USC's 2021 college football season is basically a lost year for a lot of reasons. The biggest one being that the Trojans are currently relying on an interim head coach who has never even been a coordinator before, Donte Williams. A cornerback as a player and a defensive back coach by profession, Williams is very much out of his depth right now, which signals exactly how much trust USC athletic director Mike Bohn has in coordinators Graham Harrell or Todd Orlando at this stage in their careers.
The big picture is this: the Trojans (3-3) still need to find three wins out of a remaining schedule with Notre Dame, both Arizona schools, Cal, UCLA, and BYU simply to become bowl eligible.
It's not going to be an easy task for Williams, and he's going to get those schools' best shot, so it doesn't matter that the Trojans are a wounded seal surrounded by bull sharks. Kick them while they're down is a way of life in football, and the Trojans will receive no mercy or quarter from their remaining opponents. While Notre Dame (5-1) is the toughest team on this schedule, it certainly doesn't get too much easier. A win over Notre Dame would give USC a decided advantage in their quest for bowl eligibility.
This game usually delivers regardless of where these two teams are ranked, and USC has had a bye week to prepare for Notre Dame. Plus, they've been aided by Jaxson Dart returning to practice and giving USC an option at QB other than Kedon Slovis. Let's see how this contest shakes out on paper.
USC at No. 13 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -7
When Notre Has the Ball
The one thing Notre Dame hasn't done well this season is get a tremendous amount out of quarterback Jack Coan. This caused them to look at putting in Tyler Buchner, who went down with an injury against Virginia Tech, and that enabled Coan to put himself back in the good graces of fans by engineering a comeback in what looked like a second and potentially playoff killing loss against an inferior team. Who Brian Kelly goes with is likely going to be hidden from USC since the Trojans are playing a bit of the same game (see below).
Regardless of who the Irish put under center, it may be likely that USC sees several quarterbacks throughout the day, largely based on who is playing well and what seems to be working against the USC defense. Buchner gives the Irish a tremendous amount in the option attack. Coan is a former Wisconsin starting quarterback, with all the trappings that usually come with that position and title. You know what you're getting from both guys, and just like USC, Notre Dame has one guy who gives them just a little bit more than the other and another who is relatively stable and predictable.
I've often said that USC and Notre Dame are more similar than different, both on and off the field. This game is just another snapshot at just how similar these programs are. Notre Dame has a perfectly good quarterback, but the other guy could lead them to the promised land. Fans always want the greener grass on the other side of the fence, but they need to be careful with what they wish before because sometimes there's something to be said for stability over chaos.
When USC Has the Ball
One of the biggest things USC can do on offense is put the ball in the hands of Dart instead of Slovis. Three years in, Slovis is who he is and that's an average quarterback with little to no upside beyond what he's shown. That's been good enough for USC to be a .500 team. In his one shot, Dart transformed the USC offense and made it multi-dimensional. The sudden addition of a highly mobile quarterback with an arm made all the difference with USC's playmakers.
The big thing with USC is that they're going to have more talent than most teams they line up against. Notre Dame doesn't fall into this category. On most days, Oregon is the only other Pac-12 team capable of recruiting with USC. This talent advantage, though, has been all but neutered by Harrell's Air Raid. It takes the ball out of the hands of playmakers and puts it in the air down the field. That's great if you have guys that are getting open, but when it's seemingly all you can do, teams strategize against this.
If USC comes with the one-trick offense they've been using, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is going to eat their lunch and take tomorrow's money, as well. USC hasn't beaten Notre Dame since 2016, and the Trojans have lost eight of their last 11 overall tries against the Irish. Trying something new and different can't hurt. If Dart struggles, go back to the run game with Keaontay Ingram and the safety of Slovis' predictable game. Something suggests USC would have more success if they went with Dart, though.
The Trojans can't seem to run the ball. They can't seem to pass the ball. They can't seem to hang on to the ball. They also can't seem to play mistake-free football when it comes to penalties. All told, this is a team and a program in need of a massive overhaul, and they're about to get it. They just need to get through this season, and that, unfortunately, means playing the No. 13 team in the nation when you're down and out. While this contest is known for surprises, it really would be something if USC beats this Notre Dame team.
The only team Notre Dame has lost to currently sit at No. 2 in the nation, the Cincinnati Bearcats. The Irish could potentially win out and still make the Playoff, but a second loss to a very poor USC team would all but kill their chances. They'll know that. They'll definitely play with that on their mind. All told, Notre Dame should be way too much for USC and the game should be out of reach before too long.
Prediction: Notre Dame 44, USC 23
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.