Notre Dame vs. USC: The future of both programs is on the line


Saturday at 7:30 pm ET, 39-year-old Lincoln Riley will stand on one side of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Markus Freeman, 36, is different.

Riley is a USC football head coach in his first year and was lured to the Trojans after a successful five-year run in Oklahoma. Freeman is a freshman at Notre Dame and has been promoted from defense coordinator.

USC 10-1 and ranked fifth in the nation, Notre Dame 8-3 and 15th. The Rileys have a lot more to look forward to this year – a Pac-12 championship and a place in the college football playoffs. However, Freeman has recovered from a stumbling start and looks impressive now.

Both coaches are desperate for a boost of confidence to convince new recruits and young players of the incredible promises they both plan to make.

It’s a big game, both for this season and for future ones.

“Great job,” Freeman said. “A great opportunity.”

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1926, when Irishman Knuta Rockna traveled to Los Angeles by train and defeated Trojans Howard Jones 13-12. Since then, they have played every year (without WWII and COVID), which is a rare cross-regional annual rivalry.

As historical as each program was, it was, at least in our time, a series of contrasts, rivalry control, back and forth ping-pong.

From 1967 to 1982 the Trojans went 12-2-2. The Irish then took over, removing the score 12-0-1. From 1996 to 2011 it was USC with a 12–4 record. Recently, the score of the Irish is 7:2.

Everything follows the pattern of coaching, the era of John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll in Los Angeles and Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly in South Bend. On the losing side are a group of losers, Charlie Weiss and Bob Davy, Clay Helton and Paul Hackett.

It’s rare that every school got it right at the same time. Rarely have both programs been at their best when pitted against each other rather than trying to play spoilers. Rarely did both put forward young, interesting coaches.

So what about now? Is this the start of something big?

The obvious high stakes here lie with USC. A victory over the Irish and then a Pac-12 championship game will almost certainly take the Trojans to the college football playoffs, which is a wonderful and eloquent statement by Riley.

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 19: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) and head coach Lincoln Riley (right) celebrate victory over the UCLA Bruins after a college football game between the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans on November 19, 2022 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lincoln Riley brought Caleb Williams (age 13) from Oklahoma to the University of Southern California. Now the two are on the cusp of the college football playoffs. (Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He shocked American football by leaving Oklahoma last year. A small-town Texas native, he felt like a perfect fit for Norman, perhaps only drawn to the allure of the NFL. Instead, he took to rebuilding the Trojans, which became easier when he brought in a host of transfers, including quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma), wide receiver Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh) and running back Travis Dye (Oregon).

Now USC could make the playoffs, Williams could win the Heisman, and the groundwork for a powerful force could be laid before the Trojans head into the Big Ten in a couple of seasons.

“The turnaround was very abrupt and sudden,” Riley said on ESPN last week. “It took a lot of work and a lot of participation.”

USC’s primary job is to convince local recruits that they can win titles, play big games, and reach the NFL without leaving the region.

Too many great people have gone in recent years – Bryce Young (Alabama), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), DJ Wiagaleley (Clemson). Partly because they didn’t see USC the way generations of local stars like Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Anthony Munoz, Charles White, Keyshawn Johnson, Junior So, Matt Leinart and others once did.

Nothing will help in this as a victory and the first victory in the playoffs. This is what Riley wants. Despite inheriting a 4–8 team, he never allowed it to be a rebuild.

His stated preseason goal for this year?

“To win the championship,” he said in July. “My expectations are extremely high. I mean, it’s a place to try… we didn’t come here to play second place.”

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: head coach
Marcus Freeman overcame a 2-0 start as Notre Dame head coach. The Irish now lead 8-3 Saturday’s game in Los Angeles against USC. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Freeman has a similar attitude towards the future of the Irish. He lacks the experience that Riley had, but he raised recruiting, took on elite players that Notre Dame often lacks, and set a standard that even if he had a lot to learn, it would not be an excuse.

The Irish can brag No. 2 typesetting class in the country, by Rivals (and current No. 1 for 2024). However, when Notre Dame pulled out of games against Marshall and a lousy team from Stanford (not to mention Ohio State), questions arose as to whether Freeman the coach could match the Freeman the personality.

However, Notre Dame rallied by winning five in a row, including Clemson’s cathartic breakout earlier this month. The playoffs aren’t available, but a 9-3 regular season with a massive win over USC will set the seal of credibility for players, rookies, and the college football world at large.

It’s one game, but both coaches are desperate to use it to establish themselves and the credibility of their programs at the same time. They will have the chance to face the expected huge television audience of the college game, perhaps more than 10 million viewers on ABC’s primetime channel.

Nothing is promised. The future is never guaranteed. One win or one season is not always saved. Even good coaches and seemingly perfect employees stumble and fall.

However, for the first time in a long time, USC and Notre Dame are looking to an exciting future at the same time, offering new, modern, energetic coaches who are unabashedly focused on achieving everything.

As Freeman noted, this is a big challenge and a big opportunity.

And perhaps the start of something more.