The future of both programs is at stake

At 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, 39-year-old Lincoln Riley stands on one side of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Marcus Freeman, 36, is 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 in Oklahoma. Freeman is in his first year at Notre Dame, having been promoted from defensive coordinator.

USC is 10-1 and ranks fifth in the nation, Notre Dame is 8-3 and 13th. Riley’s club has more to play this year: a Pac-12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff. However, Freeman’s has recovered from a shaky start to look impressive.

Both coaches are desperate for a jolt of credibility that can convince recruits and young players of the incredible promise that both intend to deliver.

This is an important game, both for this season and for the seasons to come.

“Great challenge,” said Freeman. “Good chance.”

The rivalry between USC and Notre Dame dates back to 1926, when Knute Rockne’s Irish traveled to LA by train and defeated Howard Jones’ Trojans 13-12. Since then they play every year (without World War II and COVID), the rare inter-regional annual rivalry.

As historic as each program has been, it has been, at least in modern times, a series of contrasts, rivalry control that ping ponged back and forth.

From 1967-82, the Trojans went 12-2-2. The Irish then took over and peeled off a 12-0-1 stretch. From 1996-2011, it was USC that enjoyed a 12-4 run. Lately it has been 7-2 for the Irish.

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

Rarely has every school done well at the same time. Rarely have both shows been at their best when they’re facing each other instead of one trying to play spoiler. Rarely have both young, exciting coaches challenged.

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

The obvious stakes here are at USC. A victory over the Irish and then the Pac-12 championship game would almost certainly propel them to 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 win 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 took Caleb Williams (13) from Oklahoma to USC. Now the two are on the verge of the College Football Playoff. (Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He shocked college football by leaving Oklahoma last year. Coming from small-town Texas, he felt like a perfect fit for Norman, with perhaps only the allure of the NFL that appealed to him. Instead, he tackled the task of rebuilding the Trojans, which became easier as he landed 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 foundations for a juggernaut could be laid before the Trojans move to the Big Ten in a few seasons.

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

USC’s most fundamental challenge is getting local recruits to believe they can win titles, play in big games, and make it to the NFL without having to leave the region.

Too many greats have left in recent years: Bryce Young (Alabama), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson). It’s partly because they didn’t see USC the way generations of local stars like Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Anthony Munoz, Charles White, Keyshawn Johnson, Junior Seau, Matt Leinart and so on once did.

Nothing beats winning, and winning your way to the playoffs for the first time. It’s what Riley desires. Despite inheriting a 4-8 team, he never admitted that this would be a rebuild.

His stated goal for the season for this year?

“To win the championship,” he said in July. “My expectations are very high. I mean, this is a go-for-it place… we didn’t come here to play for second place.

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

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

However, Notre Dame has bounced back and won five straight, including a cathartic win from Clemson earlier this month. The playoffs are out of reach, but a 9-3 regular season with a huge win over USC would give 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 get a chance for an expected massive television audience for the college game, maybe over 10 million viewers on primetime 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 employees stumble and fall.

Still, for the first time in a long time, USC and Notre Dame both stare at the same time into an exciting future, both bringing on new, modern, energetic coaches who are unapologetically focused on achieving, well, everything.

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

And maybe the start of something bigger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *