For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

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For Notre Dame, USC, the preseason script is flipped

LOS ANGELES -- Three months ago, Notre Dame was on the outside looking in. Nobody projected them to make a BCS bowl, let alone challenge for a national championship. The idea of having a Heisman candidate was just as far-fetched, and many wondered if another mediocre season would put coach Brian Kelly squarely on the hot seat.
USC, on the other hand, topped plenty of preseason polls, with Matt Barkley tabbed to lead the Trojans to the BCS Championship about a month after garnering the Heisman Trophy. It was supposed to be Lane Kiffin's signature year, one that returned USC to the level set by Pete Carroll over the previous decade.
Notre Dame-USC has championship implications, features a Heisman candidate and a coach that, despite a reassurance from his athletic director, could be on the hot seat -- just as everyone predicted. Except the teams are flipped.
"It's a long season, it's college football, it's 18 to 21 year olds," coach Brian Kelly said. "There are so many factors go into this."
If Notre Dame beats USC, they'll move on to play for a national championship, which would be the program's first in 24 years. Manti Te'o is the legitimate Heisman candidate, and is likely to wind up in New York while Barkley remains home. And a season that could see USC lose as many as six times has many questioning Kiffin's ability to lead USC to the kind of success it enjoyed over the last decade.
"We get asked all the time, hey, did you expect to win 11 or 12?" Kelly said. "We know the unexpected is always out there, so we try to stay focused on the next practice. If we did what you did and did that big picture stuff, it would drive us crazy, too."
Nobody's faulting the preseason predictions that had Notre Dame winning eight or nine games at the most. And nobody's questioning why USC, with all its offensive firepower, was the preseason No. 1. Both were logical projections in August, as illogical as they may look now.
"Preseason predictions are mostly based off the year before," Notre Dame center Braxston Cave said. "Last year was last year, this year's this year."
That's a simple way to put it. But with Everett Golson quarterbacking the Irish offense, the team hasn't experienced the devastating spate of turnovers that plagued the team for much of the 2011 season. Despite losing Michael Floyd and seeing Tyler Eifert's production drop off, Notre Dame's offense has been good enough to support one of the nation's best defenses. Led by Te'o, Notre Dame's defense is only allowing 10.1 points per game -- the best average in the country.
"We've put ourselves in this position, and Manti's played unbelievable this year and he's also put himself in the position that he's in the way he's worked this year, not because of last year," Cave said. "It feels like everything's coming in to place."
Notre Dame's meteoric rise has coincided with USC's decline, with the Trojans failing to register any truly impressive wins in their 11 games. Shootout losses to Arizona and Oregon have combined with a close loss to Stanford and a lackluster performance against crosstown rival UCLA, with that loss to the Bruins dropping USC out of the top 25. No team since 1964 began the season the AP No. 1 and fell out of the top 25 -- at least, until this year.
Barkley has thrown the second-most interceptions of any FBS quarterback with 15, casting a dark cloud on some other impressive totals. Sophomore Marqise Lee emerged as a go-to option and arguably the nation's best receiver and Robert Woods remained effective despite a decreased presence in USC's offense, but the Trojans have turned the ball over 29 times -- the fifth-highest total among FBS teams.
Make no mistake, USC still holds powerful cards in its offensive deck, even with Barkley on the shelf for Saturday's game. But Monte Kiffin's defense has let USC down, too, allowing 392.2 yards and 24.8 points per game -- averages that land the Trojans squarely among college football's mediocre defenses.
It hasnt turned out so far how wed have liked or how we anticipated," USC athletic director Pat Haden told reporters earlier in the week. "We were probably over-hyped at the beginning of the season to be perfectly honest."
But this is where we are, with Notre Dame one win away from a berth in the BCS Championship. This was supposed to be USC's moment, not Notre Dame's. It was supposed to be Barkley's trip to New York, not Te'o's. And it was supposed to be Kelly looking over his shoulder, not Kiffin.
It's a fascinating flipping of the script, and one that Kelly could only chuckle at when confronted with it earlier this week.
"That's why they play the games, you know."

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

Fast Break Morning Update: Blackhawks give up season-high seven goals

Here are some of Saturday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

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2017 NFL Draft Profile: Illinois OLB Dawuane Smoot

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Toronto Raptors tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Can the Bulls get one on the Bucks? The Bulls are 0-3 against the Bucks so far this season and it hasn't been pretty. The Bucks have won the previous three meetings all by double digits and by an average of 19 points. The youth and athleticism of the Bucks has been a tough matchup for the Bulls so far.

2. Containing Giannis. There may be no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bulls can at least try to contain him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 23 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. In three games against the Bulls this year he has averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest. If the Bulls are to stay in the game, they will need to keep him to numbers lower than that.

3. Playoff implications. The Bulls playoff hopes are still alive with nine games remaining, but things are looking a bit bleak. The Bulls are a game and a half out of the eighth playoff spot, but only 3.5 games behind two teams tied for the No. 5 seed, the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks have won three in a row to improve their position.

4. Mirotic on a roll. Streaky play is nothing new to Nikola Mirotic, but he's on a good run currently. After scoring a season-high 28 points on Wednesday against the Pistons, Mirotic followed that up with 15 points against the 76ers. Since missing three straight games earlier this month, Mirotic has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games and is averaging 15.6 points during that stretch.

5. Beginning of a tough stretch. The Bulls' playoff hopes could be made or broken in the next three games. After taking on the Bucks, which occupy a playoff spot, the Bulls host two more Eastern Conference playoff teams in Cleveland and Atlanta. The Bulls need to string some wins together and this is not an easy stretch to do so against.

- Check out the latest stats and standings to make sure you're ready for action

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

- NBC Sports App FAQ: All your questions answered

- Latest on the Bulls: All of the most recent news and notes

- See what Bulls fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Bulls Pulse