Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 1, USC
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Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 1, USC

This is the last in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 1 is the Oct. 23 meeting with arch rival USC at home.

Head Coach: Clay Helton —45-23 (.662) entering his seventh season.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football versus USC
Kedon Slovis returns as a third-year starting quarterback for USC's Air Raid attack. (Quinn Harris/USA TODAY Sports)
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Recruiting Rankings 2017-21: 2017 (6th), 2018 (3rd), 2019 (18th), 2020 (71st), 2021 (8th)

2020 Record: 5-1

Like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 originally announced in August that it would not play football, but eventually took part in an abbreviated campaign that began Nov. 7 with a hard-earned 28-27 win at Arizona State, followed by a 34-30 victory at Arizona.

Highlighting the campaign was the 33-17 victory at Utah, possibly the most difficult place to win in the league. The undefeated regular season was capped by wins versus Washington State (38-13) and UCLA (43-38), putting the Trojans No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. However, a 31-24 defeat to No. 25 Oregon ended the campaign and resulted in a No. 21 finish.

It was the first time since 2017 the Trojans finished in the top 25 and it helped buy Helton at least another season on the heels of 5-7 and 8-5 records in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Did You Know …

In terms of volume, no team in the country took a bigger hit than USC when it came to players leaving early for the 2021 NFL Draft.

The total reached seven, with the defense minus tackles Jay Tufele — who had opted out of the 2020 season anyway — and Marlon Tuipulotu, cornerback Olaijah Griffin and safety Talanoa Hufanga.

As expected, wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown also departed after his junior year, but skill position talent is seldom an issue at USC, and shouldn’t be this year either.

2021 Capsule Summary

Seven starters return on offense and six on defense as USC vies for its second straight South Division title in the Pac-12 and attempts to challenge Oregon as the top school in a conference that has not had a College Football participant since 2017 with Washington.

As the newly hired offensive coordinator in 2019, Graham Harrell installed the Air Raid attack that has showcased the talents of returning quarterback Kedon Slovis and the receiving corps, which this year will be led by Drake Jackson and Bru McCoy.

However, better balance is being sought by the school known in days of yore as “Tailback U.” Last year among 127 teams USC ranked 11th in passing yards per game (319.3) but 120th in rushing yards (97.3). Hired as the new offensive line coach is Clay McGuire, who is highly familiar with the Air Raid attack while having worked for Mike Leach at Washington State, but whose goal is to provide better balance to the attack.

The running back room lost Markese Stepp to transfer (Nebraska), but returns veterans Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr — and adds Texas 222-pound transfer Keaontay Ingram, who rushed for 1,811 career yards and caught 67 passes while with the Longhorns.

Speaking of transfers, the Trojans defense also brought in another transfer from Texas in safety Xavion Alford, but the most impactful could be 334-pound defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher, a former top-50 prospect and transfer from Alabama.

Todd Orlando was hired as the new defensive coordinator last year and some improvement was displayed, although the No. 46 ranking in scoring defense (26.0 points per game) is still below championship standards.

Another newcomer to the defensive line is end Korey Foreman, the nation’s top-ranked strong-side defensive end and Rivals’ No. 3 overall prospect in the country.

Why No. 1 In The Countdown

It’s somewhat amazing to see Helton entering his seventh season at USC despite what seems like a perpetual occupancy of college football’s top hot seat. He bought himself more time again with a South Division Pac-12 title in 2020, but the Trojans — like Texas with Tom Herman — expect much more than a final No. 21 ranking as a consolation prize.

Brian Kelly is 7-3 against Notre Dame’s arch rival, and has particularly had USC's number in the fourth quarter during close wins in 2010 (20-16), 2012 (22-13), 2013 (14-10), 2015 (41-30 after falling behind), 2018 (24-17) and in 2019 (30-27).

There might be other teams on the 2021 Notre Dame slate with better program infrastructure/coaching, such as Wisconsin or Cincinnati, while North Carolina’s trajectory and timing of the game might be better. Still, in terms of sheer potential NFL talent on virtually every unit, USC is going to be at the top. Its strength, a prolific passing attack, is where Notre Dame, for now, looks the most vulnerable defensively on the back end despite the presence of All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.

Be that as it may, the Trojans are not deemed as formidable for the Irish as traveling to Georgia in 2018 or hosting Clemson in 2019. Objectively, we don’t see a single foe on the 2021 schedule that we envision being favored against Notre Dame.

The knock against USC has been line play, especially on offense, that has been classified as soft by Football Bowl Subdivision standards. Conversely, Notre Dame’s identity last year centered on physicality on both sides of the ball.

Notre Dame has its bye week the week before playing USC, but the Trojans also are off on Oct. 16 before traveling to northern Indiana the following week.

If the Irish win their first three home games (Toledo, Purdue and Cincinnati), then they will attempt to tie the school record 28-game winning streak in Notre Dame Stadium against USC, and surpass it the following week versus North Carolina.

If any team has a history of breaking Notre Dame hearts, it is USC. Even while struggling in 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2019, it took superior Irish teams down to the final series of the game.

No. 12: Toledo

No. 11: Navy

No. 10: Georgia Tech

No. 9 Purdue

No. 8 Virginia

No. 7 Stanford

No. 6 Virginia Tech

No. 5 Cincinnati

No. 4 Florida State

No. 3 North Carolina

No. 2 Wisconsin



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