Notre Dame's revival could be essential to a USC championship run, because that "quality win" over the Irish that's been missing the last two years might be all that separates the Trojans from another pack of similar-looking teams when fiats come down in December. Fairly or not, the current perception of the Pac-10 in this regard is not in SC's corner.
But they're hardly the only contender that needs some help from a borderline non-conference game to boost the ever-important strength of schedule -- see a few other frontrunners facing dates they hope they can hold up as big ones at the end:
Florida: Florida State (Gainesville, Nov. 28). SEC partisans think the conference gauntlet is inviolable, but the Gators' regular season schedule features exactly two teams that finished in last year's final top-25: Georgia and Florida State -- and UF misses Alabama, Ole Miss and Auburn in the divisional rotation. Consider LSU's return to the polls a given (see below), some value from dates with Tennessee, Arkansas and/or South Carolina and a likely return date with a worthy counterpart in the conference title game, and the Gators are looking at another good half-dozen "quality wins." Still, a meaningful game with FSU would go a long way toward sprucing up a generally lame November slate (otherwise consisting of Vanderbilt, Carolina and Florida International) and an easily dismissed non-conference lineup of FIU, Charleston Southern and Troy.
Oklahoma: Miami (Miami, Oct. 3). OU's schedule last year didn't feature any obvious death matches but turned out a winner thanks to big years by TCU and Cincinnati -- after the bowl games, Oklahoma's opposition had the highest collective winning percentage of any set of opponents in the country. The Sooners reach down to the mid-majors for a couple games that could be good to them -- against BYU in the Dallas Cowboys' new intergalactic football palace in the opener and then at home against Tulsa -- if the Cougars and Hurricanes finish the way they have the last two years (both are coming off consecutive 10-win seasons). But the game pollsters will pay attention to is the Sooners' date with Miami, presumably a much bolder, more talented version of the 'Canes than the edition that got waxed in Norman in 2007. If the young 'uns mature into a top-25-worthy outfit on top of the divisional gauntlet and another visit to the Big 12 Championship, there shouldn't be any questioning the degree of difficulty.
Texas: Uhhh ... The Longhorns were the most obvious victims of cupcake scheduling in the BCS' ignominious history last year, ultimately losing the three-way Big 12 South tiebreaker to Oklahoma because the 'Horns' only answer to OU's top-20 wins over Cincy and TCU was a lame offering of Rice and Arkansas, which didn't come close where the BCS computers were concerned. From that, UT comes back with ... UL-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and Central Florida. At least Arkansas might have been good whenever they were added to the '08 schedule years in advance; this group probably has to run the table though another tough-looking Big 12 gauntlet, because it's going to be tough to overcome a loss with a trophy room built on the blood of C-USA also-rans.
LSU: Washington (Seattle, Sept. 5). You may not buy any team coming off an 8-5 quasi-debacle as a championship contender, but the Tigers are still loaded with first-rate athletes, should be comfortable with towering expectations and seem to have shored up their biggest issues, at quarterback and defensive coordinator. The line on this tilt will be appropriately huge, but the Huskies represent the Tigers' only possibly valuable win outside of the SEC, alongside games with UL-Lafayette, Tulane and Louisiana Tech. A big leap by the Huskies in Steve Sarkisians' debut could be an essential nudge if LSU returns to its old form. (Translation: Hold off on the Jake Locker voodoo dolls, Tiger fans. Please. You don't need them, and the kid's been through enough.)
Alabama: Virginia Tech (Atlanta, Sept. 5). The Hokies seem like a sure think -- the Tide shouldn't have to hope Tech's still going to be an impressive-looking win in December -- but given the fate of last year's "sure thing" in the ACC in this exact locale, obviously there are no certainties. Nothing in Va Tech's recent history suggests it will fall off the map the way Clemson did last year, but if for some reason it did, 'Bama doesn't have much to replace that value: The other non-conference games are the pathetic troika of Florida International, North Texas and Tennessee-Chattanooga, and Florida and Georgia both rotate off of the schedule unless the Tide end their regular season back in the Georgia Dome.
In fact, speaking of the Hokies, their's is the only schedule among the plausible contenders that looks like it can't possibly fail if they manage to survive it: On top of Alabama, Tech gets Nebraska and defending C-USA champion (and likely overwhelming preseason favorite) East Carolina, with six games against '08 bowl teams in-conference and the potential ACC Championship at the end. If any aspiring No. 1 is in position to overcome an early loss, it's definitely the Hokies -- unless the loss is to Duke or something. Otherwise, they're not going to be held back by who they play, as long as they actually, you know, win.