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Irish, USC have been inconsistent, but game still has prestige

Updated: November 19, 2013 6:13AM

After his 12-0 team was dismantled by Alabama in last season’s BCS title game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly implored his players to never forget what they’d just seen and experienced.

Some hung their heads at their lockers and cried. Others were still dazed by the thoroughness of the Tide’s 42-14 victory. Kelly assured them all that they now knew what a championship team looked like, that they could measure themselves against Alabama and understand where they needed to grow in order to take the final step as a team.

“I don’t want to minimize the fact that we have made incredible strides to get to this point,” Kelly told reporters that night. “Now it’s pretty clear what we need to do to get over the top.”

The 2013 Irish may still be able to close their eyes and envision a championship team, but the distance between them and that highest level is greater than it was nine months ago. If losses to Michigan and Oklahoma — teams that don’t look so hot right now themselves — didn’t prove this, then the narrow escape against Purdue, the lamest squad in the Big Ten, surely did.

“It was a tough six weeks,” Kelly said upon reaching the midpoint of the season. “We had some ups and we had some downs, but we’re in a pretty good place right now.”

One would hope it’s better than the place old rival USC is in.

Controversial coach Lane Kiffin was fired after a galling defeat at home to Washington State and a blowout loss at Arizona State, but real problems still remain in L.A. Ed Orgeron, who was Kiffin’s and, in an earlier stint, Pete Carroll’s recruiting coordinator, is an interim coach without a prayer to land the job on a full-time basis. And why would he? In his only head-coaching job, at Ole Miss, Orgeron was 10-25. This is another “John L. Smith Goes to Arkansas” waiting to happen.

Worse yet, USC has become a place where fans and observers are genuinely surprised when the Trojans play their guts out. That’s something championship teams do every week, of course. USC? Well, you never know what you’re going to get.

“I’m sure come Saturday night, when we walk out onto the field in South Bend, Ind., it’s going to mean a lot to the team,” Orgeron said.

It’s nice to know they care, but nowhere in the championship manual does it say a coach should have to vouch for his team like that.

The Trojans are an unsteady mix of talent, distraction, negativity and desperation — and that’s precisely what makes this such a dangerous scenario for Kelly and his program.

USC hasn’t played anything close to its best game yet. Doesn’t mean it’ll happen on Saturday, or at any point before the end of the season. But what if it does? What if South Bend, where USC hasn’t come out on the short end since 2001, continues to bring out the best in the Trojans?

Seriously, what if the Irish lose to these guys?

Of all the years for that to happen, this one might be the most damaging to Notre Dame. It might completely blind the Irish to the championship glory that looked so tantalizingly close nine months ago.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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