College Sports

Big Game Hunting: Notre Dame has a score to settle with old pal USC

We could argue all day about the proper pecking order of college football rivalries. How to rank Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn, Oklahoma-Texas, Army-Navy et al.?

The truth is, there is no proper pecking order. Rivalries, even the greatest of them, ebb and flow along with the bigger-picture successes and failures of the teams involved. Take Michigan-Ohio State: The Buckeyes have been much better of late than the Wolverines, who have won “The Game” only once in the last 13 tries. Fans of the schools might assure you it’s the sport’s greatest rivalry, but good luck convincing college fans outside Big Ten Country — especially younger fans — of that.

Which brings us to No. 11 USC at No. 13 Notre Dame (6:30  p.m. Saturday, Ch. 5, 1000-AM) and the annual battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh. When both the Trojans and the Fighting Irish are competing for championships, this rivalry is spectacular. Yet lately it has lagged. How much so? It’s hard to believe, but this meeting will be the first since 2009 in which both teams are ranked in the Top 25.

“It’s great for college football when both teams are doing well and there’s so much excitement around the game on a national scope,” USC coach Clay Helton said.

Running back Ronald Jones II and USC handled the Irish last year in Los Angeles. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The Trojans (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) were a top-five team entering the season and still have their sights on the College Football Playoff. The Irish (5-1) are craving signature victories as they rebound impressively from last year’s 4-8 disaster.

Is the playoff a possibility for Brian Kelly’s team? Hey, win out and it’s all but a sure thing. But there are multiple losses left on the schedule if the Irish let down their collective guard even a little.

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“I think it’s important that our players are aware of the game and the circumstances,” Kelly said, “because that’s why they came here. It’s important not to just bury your head in the sand. Be aware of it. Having said that, that has no bearing on our preparation. It has no bearing on what we need to do relative to our habits and our traits.”

Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold is one of the college game’s brightest stars at his position, but he hasn’t been operating a well-oiled machine. Linebacker Cameron Smith — coming off a 16-tackle game — is a force, but USC has been surprisingly vulnerable at times on that side of the ball, too.

Irish running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush will lead their team on the ground, but there’s no question Wimbush will need to make some key throws if they’re going to be dancing in the streets of South Bend. Notre Dame -3½? I’ll bite. Irish win their way into the top 10.

Four more, quickly:

No. 19 Michigan +9½ at No.  2 Penn State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): We’re in Year 3 of Jim Harbaugh’s back-to-school experience and still waiting for that Wolverines victory that — how to put it? — changes everything. Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) is good, clearly, but it still appears to be a significant cut below division mates PSU (6-0, 3-0) and Ohio State. Any chance that changes here? Nah. Nittany Lions by double digits.

No. 10 Oklahoma State -7 at Texas (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Both teams are 2-1, tied for second in the Big 12, but that’s kind of where the similarities end. The Cowboys (5-1) are hugely explosive in the passing game. The Longhorns (3-3) — who’ve dropped close ones to USC and Oklahoma — have become impressive grinders. This is one to watch if you’re able. OSU, 38-30.

No. 9 Oklahoma -14 at Kansas State (3 p.m., Fox-32): We could almost put the Sooners (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) and Wildcats (3-3, 1-2) in the roles of Oklahoma State and Texas, respectively, because this is another high-scoring team facing a physical, grind-it-out foe. Oklahoma has underwhelmed since its huge early upset of Ohio State, but it’s hardly as if K-State has been crushing it. A Boomer blowout.

No. 20 UCF -8 at Navy (2:30 p.m., CBSSN): It’s a clash of division leaders in the American Athletic Conference, which someday we may be able to say in shorthand without it sounding awkward. The American? The AAC? Listen, the Knights (5-0, 3-0) are legit. The Middies (5-1, 3-1) are quite good themselves. I’ll take the home team with the points, but I don’t have to feel good about it.

My favorite favorite: Missouri -14 vs. Idaho (11 a.m., SEC). The teams have only three victories between them, but Mizzou has been (very) quietly hanging in there against SEC competition. The Vandals are a different breed of terrible.

My favorite underdog: Tennessee +36½ at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2). The Vols stink — and then some — but they still have all kinds of talent. Find the end zone once or twice and, well, it ought not be that hard to lose by only four or five touchdowns.

Last week: 5-3 straight up, 3-5 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 38-16 straight up, 27-27 vs. the spread.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.