LSU (8-4) and Notre Dame (7-5) stumbled down the stretch to land in Nashville, Tennessee, and set up their 11th all-time meeting -- the most between Notre Dame and any SEC program.
A bowl win will put a positive spin on a disappointing season for the Tigers or Fighting Irish. Here, LSU writer David Ching and Notre Dame writer Matt Fortuna discuss what a win would mean, as well as best- and worst-case scenarios for the two teams.
What a win would mean for LSU: From a bragging-rights perspective, a win on Dec. 30 would give LSU a winning record (the programs are currently 5-5 head-to-head) against the Fighting Irish. Obviously that would make for a nice historical footnote. As for its modern-day impact, the Tigers are hoping to repeat what happened the last time they met Notre Dame in a bowl. LSU’s 2006 team blasted Notre Dame to end that season and went on to win a BCS title the following year. LSU has some questions to answer this offseason -- particularly at quarterback -- but after enduring some growing pains with a young roster, the Tigers believe they can be playoff contenders next season. A win in Nashville would be a good way to kickstart the offseason.
What a win would mean for Notre Dame: A win over No. 23 LSU would easily be Notre Dame's best victory of the season. More importantly, it would stop the bleeding that comes with a season-ending four-game losing streak. The Irish need positive momentum going into next season, especially with so many familiar faces expected to return in 2015. A lot of that could go out the door if this same cast of characters enters riding a five-game slide and wondering how it all went south so fast following a 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking.
LSU’s best case for bowl: Minus the narrow margin of victory, a game like LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M would be ideal. The Tigers’ defense held a potent offense to just 228 total yards and their offensive scheme was perhaps the most ambitious it has been all year. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was outstanding on quarterback runs (he rushed for 119 yards) and completed passes to seven different teammates, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette was outstanding, and speedy receiver Travin Dural did some damage on jet sweeps. If LSU is to move back toward contender status in 2015, the offense has to be much more effective than it was this fall. Finishing the season with a productive outing against an underwhelming Notre Dame defense would do wonders for the young Tigers’ confidence.
Notre Dame’s best case for bowl: In a weird way, the best-case scenario for Notre Dame would be that Malik Zaire emerges as a star, carves up a really, really good LSU defense, runs the offense to a T and looks like the Irish's quarterback of the future. That is not to say that the Irish cannot win with Everett Golson, or that it would necessarily be good to see him struggle in any way, shape or form. But the fact of the matter is that the Irish have seen all that Golson can and cannot do throughout the course of this season, with his 22 turnovers -- all over the final nine games -- contributing largely to this losing skid. Zaire has yet to start or see meaningful action in a close game, and if he looks great against a great defense, the Irish may just know where to start when it comes to finding the right guy to lead their offense in 2015. The defense needs to play better, sure, but much of that unit's demise can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a litany of injuries. There are no excuses for the offense being as inconsistent as it has as of late, which means success from a fresh face could simplify things for this program moving forward.
LSU’s worst case for bowl: As with Notre Dame, another ugly outing on offense would be the wrong way to enter the offseason. Both teams have good reason to believe their defenses will be strong in 2015, but they need to figure out where they’re going at quarterback (in LSU’s case, is it going to be Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris?) and develop a dependable offensive identity. The power running game will continue to be LSU’s bread and butter, but another game where its quarterback struggles to make drive-extending completions won’t create much confidence that next season will be different for the Tigers’ offense.
Notre Dame’s worst case for bowl: If the Irish look listless on offense, and if neither quarterback can get things going against the Tigers' defense -- or worse, turns the ball over frequently -- it will be back to the drawing board for Brian Kelly and his offense, which would be entering Year 6 with still no answer at quarterback. Golson cannot afford another outing like his last month of work, and Zaire cannot botch his first major opportunity to make a public statement and to show he is capable of answering the bell with the spotlight on him.
Dec. 30, 3 p.m. ET, LP Field, Nashville, Tennessee (ESPN)
Key matchup: Notre Dame QBs Everett Golson and Malik Zaire vs. LSU's secondary
Why it matters: Stop us if you've heard this before: The Irish have quarterback issues and the Tigers have a dominant secondary. While it is unclear who will start under center for Notre Dame, Golson and Zaire are both expected to see playing time, as Zaire relieved Golson in the regular-season finale following the former's 22nd turnover of the season. Who knows how this plays out between the two moving forward -- heck, Golson vs. Zaire may actually be the key matchup in this game, by definition -- but it is clear that both QBs will have their work cut out for them against LSU defensive backs that led the nation's No. 4 pass defense, having surrendered just 163.33 yards per game through the air. Golson needs to protect the ball and make better decisions. Zaire needs to show he can thrive in extended action and take control of an offense. Standing in their way are guys like All-SEC second-team safety Ronald Martin (2 INTs, 2 forced fumbles) and All-SEC freshman first-teamer Jamal Adams (5 break-ups, 5 passes defended). The Tigers boast two other DBs with at least two picks apiece, in Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson.
Who wins: It is hard to find a favorable matchup in this contest for Notre Dame, though the struggles of LSU's offense at times have to be somewhat of a silver lining for an Irish defense that has been holding it together by a thread down the stretch of the season. Could Zaire, in theory, assume the mantle as Notre Dame starter and carve up the Tigers' secondary? In theory, sure. But the safer bet is that the LSU D provides too tough of a challenge for an Irish offense that has consistently gotten in its own way, and the Tigers' offense is able to do enough against a banged-up Irish D. LSU hands Notre Dame its fifth straight loss to end the season, winning this one 38-27.
"I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game and I think both of them can help us win," said Kelly, who has not named a starter for the Dec. 30 contest in Nashville, Tennessee.
Golson, a redshirt junior, started all 12 games for the 7-5 Fighting Irish this season but was replaced by Zaire, a redshirt freshman, in the regular-season finale at USC, a 49-14 loss.
Zaire completed 9 of 20 passes in that game for 170 yards, adding 18 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries.
Kelly said he would play both next year, too, if it's what's best for the team.
LSU's Jennings and Notre Dame's Golson both struggled down the stretch, but they struggled in entirely different ways.
Notre Dame (7-5) coach Brian Kelly said Sunday that the team will hold open competition for playing time at all positions, including quarterback, after yanking Golson in the second quarter of a season-ending 49-14 loss at USC and going with redshirt freshman Malik Zaire once the Trojans took a 35-0 lead.
"There's a way I want that position to operate, and it's going to operate the way that I want it to operate," Kelly said. "If you operate it the way that I want it done, you'll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame."
Meanwhile, the quarterback position has typically been a playmaking afterthought this season at LSU (8-4), which has placed more of an emphasis on protecting the football than taking aggressive shots downfield. Jennings has been successful in that regard -- he tossed seven interceptions and lost two fumbles this fall -- but the Tigers' offense also went into deep lulls at times with Jennings at the helm.
LSU coach Les Miles said Sunday that bowl practice would be an important evaluation time as the season-long competition continues between sophomore Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris.
"Absolutely it is," Miles said. "It's that time that you continue to compete, you continue to press your quarterbacks to throw it, run it and do the things that we're going to ask them to do."
Miles said the competition was close on an almost weekly basis this season, yet it has largely taken place only on the practice field. Jennings started all but one of LSU's games -- a 41-7 loss at Auburn where Harris seemed overwhelmed by the moment -- and the freshman appeared in only two of the Tigers' final six games in the regular season.
True competition would be something entirely new for Notre Dame this season, however. Fourth-year junior Golson, who quarterbacked the Irish in its 2012 BCS championship loss to Alabama, was the obvious choice as the starter once he returned from a season-long academic suspension earlier this year.
Kelly said Sunday that Notre Dame submitted Golson's name to be evaluated as a possible early entrant into the NFL draft. Even if he returns, this could be a competition that extends through the offseason and into next fall.
"It may be eight practices [that the competition lasts], it may be a year," Kelly said. "But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."
The scenario at LSU might be similar. Beyond bowl practice, this will be a huge offseason for Jennings and Harris -- and they could have additional competition at the position next fall. Among the prospects LSU has expressed an interest in is ESPN's No. 1 junior college quarterback Chad Kelly, a former Clemson backup who passed for 434 yards and five touchdowns on Sunday in leading East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA national title.
But regardless of whether LSU signs an experienced quarterback to compete with the youngsters, the Tigers' bowl workouts and spring practices will be enormously important for Jennings and Harris.
LSU's grind-it-out offensive approach worked at times, but it was unable to keep up in high-scoring games. The Tigers need more from the position than they typically got in 2014, and this is the quarterbacks' final opportunity to prove that they can handle the job.
"If they have designs on being the leader of this team and being that quarterback, this will be a very competitive time even before the game," Miles said.
Notre Dame will play No. 23 LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. And, similar to the lead-up to the Irish's matchup with Florida State to conclude that wayward campaign three years ago in the Champs Sports Bowl, they will enter the game in Nashville, Tennessee, with uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Quarterback was supposed to be settled for three straight seasons after Everett Golson helped lead Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012. Even after Golson was suspended for last season and returned this past spring, he was still supposed to be settled for the next two seasons after several big early-season performances helped spark premature Heisman Trophy chatter.
"The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "There's competition. There's competition at all positions. So we'll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity."
Kelly conceded that was never really the case under center this fall, holding true to the stance he took upon anointing Golson his starter early in fall camp. It was not until turnover No. 22, in game No. 12, that Kelly threw Malik Zaire into the fire in a rout at USC.
If this sounds familiar, just peek back to three years ago, as Tommy Rees' 20 turnovers and Andrew Hendrix's flashes of potential late in a different rout in California, that one courtesy of Stanford, led to even more ambiguity around a position that was initially held by another guy, Dayne Crist, to start the season.
"I think that really what we're talking about is some things that I want to see change that will have to change during practice," Kelly said. "And I've already had a conversation with both quarterbacks. So I think it's probably more towards what my eye sees during practice. It will be when I see what I see will be the duration of that competition.
"So it may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."
When that time comes is anyone's guess, as the waiting for quarterback answers continues with Year 5 of the Kelly era rounding to an end this month. It didn't happen at the end of the 2011 season, when three more interceptions from two different quarterbacks cost the Irish a chance to gain a respectable victory over the 9-4 Seminoles. And while that hiccup hardly mattered in the big picture of the following season — a surprising 12-1 run that illustrated everything this coaching regime does so well — the feeling of familiarity three years removed from that letdown might linger, which makes the idea of playing LSU, even this year's 8-4 outfit, so appeasing.
"We want to win," safety Matthias Farley said. "At the end of the day, we're going to a cool location to play an opponent we don't normally play, but the focus and the outcome is what we're trying to determine and work toward, so it's just like any other week in that sense."
With a similar cast of characters returning next year, though, this finale against the Tigers from the SEC could help right the ship heading into 2015.
"Especially being a younger team," guard Nick Martin said, "it makes it easier for everyone to buy in."
For the Irish, amends for 2014 start with the guy under center, like so many other years. Figuring out who that is, and how to move forward with him, will help avoid the back-to-square-one feeling surrounding this year's final act.
DEC. 30, 3 P.M. ET, LP FIELD, NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE (ESPN)
NOTRE DAME BREAKDOWN
Season highlights: A 6-0 start gave the Fighting Irish plenty to be excited about, particularly a 31-0 win in their last meeting with Michigan in Week 2. A last-second, fourth-down touchdown pass from Everett Golson to Ben Koyack to beat rival Stanford was huge, too. This sounds like faint praise, but a 31-27 loss to then-No. 2 Florida State -- a game that saw Golson go punch-for-punch with 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston and ended with a go-ahead TD being called back because of penalty -- might have earned Notre Dame more respect nationally than any of its six wins prior to that contest.
Season lowlights: Where to begin? Notre Dame followed that 6-0 start by losing five of its last six, including its final four. The Irish were decimated by injuries defensively, doomed by the simplest of special teams miscues and enter bowl season with a quarterback controversy after Golson's regression led to Malik Zaire entering the 49-14 loss to USC in the finale. A loss like that to the Irish's archival won't sit well, but more perplexing is a 43-40 home overtime loss to a Northwestern team that finished 5-7.
Player to watch: He has been far from consistent, but Will Fuller has emerged as the Irish's best offensive weapon, hauling in 71 passes for 1,037 yards and 14 touchdowns (tied for second nationally). There were questions about who would emerge as the Irish's No. 1 target after DaVaris Daniels' season-long suspension, and Fuller, a sophomore, answered them emphatically early.
Motivation factor: At this point it is about pride for Notre Dame. Do the Irish really want to end the season with five straight losses? Do they really want to become the first Brian Kelly team that fails to reach the eight-win total? On top of that, this is a young team that has most of its starters and key reserves returning next season, when expectations were supposed to be very high. Instead, these same characters could be facing a long, unpleasant offseason if their bowl performance is anything like their final month performance. -- Matt Fortuna
Season highlights: LSU fans rushed the field after the Tigers’ late defensive stand against Ole Miss, moments after LSU scored the go-ahead touchdown on a pass from Anthony Jennings to tight end Logan Stokes. LSU’s 10-7 win dealt the Rebels their first loss of the season and created optimism in Baton Rouge after the young Tigers got off to an uneven start.
Season lowlights: Take your pick between a 17-0 loss at Arkansas in which LSU’s offense generated just 123 yards or a 41-7 loss at Auburn in which the Tigers failed to convert on a single third down. Both games served as examples of how bad LSU’s offense could look at times with inexperienced quarterbacks Jennings and Brandon Harris struggling to produce consistent play.
Player to watch: Leonard Fournette. The nation’s top overall recruit generated Heisman Trophy buzz before he had even played in a college game. He never really figured into that conversation after a quiet debut performance against Wisconsin. But the freshman running back still had a strong first season (891 rushing yards, eight touchdowns), capped by a season-high 146 yards in the Tigers’ regular-season finale against Texas A&M.
Motivation factor: Les Miles’ teams rarely seem to struggle with motivation, although Tigers fans who watched the Auburn and Arkansas games might disagree with that assessment. This is a young team that continues to develop, though, and they will be looking to head into what should be an improved 2015 by closing out this roller-coaster season with a victory. -- David Ching
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech
Russell Athletic Bowl: Louisville
Citrus Bowl: Clemson
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Notre Dame
Belk Bowl: NC State
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Boston College
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Duke
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN Bowl: North Carolina
I might have been overcomplicating things.
Colleague Brad Edwards took to Twitter to show a far simpler scenario for the Yellow Jackets to get in.
Discussed Ga. Tech playoff hopes with @MarkBradleyAJC and came up with a simple path: 1, 2 & 3 win; 4, 5 & 6 lose— Brad Edwards (@JBradEdwards) December 4, 2014
In this scenario, as Edwards mentioned, No. 9 Kansas State would also likely find itself in contention for that No. 4 spot, as it would be a conference co-champion with No. 3 TCU after beating No. 6 Baylor.
And while No. 10 Mississippi State might have an argument after watching all of the chaos unfold in front of it, the Yellow Jackets would have the advantage of being a champion of a Power 5 conference, something Edwards thinks would ultimately give them the edge.
Is it that big of a stretch to think that No. 1 Alabama beats No. 16 Missouri, No. 2 Oregon beats No. 7 Arizona and No. 3 TCU beats Iowa State? And that No. 5 Ohio State, with its third-strong quarterback, falls to No. 13 Wisconsin, along with No. 6 Baylor falling to No. 9 Kansas State? I don't think it's all that wild.
Insider's Sharon Katz created a table for Georgia Tech that can serve as somewhat of a "who-to-roof-for" guide for Jackets fans this weekend, with scenarios big and small.
So it appears that the stakes may be that much higher for No. 11 Georgia Tech Saturday against No. 4 Florida State. Who would've ever guessed that? (Other than ace Spreecast viewer John, of course. Well done.)
Here are the rest of your ACC links ...
- College Sports Madness released its All-ACC teams Thursday.
- Duke's David Helton, Syracuse's Sam Rodgers and Notre Dame's Corey Robinson made the Capital One Academic All-America teams.
- Georgia Tech is taking confidence from its 2012 ACC title game loss to FSU into Saturday, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- The (Louisville) Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer looks at the Cardinals' finalized 2016 schedule.
- Surprise, surprise: Former Miami players are opinionated on the Hurricanes' season, per the Palm Beach Post's Matt Porter.
- The (Syracuse) Post-Standard's Nate Mink and Stephen Bailey grade the Oranges's defensive players.
Louis Nix III, No. 64 in 2010 class
Nix came out of Raines High in Jacksonville, Florida, as one of the most highly coveted defensive tackles in the country. Nix was committed to Miami (FL) for an entire year before Notre Dame eventually won out in December of 2009 over the Hurricanes due in large part to the work of Tony Alford, and the life experiences Notre Dame offered. Nix committed to the Fighting Irish when Notre dame was between head coaches following the firing of Charlie Weis. Nix was a member of a Notre Dame class that included Tai-Ler Jones and Prince Shembo.
Nix did not see action as a freshman in 2010, but moved into the starting lineup in 2011 starting 11 of 13 games. He recorded 45 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Hix backed up his impressive sophomore campaign with a strong junior season in 2012 tallying 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 11 starts.
The 2013 season would be his last in South Bend, and the beginning of knee issues that have continued to plague his career. Nix recorded 27 tackles in seven games as a senior. He started the first seven games before a knee injury sidelined him the last half of the season.
Following his career at Notre Dame, Nix was selected in the third round (No. 83-overall) in the 2014 NFL draft by the Houston Texans. He has missed his entire rookie season due to a trio of knee surgeries.
Honorable mention: Ryne Giddens, No. 64 in 2009 class. Giddens selected South Florida over Florida and North Carolina in January of 2009 out of Armwood High in Seffner, Florida. He played in 51 games for the Bulls over five seasons totaling 118 tackles, 32 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks.
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsChris Callahan’s field goal lifted Baylor over TCU in their matchup in Waco, Texas.
Is there precedent for the head-to-head result not being the deciding factor when comparing two teams with the same number of losses?
Yes, here are three:
• In 2008, Texas defeated Oklahoma on a neutral field. The Longhorns’ only loss was at No. 6 Texas Tech on a last-second catch by Michael Crabtree. Yet, Oklahoma was selected to play Florida in the BCS National Championship.
• In 2000, the Miami (FL) Hurricanes defeated Florida State at home. The Hurricanes’ only loss was at No. 15 Washington. Yet, Florida State was selected to play Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship.
• In 1993, Notre Dame defeated Florida State in South Bend, Indiana. The Fighting Irish’s only loss was against No. 17 Boston College. Yet, Florida State was voted the AP national champion and Notre Dame finished second.
If there is precedent for not using head-to-head, then how do the résumés stack up?
The résumés for No. 6 TCU and No. 3 Baylor are very similar. Both teams are 10-1, and they have the two best point-per-game differentials (Baylor +25.9, TCU +24.2) among Power 5 teams. Each team’s loss came against a conference opponent on the road.
They have played very similar schedules. Both have played eight other Big 12 opponents, SMU and an FCS opponent. The one non-conference difference is TCU hosted Minnesota and Baylor played at Buffalo. As a result, Baylor is last in the FBS in non-conference strength of schedule and TCU is 117th.
The big difference (other than head-to-head) is that Baylor has one fewer win against a team in the top 40 of FPI. Yet, that could change Saturday as the Bears host Kansas State and TCU plays Iowa State.
If the résumés are similar, then what about on-field performance?
Few teams can match Baylor’s offensive production. The Bears are averaging an FBS-high 49.8 points per game. They have scored at least 60 points in four games, including their win against TCU. No other FBS team has more than two such games.
Pace is a big factor in Baylor’s offensive success. The Bears average 20 seconds per play, third-fastest in the FBS. In the first half, they are even quicker, running a play every 18.2 seconds, best in the FBS. Not surprisingly, Baylor has an FBS-high 21 touchdown drives of 1 minute or less.
TCU’s offense is not too far behind. It is averaging 46.1 points per game, third-most in the FBS and on pace to break the school record of 41.6 set in 2010.
TCU is allowing 21.9 points per game, 26th-best in the FBS, which does not sound overly impressive. Yet, when you factor in the opponents and the impact the defense has had on games, few have been better than the Horned Frogs.
• TCU has forced an FBS-high 3.1 turnovers per game and is averaging 12.0 points off turnovers, second-best in the FBS behind Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (12.5).
• The Horned Frogs have held their opponents without a first down or touchdown on an FBS-high 51 percent of their drives this season. Not coincidentally, their average starting field position is their own 35-yard line, fifth-best in the FBS.
• TCU ranks fifth in the nation in third-down conversion defense (30 percent) and eighth in the percentage of opponents red-zone drives that end in a touchdown (45 percent).
Baylor has not been too far behind on defense, especially in the first half of games before it builds a huge lead: The Bears’ first-half point-per-game margin is an FBS-high +18.7.
So, with the teams so similar, it brings us back to head-to-head. Baylor defeated TCU by three points in Waco. How much does home field matter anyway?
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, home field would play a role in projecting a winner in a matchup between these teams. For instance, if Baylor and TCU were to play this weekend on a neutral field, Baylor would have a 51 percent chance of winning. If the game were at Baylor, the Bears would have a 59 percent chance of winning, and if it were at TCU, the Horned Frogs would have a 57 percent chance of winning.
Maybe the best solution would be to have a Big 12 championship game, on a neutral field. If there were, and if the second matchup was anything like the first, then everyone would be in for some excitement.
In that game, Baylor became the only team in the last 10 seasons to overcome a 21-point (or more) fourth-quarter deficit against a ranked team. It was also the most combined points (119) for a game involving two top-10 teams in the Associated Press Poll.
--Information from Chris Fallica and Sharon Katz of ESPN Stats & Information was used in this post
A quick refresher on how this will work.
Tier 1: The Orange Bowl takes the top-ranked nonplayoff team from the ACC. If a Big Ten team plays in the Orange Bowl, too, then the Citrus Bowl gets the next pick. If not, the Russell Athletic Bowl selects the third ACC team, and the Citrus Bowl will not include an ACC team at all.
Tier 2: The Belk Bowl, Sun Bowl and Pinstripe Bowl, along with either the Gator Bowl or Music City Bowl, will divide up the next group of four ACC teams.
Tier 3: The Military Bowl, Independence Bowl, Quick Lane Bowl and Bitcoin Bowl will then select in that order. The Birmingham Bowl was the ACC's conditional bowl, but it has already filled its primary obligations to other leagues.
Notre Dame will take one of the ACC's bowl bids.
That means 12 teams are available for 10 guaranteed slots with two leftover. Almost certainly, however, the ACC will send two teams to New Year's Six games (Florida State and Georgia Tech), which takes care of one extra slot. The Citrus Bowl contingent would take care of the other, but if that does not come to fruition, the league would be free to negotiate with any bowl that has an open slot and does not have an alternate agreement already in place with another league. Last year, the ACC had two teams unaccounted for by its bowl tie-ins and both found homes, so the league is not concerned a team will be left out this time around.
So, with all that said, here's how we project it shakes out.
College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech
Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville
Belk Bowl: Duke
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Notre Dame
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: North Carolina
Quick Lane Bowl: NC State
BITCOIN Bowl: Miami
Open slot: Pittsburgh
Then USC came back a week later and beat its other rival 49-14 Saturday in a game that even head coach Brian Kelly would admit was not nearly as close as the score indicated.
Notre Dame is hurt, especially on defense. We get it. The Fighting Irish are not exactly alone, though, as we can see from USC. And they are not all that hurt when compared to last season.
They will enter a similarly-underwhelming postseason destination this winter with 11 regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.
No, that does not include the lost seasons, and lost half-season, of four defensive starters implicated in the school's summer internal academic probe. And that does not include the casualties of this weekend's nightmare in Hollywood: Max Redfield (broken rib), Austin Collinsworth (separated shoulder), Greer Martini (quad), Jay Hayes (high ankle sprain) and Jacob Matuska (shoulder).
But it is unlikely that any of those wounded at the Coliseum would have made much of a difference against a Trojans team that actually showed mercy on the battered Irish after racing to a 35-0 start in the first 25 minutes.
The 2013 edition of Notre Dame entered last fall as somewhat of a deflated group, having endured an offseason of questions following the Alabama beatdown, Kelly's NFL flirtations, the Lennay Kekua saga and the season-long dismissal of starting quarterback Everett Golson.
It made do with what it had. It handed eventual Rose Bowl champ Michigan State its only loss, it withstood a never-ending run of defensive depletion and it finished the regular season 8-4, a game better than this year's 7-5 team.
Asked 13 months ago if he ever coached a unit so decimated by injuries, Kelly said at the time: "I think this is probably close to the pinnacle."
He added then: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."
Problem this season is there were not all that many next guys ready. The 2013 unit returned eight starters from a 2012 unit that finished second nationally in scoring average. The 2014 unit returned three starters and was breaking in a new scheme under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Everything changed when the quarterback of that group, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a season-ending ankle injury in a Nov. 1 win at Navy. Anyone around the program will tell you how he was the MVP of that unit, how he got those green guys ready, how he helped simplify things for his overloaded teammates.
Save for the Northwestern game, it is no surprise that Notre Dame is now 0-4 without Schmidt, a former walk-on. That Schmidt finished the regular season as the Irish's second-leading tackler (65) despite missing so much time speaks to just how little there was to work with after losing plenty of pro talent from last year, and especially after losing two preseason starters to academic matters.
None of this is breaking news. Notre Dame raced to a 6-0 start this season and was a play away from knocking off Florida State because that defense had played above its head, because it had some great injury luck, because, frankly, the competition it had played was nothing special.
Everything for these Irish hinged on Golson's arm to begin with, and his unraveling has been too much for that now-banged up defense -- and a special teams unit that remains M.I.A. -- to overcome against better competition. A Kelly offense hinges on quarterback play, and how that position shakes out with Golson and Malik Zaire will dictate everything about a 2015 Notre Dame outfit that will be more experienced than this year's, and even more seasoned than anyone had initially anticipated.
The same can be said of the rivals out west who just left these Irish beaten in a manner foreign to this regime.
"They got punched in the nose today," Kelly said Saturday. "You want to see a response too, right? They're young, but I want to see some bite, too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we're going to have to see a response. All jobs are available and we're going to have to see something from this group."
Example A may just come from, of all places, the Trojans who left them like this.
'College Football Live' Extra: Biggest Plays
FBS INDEP. SCOREBOARD
11:00 AM ET Nevada Louisiana-Lafayette 2:20 PM ET Utah State UTEP 3:30 PM ET 22 Utah Colorado State 5:45 PM ET Western Michigan Air Force 9:15 PM ET South Alabama Bowling Green
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State