SOUTH BEND — It couldn’t happen any other way, right?
The 11-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish sit one victory away from solidifying their case for the 2018 College Football Playoff. After starting the season ranked No. 12, the Irish have moved up nine spots to be on the brink of history. A win Saturday all but guarantees Notre Dame will become the first non-Power Five conference team to make the playoff.
Their final opponent? The Irish’s bitter rival: The University of Southern California.
Notre Dame knows this trip is coming. Every year, it ends its season with a game in California. In the odd-numbered years, the Irish fly to Palo Alto to play Stanford. In the even-numbered years, it’s a flight to Los Angeles to take on USC.
With all due respect to the Cardinal, the Trojans are the true rival of Notre Dame. The teams have battled over the Jeweled Shillelagh trophy 89 times since 1926, having played each other every year since 1946. The series’ only break was from 1942-45 because of World War II.
There’s been 27 times the game has featured both teams ranked in the Top 25, including their No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in L.A. to end the 1988 season. The top-ranked Irish won, 27-10. They went on to win the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl six weeks later.
There’s been 10 times since 1980 that Notre Dame has been ranked heading into the L.A. Coliseum. The Irish are 5-5 in those contests. When USC is unranked in those matchups — which the 5-6 Trojans will be this Saturday — Notre Dame’s record is 2-2.
Needless to say, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
The last time the Irish rolled into Los Angeles as a ranked team was the 2012 season. Notre Dame was 11-0 and No. 1 in the BCS rankings. USC hung tough, but the Irish won 22-13 to advance to the BCS National Championship Game.
ND coach Brian Kelly remembers only having one thing on his mind entering that game.
“We didn’t talk about anything else but USC and getting the Shillelagh,” Kelly said. “That year was about collecting all of our traveling trophies, and that was the last one. I know we spent a lot of time talking about winning that trophy.”
Six years later, Kelly has his team in the same position, with some minor differences. Notre Dame is ranked No. 3 and not No. 1. There are also four teams that make it to the championship round as opposed to two under the old BCS format.
The premise is the same as 2012, though: Win, and you’ll have a chance to compete for the national championship.
Kelly knows there will be a lot of buzz around Saturday night’s game. He’s making sure his team is cognitive of it.
“There has to be transparency in what you’re doing. So, understanding clearly that it’s a rivalry game. There’s going to be a lot of noise around it. And you have to be aware of that. Because I don’t think you can move on unless you’re aware of that,” Kelly said. “Once you’re aware of that, I think you can go back and do what you’ve been doing for 11 weeks and that is working on your preparation and putting yourself in a position to succeed on Saturday.
“Burying your head in the sand and avoiding all of it has not been the way we’ve been doing it all year. We’ll continue to make sure they’re aware of the situation, and then we’ll go back to work the way we’ve been each and every week.”
Notre Dame entered the 2018 season with three goals. The first two — beating Michigan and winning all their home games — have been accomplished. Beating USC gives Notre Dame the chance to check off the final goal.
“Our goal is to finish off November. That will be the primary focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself,” Kelly said. “We want to finish off November. That’ll be our primary focus this week.”