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

On Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET, 39-year-old Lincoln Riley will stand on one side of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; 36-year-old Marcus Freeman the other.

Riley is in his first year as head coach of USC football, having been lured to the Trojans after a strong five-year run at Oklahoma. Freeman is in his first year at Notre Dame, having been promoted from defensive coordinator.

USC is 10-1 and ranked fifth in the country, Notre Dame is 8-3 and 15th. Riley’s club has more to play for this year — a Pac-12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. Freeman’s has rebounded, though, from a stumbling start to look impressive.

Both coaches are desperate for a jolt of credibility that could convince recruits and young players of the incredible promise both plan on delivering.

This is a big-time game, for both this season and the ones to come.

“Great challenge,” Freeman said. “Great opportunity.”

The USC-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1926, when Knute Rockne’s Irish traveled to L.A. by train and defeated Howard Jones’ Trojans, 13-12. They’ve played every year since (sans World War II and COVID), the rare interregional annual rivalry.

As historically great as each program has been, it has been, at least in modern times, a series of contrasts, control of the rivalry ping ponging back and forth.

From 1967-82, the Trojans went 12-2-2. The Irish then took over, peeling off a 12-0-1 stretch. From 1996-2011, it was USC enjoying a 12-4 run. Of late, it’s been 7-2 for the Irish.

Everything follows a coaching pattern, the eras of John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll in L.A., and Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly in South Bend. On the losing sides are a cast of misfit hires, Charlie Weis and Bob Davie, Clay Helton and Paul Hackett.

Rarely has each school got it right at the same time. Rarely have both programs been at their best when facing each other rather than one trying to play spoiler. Rarely have both trotted out young, exciting coaches.

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

The obvious high stakes here rest with USC. A win over the Irish and then the Pac-12 championship game would almost certainly propel the Trojans into the College Football Playoff, a remarkable and telling statement for Riley.

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

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

Now USC could reach the playoffs, Williams could win the Heisman and the groundwork for a juggernaut could be established before the Trojans head to the Big Ten in a couple seasons.

“The turnaround has been very drastic and sudden,” Riley said last week on ESPN. “It has taken a lot of work and a lot of buy-in.”

The most basic challenge for USC is to get local recruits to believe they can win titles, play in big games and reach the NFL without having to leave the region.

Too many great ones have left in recent years — Bryce Young (Alabama), C.J. Stroud (Ohio State), D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson). It’s in part because they didn’t see USC the way generations of local stars such as Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Anthony Munoz, Charles White, Keyshawn Johnson, Junior Seau, Matt Leinart and so on once did.

Nothing like winning, and winning your way into the playoff for the first time, will help that. It’s what Riley covets. Despite inheriting a 4-8 team, he never allowed that this would 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, this is a go-for-it kind of place … we didn’t come here to play for second.”

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 19: head coach Marcus Freeman of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on in the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Marcus Freeman overcame an 0-2 start as Notre Dame head coach. The Irish are now 8-3 headed into Saturday's game in Los Angeles vs. USC. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Freeman has a similar attitude when it comes to the future of the Irish. He lacks the experience Riley had but he has elevated recruiting, gone after elite players that Notre Dame often lacks and set a standard that even if he had things to learn, that wouldn’t be an excuse.

The Irish boast the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, per Rivals (and current No. 1 for 2024). Yet when Notre Dame dropped games against Marshall and a lousy Stanford team (not to mention at Ohio State) there were questions about whether Freeman the coach could equal Freeman the personality.

Notre Dame has rallied though, winning five consecutive, including a cathartic blowout of Clemson earlier this month. The playoff is out of reach, but a 9-3 regular season with a huge victory over USC would provide a stamp of validity to players, recruits 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’ll get a chance in front of an expected massive television audience for the college game, perhaps 10 million-plus viewers on prime-time ABC.

Nothing is promised. The future is never assured. One win, or one season, doesn’t always carry over. Even good coaches and seemingly perfect hires stumble and fall.

Yet, for the first time in a long time, USC and Notre Dame are staring at an exciting future at the same time, both breaking in new, modern, energetic coaches who are unapologetically focused on accomplishing, well, everything.

It’s a big challenge and a big opportunity, as Freeman noted.

And the start of something even bigger, perhaps.