|Stakes high for No. 11 USC, No. 13 Notre Dame|
LOS ANGELES -- The rivalry between No. 11 USC and No. 13 Notre Dame stands as one of the most hallowed in college football, with a lineage that transcends individual season records.
"I think it's the best intersectional rivalry in college sports," USC head coach Clay Helton said.
With a combined 22 national championships and 14 Heisman Trophy winners between the programs, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry has the hardware to back up Helton's claim. Both teams enter Saturday's matchup at Notre Dame Stadium ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2009, and the game has College Football Playoff implications.
The 89th installment of the series looks to be more befitting its lofty history than recent editions.
Last year's rain-soaked 45-27 USC win at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum ended with the future of Notre Dame football uncertain, as head coach Brian Kelly fielded questions afterward about his status.
"Last year, Coach Kelly was dealt a hard hand because of the injuries he had (on the roster), especially late in the season," Helton said. "Right now, they're a healthy club."
Playing with a complete lineup -- including quarterback Brandon Wimbush, whom Kelly said Tuesday was 100 percent coming out of a bye week -- Notre Dame has stormed to a 5-1 start. Its only loss came to currently third-ranked Georgia by one point on Sept. 9.
The Fighting Irish have relied on a multifaceted run game, paced by running back Josh Adams' 129.3 rushing yards per game -- seventh in the country -- and supplemented by the dual-threat playmaker Wimbush at 80.4 yards per game.
Combined with a defense that has allowed just one rushing touchdown, Notre Dame has already exceeded its 2016 win total. Talk of change has given way to championship aspirations.
USC, at 6-1, is also a viable national championship contender -- contingent on Saturday's result, anyway.
No team has advanced to college football's four-team playoff in the three years of its existence. That's a small sample size, but it indicates that Saturday's clash might a de facto elimination game, raising the stakes beyond one side taking home the Jeweled Shillelagh.
Notre Dame's fifth-ranked rushing offense (308.0 yards per game) takes aim at a USC defense that has been central to the Trojans' strong start. USC won in its last outing, 28-27 over conference opponent Utah, as quarterback Sam Darnold said the Trojans "wouldn't be able to win that game without (the defense)."
Linebacker Cameron Smith was critical to the win over Utah -- as he has been to USC's defense throughout the season. Notre Dame's Kelly described Smith as his "favorite player on the (Trojans) defense." The linebacker made 16 tackles against the Utes with an interception, and he figures to be pivotal in USC's efforts to slow Adams.
"He's all over the field," Kelly said. "He's smart. Great tackler in space, the ability to do a lot in coverage but plays well in the box."
Among Smith's contributions the last time out was an interception made in the red zone. USC's defense has been excellent with its back against the end zone, holding opponents to a 41.4 percent touchdown conversion rate inside the 20-yard line.
Only 11 defenses in the country are better. Notre Dame has one of them, allowing 35 percent.
"We've done a really good job of matching personnel there, and (stopping opponents on) first down," Kelly said. "Leverage has been with us in down-and-distance in the red zone, and leverage has been with us in matching personnel in the red zone."
Should Saturday's game come down to a red-zone play, it will call to mind the game at Notre Dame Stadium 12 years ago when Trojans running back Reggie Bush pushed quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone for a winning touchdown.
USC played for a national championship that season; Notre Dame went to the Fiesta Bowl, finishing just outside of the BCS title picture. Such are the potential stakes this year -- for the first time between these programs since the 2006 season.
"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," Helton said. "It makes it fun for the players, the coaches and the fans."