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Irish Trying to Reverse Trend With a Victory Over USC

  • A No. 1 sign is lit atop of Grace Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. The No. 1 sign reflects the poll ranking for their NCAA college football team. Notre Dame (11-0), ranked No. 1 in both polls and by the computer ratings, needs only to defeat slumping rival Southern California on Saturday Nov. 24 in Los Angeles to earn its first trip to the BCS title game. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Mike Hartman)

    A No. 1 sign is lit atop of Grace Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. The No. 1 sign reflects the poll ranking for their NCAA college football team. Notre Dame (11-0), ranked No. 1 in both polls and by the computer ratings, needs only to defeat slumping rival Southern California on Saturday Nov. 24 in Los Angeles to earn its first trip to the BCS title game. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Mike Hartman)

  • Notre Dame wide receiver John Goodman, left, celebrates with tight end Troy Niklas after scoring a touchdown against Wake Forest during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

    Notre Dame wide receiver John Goodman, left, celebrates with tight end Troy Niklas after scoring a touchdown against Wake Forest during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

  • A No. 1 sign is lit atop of Grace Hall on the University of Notre Dame campus, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in South Bend, Ind. The No. 1 sign reflects the poll ranking for their NCAA college football team. Notre Dame (11-0), ranked No. 1 in both polls and by the computer ratings, needs only to defeat slumping rival Southern California on Saturday Nov. 24 in Los Angeles to earn its first trip to the BCS title game. (AP Photo/South Bend Tribune, Mike Hartman)
  • Notre Dame wide receiver John Goodman, left, celebrates with tight end Troy Niklas after scoring a touchdown against Wake Forest during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The Notre Dame-USC rivalry has been defined by dominance over the last four decades. Two of college football’s most celebrated teams have alternated long runs of success in the series that have coincided with the ups and downs of the programs.

When the Fighting Irish and Trojans meet for the 84th time on Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Notre Dame will be playing for a spot in the national championship while USC will be trying to salvage a disappointing season.

The Irish appear primed to turn the rivalry back in their direction after a decade of USC ownership.

During Southern California’s most recent dynasty, coach Pete Carroll’s Trojans reeled off eight straight victories against the Irish from 2002-09, the longest winning streak by USC in the series.

In 2010, Brian Kelly’s first season as Notre Dame coach, the Irish snapped that streak, 20-16, with the help of a memorable dropped pass that would have been a sure touchdown. USC came right back and won last season in South Bend, Ind., 31-17, to make it nine out of 10.

“Well, it’s not a great rivalry right now,” Kelly said this week. “We haven’t won enough games. They’ve had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry.”

From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was USC that was trying to make it a rivalry. As USC struggled to hold its place among the elite programs in college football, the Irish often contended for national titles under Lou Holtz and went 12-0-1 against the Trojans.

That number helps explain the relatively short tenures of coaches Ted Tollner (1983-86) and Larry Smith (1987-92) at USC.

Lane Kiffin is hoping his USC career is more like Carroll’s than Smith’s, but it has certainly been a tough season for the Trojans. They started the season, their first after a two-season, NCAA-imposed postseason ban, ranked No. 1, and with the presumptive Heisman Trophy front-runner in senior star quarterback Matt Barkley.

Maybe expectations were too high for a team that lacked depth and had some question marks on both lines. But few would have predicted that USC would head into its finale against Notre Dame 7-4 and unranked. Even more startling is that it’s Notre Dame that will take the field Saturday as the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country, two victories from its first national championship since 1988.

The Fighting Irish started the season unranked. The last team to start out of the rankings and reach No. 1 was Missouri in 2007. The Tigers lost their final game before the bowls, falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, and lost a chance to play for the national title.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised about the Irish. Holtz, Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy all won national championships in their third season as Notre Dame coach, all beating USC along the way.