not given up on the season.
In some ways, however, Notre Dame and USC aren’t bitter opponents. They are two teams with similar histories, fighting the rising tides of parity in college football together. Beyond next Saturday, the two teams have to be rooting for each other to some degree. Both programs want to see that the new age of flashy jerseys and hurry-up offenses in college football haven’t moved on without them.
But until Saturday, Notre Dame is the same old foe from across the country, and the looming matchup in South Bend will be just another addition to one of the most storied rivalries in history. The question is: How much longer will it be nationally relevant?
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