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Big Game Hunting: Notre Dame keeps flipping the script in a mismatch with USC

It still feels a little funny, doesn’t it, to take the measure of Notre Dame’s rivalry with USC and find things so clearly tipping in favor of the Fighting Irish? Also: Oklahoma-Texas, Florida-LSU, Michigan State-Wisconsin, Penn Sate-Iowa, Michigan-Illinois and more.

Notre Dame v USC
The Irish celebrate after last season’s victory in Los Angeles.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It still feels a little funny, doesn’t it, to take the measure of Notre Dame’s rivalry with USC and find things so clearly tipping in favor of the Fighting Irish?

But USC (+11) at No. 9 Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5) presents a pretty straightforward scenario: The Irish (4-1) should win for a third straight time in the Jeweled Shillelagh trophy game, and must in order to keep their hopes of a return to college football’s playoff alive. The Trojans (3-2) — far from the national powerhouse they used to be — are scratching and clawing merely to remain prominent in the Pac-12 picture, much less a broader one.

Gone are the days when the Trojans’ full cupboard of NFL talent — and their speed — made the Irish look like pretenders.

It’s a whole new world in which the Irish have more battle-tested starters, more experience at quarterback and most everywhere else, a defensive front capable of overwhelming USC’s blockers and a coach with far greater job security than his counterpart.

Brian Kelly will continue to chip away at Notre Dame’s first national title in over 30 years. Clay Helton is just hoping USC’s next athletic director — a powerless interim one currently is in place — will give him a legitimate opportunity to fight for his job.

“You know what’s in front of us,” Kelly told his players after last week’s 52-0 victory over Bowling Green. “Our rival comes here. We know what we need to do. We have to up everything.”

A solid, steady performance on all fronts should be plenty good enough against the Trojans. The Irish do have to get after freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, a gifted passer, and keep him from playing pitch-and-catch with an outstanding receiver group led by Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. Kelly also would love to see his own offense — which sees Jafar Armstrong return to the backfield this week — establish the run.

Bet on the Irish defense against USC’s Air Raid scheme. And bet on the Irish offense, which isn’t exactly going up against another Georgia in this one. Irish all day, 45-24.

In other Week 7 action:

No. 6 Oklahoma (-11½) vs. Texas (Dallas, 11 a.m., Fox-32): The Sooners (5-0) are putting up videogame numbers offensively, and the Longhorns (4-1) have underwhelmed on defense. What sort of unexpected looks does defensive coordinator Todd Orlando have up his sleeve for OU quarterback Jalen Hurts, who hasn’t seen a “D” this big and fast since leaving Alabama? OU’s defense, meanwhile, has its hands full with QB Sam Ehlinger and the UT running game.

The crowd and scene at the Cotton Bowl — half crimson, half burnt orange — never fails to up the ante. The Sooners have been favored in 11 straight meetings, but they’ve gone down in four (and three of the last seven) of those games. Boomer in a close one.

No. 1 Alabama (-16½) at No. 24 Texas A&M (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Is it sacrilegious to say the Crimson Tide (5-0) have only the third-best defense the Aggies (3-2) have seen this season? Sorry, but that’s a fact. The opportunity is there for QB Kellen Mond and his guys to put some points on the board and crank up the intensity at Kyle Field to 11. But the next big play from the Tide’s best-in-the-land passing game is always a heartbeat away. Tide, 35-27.

Florida State (+27) at No. 2 Clemson (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): There’s some mystery to the quarterback situation with FSU (3-2), which has former longtime Wisconsin starter Alex Hornibrook at the ready — and coming off a very strong performance against NC State — and stronger-armed starter James Blackman apparently available again. The Seminoles are coming around defensively, too, but can they do enough to make Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence uncomfortable? Champs get to 6-0, but fail to cover the huge number.

Michigan State (+10½) at No. 8 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., BTN): If the Spartans (4-2) have gotten the bad taste out of their mouths from last weekend’s frustrating outing at Ohio State, there’s no reason they can’t give the Badgers (5-0) fits. Mark Dantonio’s elite defense will try to put the onus on QB Jack Coan to make the sort of difficult throws we’re still not convinced he can make. Badgers by only a field goal in a game played in the teens.

No. 10 Penn State (-4½) at No. 17 Iowa (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The motivation is through the roof for both teams, with the Hawkeyes (4-1) coming off a mistake-filled loss at Michigan and the visiting Nittany Lions (5-0) having rallied around a player, Jonathan Sutherland, who received a racist letter that spread like wildfire in the media. These are still quiet Big Ten title contenders. Nits 30-24.

No. 7 Florida (+13½) at No. 5 LSU (7 p.m., ESPN): Are the Gators (6-0) the real deal? Defensively, they’re that and then some. But the Tigers (5-0) have a Joe Burrow-led offense that can explode for a home run at any time, and their “D” is nothing to sneeze at, either. Turnovers tell the tale as LSU gets it done 34-13.

My favorite favorite: No. 3 Georgia (-23) vs. South Carolina (noon, ESPN): Kirby Smart has the Bulldogs’ full attention after their plodding first half in last weekend’s blowout win at Tennessee.

My favorite underdog: Tennessee (+7½) vs. Mississippi State (noon, SEC Network): Upset alert — suffering Vols show life at home and become the last Power 5 team to beat an FBS opponent this season.

Last week: 6-1 straight-up, 3-3-1 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 28-14 straight-up, 25-16-1 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

NO. 16 MICHIGAN AT ILLINOIS

The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7, 890-AM.

The records: Illinois 2-3, 0-2 Big Ten; Michigan 4-1, 2-1 Big Ten.

The storyline: You want bad? We’ll give you bad: Illinois is 1-16-1 against ranked Michigan teams at Memorial Stadium. That’s a whole lot of nothing-to-see-here, isn’t it? Then again, that history is pretty meaningless considering it’s the first meeting of the teams in the Illini’s backyard since 2011. Will quarterback Brandon Peters lead the Illini offense against his former school? Will the Illini respond from the pep talk they received from alumnus Dick Butkus, a brand-new statue of whom was revealed this week?

The line: Wolverines by 22½.

Greenberg’s pick: Michigan, 38-14.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT OHIO

The facts: 2:30 p.m., ESPN+, 560-AM.

The records: NIU 1-4, 0-1 MAC; Ohio 2-3, 1-0 MAC.

The story line: Does the Huskies’ record accurately reflect the team they really are? The opponents have been awfully tough. In last weekend’s loss to Ball State, they were outstanding in the first half before all-out collapsing in the second. If there’s going to be any salvaging of the season, this is a game the Huskies need to win. Games against the Bobcats — a run-of-the-mill group by MAC standards, it seems — have tended to be close through the years. Maybe NIU squeezes one out in the end?

The line: Bobcats by 6½.

Greenberg’s pick: NIU, 24-23.

USC AT NO. 9 NOTRE DAME

The facts: 6:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.

The records: USC 3-2, 2-1 Pac-12; Notre Dame 4-1.

The storyline: It hasn’t been often that the Irish have boasted the more complete team on both sides of the ball against the Trojans, but that’s the case in 2019. Irish QB Ian Book is due for a nice game, and the key to that will be getting running back Jafar Armstrong — just back from injury — going early. Defensively, it’ll all about pressuring freshman QB Kedon Slovis, a talented thrower with legit weapons to work with. Don’t give him the time he needs.

The line: Irish by 11.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 45-24.