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2013 Notre Dame Opponents: USC

USC (7-6)
Oct. 19 at Notre Dame
No matter the records or outlooks of either team in a given year, USC will always be the archrival on Notre Dame’s schedule.

Head coach Lane Kiffin is under fire after last year's disappointing 7-6 result.

The first meeting occurred in Los Angeles in 1926 and the 85th will take place this fall at Notre Dame with the Fighting Irish holding a 44-35-5 advantage in the series.

However, Notre Dame has failed to defeat USC on the Irish home turf since head coach Bob Davie’s final season in 2001. The Trojans will be gunning for their sixth consecutive victory in Notre Dame Stadium, which would tie the record set by Michigan State from 1997-2007.

The Fighting Irish will have an extra week of preparation for USC, with Oct. 12 a bye Saturday.

Top Offseason Note
Where does one even begin?

No college football program has faced more tumult, infighting, upheaval and ridicule of underachievement than USC over the last seven months, which leaves fourth-year head coach Lane Kiffin on the hottest football seat in America.

In 2012 USC was the first team since Mississippi in 1964 to begin the year No. 1 and then finish unranked. The fall guys were Kiffin’s assistants, including Kiffin’s father, Monte, resigning as defensive coordinator to return to the NFL.

Another assistant, Scottie Hazelton, took the defensive coordinator position at Nevada, and defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders was ousted to make room for new secondary coach and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who was at Cal the past three years.

The biggest surprise came a couple of days after Signing Day when Kiffin announced the dismissal of popular offensive coordinator and running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu. Added on that side of the ball were line coach Mike Summers and running backs coach Tommie Robinson. Meanwhile, quarterbacks coach Clay Helton was promoted to offensive coordinator, although Kiffin is expected to continue as the play-caller.

Among the players, wideout Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey bypassed their senior years to turn pro. However, there was good news when running back Silas Redd (team high 905 yards rushing last year) returned for his senior year to join D.J. Morgan, with freshman Ty Isaac coming in.

USC also had the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class through the fall and early part of winter, but several key defections (including defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes and safety Max Redfield to Notre Dame) dropped it more into top-15 range with a group of only 13 incoming freshmen.

Athletics director Pat Haden publicly stayed the course Kiffin in early January during an interview with CBSSports.

“It was a disappointing season but there is no reason to panic,” Haden said. “ … Notre Dame went from 8-5 to the national championship game. Florida was 7-6 and turned it around. Texas A&M turned it around."

Prime Assets
USC still has probably the most NFL prospects among any opponent on the Notre Dame schedule. There is big-time talent everywhere, though not the depth at this point of Pete Carroll’s superpowers from 2002-08. Eight starters return on offense and seven on defense.

Wideout Marqise Lee (118 catches, 1,721 yards and 14 TDs in 2012) placed fourth last year in the Heisman balloting as a sophomore. Complementing him are other five-star talents like sophomore-to-be Nelson Agholor, or the explosive George Farmer, who was hindered by an injury last year.

The defensive front seven should be stout, led by tackle Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard. Furthermore, Devon Kennard returns at end after missing all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle.

Prime Concerns
Among the priorities are finding a quarterback, replacing an outstanding center in Khaled Holmes and rebuilding a ravaged secondary.

Max Wittek started the last two games, losses to Notre Dame (22-13) at home and Georgia Tech (21-7) in the Sun Bowl, when the offense was underwhelming. Early enrollee and five-star prospect Max Browne could vie for the starting role the way the graduated Matt Barkley seized it as a freshman in 2009.

In the secondary, one holdover is six-game starter Josh Shaw. Freshman Su’a Cravens could start at the other safety spot, while two other frosh, five-star Leon McQuay III and Chris Hawkins, are also early enrollees who might have to play right away at cornerback.

To assist the secondary, two-year starting linebacker Dion Bailey will move there, although he will sit out the spring with an injury. The top returning corners sans Robey are senior Torin Harris and junior Anthony Brown.

This is not about talent. USC had three straight top-5-ranked recruiting classes in 2010-12, and this year’s haul is one that about 85- to 90-percent of teams would privately swap for despite the lack of numbers.

It’s whether the attitude can improve under the maligned Kiffin on what is perceived to be a sinking ship. All the staff changes in some circles are viewed as moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The reality is that Kiffin is perceived from the outside looking in as in over his head — similar to Mike Shula’s four-year stint (26-23) at Alabama in 2003-06, a tumultuous period for the Crimson Tide. Like Shula, Kiffin comes from a strong coaching pedigree. It should be noted that Shula had a 10-2 season at Alabama — just like Kiffin in 2011 that led to a No. 6 finish.

Kiffin turned around a disappointing 8-5 debut in 2010. Can last year’s misery have a galvanizing effect within the program? Or is Kiffin’s dismissal after 2013 inevitable? Regardless … always beware of the wounded animal, especially one with the teeth of USC’s talent base.

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