As we all anticipated back in August, the Notre Dame-USC game on Saturday night will feature the nation’s No. 1 team against a 7-4 team. The roles of each team, however, are reversed, as the Irish have turned in a magical season to reach the top of the polls, while the Trojans have plummeted from preseason No. 1 to Pac-12 also-rans.
When the longtime intersectional rivals meet under the lights of the Los Angeles Coliseum, it will mark the 13th time that the rivalry has featured the top-ranked team. Seven of the prior 12 times, it has been Notre Dame as the top team, with USC atop the polls on five occasions.
In those 12 contests, No. 1 is 10-2. Twice, the Irish have ventured to California as the best team in college football and been upset. The first came in 1938, a 13-0 victory for No. 8 USC.
Under legendary coach Frank Leahy, the Irish cruised in their two meetings with the Trojans as the No. 1 team, winning 38-7 in 1947 and 32-0 in 1949. Both seasons culminated in national championships.
The game that will leave Fighting Irish fans in peril this week more so than any other came in 1964, when unbeaten and top-ranked Notre Dame traveled to Los Angeles to face an unranked USC team (sound familiar?). With the national title at that time still awarded at the end of the regular season, all first-year coach Ara Parseghian and eventual Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte needed to do was defeat the Trojans and the Irish would have their first national title in 15 years.
It looked like everything would go as planned after 30 minutes, with Notre Dame leading 17-0. However, the Irish would be denied the national title when John McKay’s Trojans ran off 20 unanswered points in the second half for a shocking upset.
Two days later, Alabama was declared the Associated Press national champion.
In 1966, the stars were again aligned for the Irish to have their hearts broken in Los Angeles. After escaping the “Game of the Century” against Michigan State with a 10-10 tie, Notre Dame was No. 1 heading into its game with No. 10 USC. It was quickly evident that 1966 would not be a repeat of 1964, as the Irish rolled to a 51-0 rout and the national championship.
A year later, Notre Dame had a chance to avenge the 1964 loss against the top-ranked Trojans, but O.J. Simpson and USC stormed into Notre Dame Stadium, intercepting seven passes in a comfortable 24-7 win. USC went on to win the national title.
In 1972, Anthony Davis had the first of his two great performances against Notre Dame in Los Angeles, scoring six touchdowns, as No. 1 USC routed the 10th-ranked Irish, 45-23.
The next eight meetings all featured matchups between Top 15 teams, but none with the No. 1 team.
Two of Notre Dame’s most memorable wins under Lou Holtz came over USC when ranked No. 1, in 1988 and 1989. The 1988 game was the only No. 1 vs. No. 2 game in the storied rivalry, a relatively easy 27-10 Irish victory.
Notre Dame’s most recent national title came five weeks later when it defeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.
The next year under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium, Tony Rice out-dueled the fiery Todd Marinovich in a 28-24 win, the Irish’s 19th consecutive victory. There would be no back-to-back national titles, however, as Miami (FL) would upend the Irish in the regular-season finale.
The Reggie Bush-Matt Leinart USC teams were twice ranked No. 1 against the Fighting Irish. The Trojans embarrassed Notre Dame in Ty Willingham’s final game, 41-10 in 2004. The next year, the two teams played arguably their most memorable game in the 86-year history of the rivalry, a 34-31 USC win capped by the famous “Bush Push” of Leinart into the south end zone of Notre Dame Stadium for the game-winning touchdown with just seconds remaining.
In summary, the Irish are only 5-2 when ranked No. 1 against USC, but four of those five victories helped pave the way for national titles.
So while history would tell Irish fans to be wary of the pressure that comes with the top ranking, it would also say that a crystal ball might be in the team’s future if it can navigate the rapids of a struggling but talented Trojans team.