NOTRE DAME — USC was supposed to be back.
After wading through two years of NCAA-enforced bowl bans and scholarship reductions, the Trojans found themselves perched atop the 2012 AP preseason poll.
It made sense, too. USC was coming off an unlikely 10-2 campaign in 2011 and returning its potential Heisman candidate quarterback Matt Barkley and All-American receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
While Trojan safety T.J. McDonald said his team had yet to prove itself, he told the Huffington Post, “It’s good to see that we’re back where we’re supposed to be.”
Notre Dame was supposed to brace for another year of mediocrity.
After finishing the 2011 season a disappointing 8-5 record, graduating top target Michael Floyd and most of its secondary and announcing a redshirt freshman as their starting quarterback, the Irish seemed destined for another 7- or 8-win year in 2012.
Adding to the uncertain outlook were the departure of All-American defensive end Aaron Lynch and loss of starting defensive backs Jamoris Slaughter and Lo Wood.
Then football happened.
The speculating and armchair quarterbacking stopped and games were played.
Over the course of 13 weeks, something strange happened: USC plummeted from the rankings following a flurry of losses, while undefeated Notre Dame embarked on a slow ascent up the polls.
Now USC (7-4) is unranked and Notre Dame (11-0) is the top team in the country.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly chuckled when asked about the position flip from the beginning of the season to now.
“That’s why they play the game.” Kelly said. “It’s a long season. It’s college football.”
Kelly isn’t overly concerned with the pressure that comes along with being the No. 1 team in the BCS standings. In fact, he said, it’s a pressure that Notre Dame faces every week, regardless of its ranking.
“We wear that and feel that in every game we play,” he said. “USC is going to play their very best because they’re playing No. 1. Other teams are going to play their very best, but we get that every week anyway. We get the absolute best from our opponents each and every week, so for us, it’s business as usual.”
It’s fitting, in a theatrical sense, that Notre Dame’s top rival is the only team standing in the way of the a perfect regular season and a possible national championship. In video game terms, it’s the final boss battle before the prize.
USC’s unexpectedly disappointing season took another hit when Barkley went down with a shoulder injury last week against UCLA. Barkley will be out for the Notre Dame game, replaced by redshirt freshman Max Wittek.
Wittek was interviewed on ESPN radio Tuesday afternoon before even registering his first career start.
“We’re going to play our offense, whatever Coach Kiffin feels comfortable giving me,” Wittek said, according to NBCSports. “It he wants to air it out, let’s air it out. If he wants to pound them on the ground, let’s do that. Like I said, I’m going to go out there, play within myself, within the system, and we’re going to win this ballgame.”
Call it cockiness, call it confidence, but Kelly says Notre Dame has a reason to respect Wittek.
“When you get a scholarship to USC, you’re one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Kelly said. “He’s a big, strong, physical kid, he’s got a live arm, he certainly fits into their offensive scheme of things. He’s a perfect fit for what they do.”
The Irish will travel to Los Angeles in search of a perfect regular season. The Trojans will pack the Coliseum in hopes of ruining Notre Dame’s national championship dreams.
The “No. 1” sign above Notre Dame’s Grace Hall was turned on for the football team for the first time since 1993. Kelly and his team would like to see it stay lighted.
“It’s a lot better when that light’s on than when it’s not on,” Kelly said. “I’m sure it’s better going to class. I’m sure it’s better in the dorms. I’m sure it’s a better feeling, a more positive approach to everything. That’s unquestionable. But does it affect way they way they come to work every day? No, it does not.”