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."

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks battle Bruins tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Boston Bruins tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks 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 Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Scott Darling gets the nod.

Joel Quenneville is giving a struggling Corey Crawford a breather tonight, electing to go with Darling in the final game of the father's road trip. Darling is 11-4-2 with a 2.34 goals against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout in 20 games this season. His numbers aren't as great on the road, where he is 4-2-1 with a 2.83 GAA and .901 save percentage compared to a 7-2-1 record with a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage at home, but he fared well against Boston last season. The Lemont native stopped 42 of 46 shots, good for a .913 save percentage, in a 6-4 win at the United Center last April.

2. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line.

The Blackhawks' trio of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin had a rare zero points in Tuesday's 6-4 win over Colorado, but don't expect to see that again. In fact, it could be the opposite. In their last meeting against the Bruins, a 6-4 win on April 3 during the 2015-16 season, they combined for 11 points (five goals, six assists), highlighted by a Kane hat trick that put him at 100 points on the season for the first time in his career. 

3. How the rookies build off a monsterous game.

In arguably the most well-rounded victory of the season Tuesday in Colorado, the Blackhawks had three rookies that had multi-point efforts. Vinnie Hinostroza had two goals, including the game winner. Tanner Kero had two goals and one assist, while Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. It was the top-six that was doing the heavy lifting earlier in the season, now the bottom-six is slowly starting to contribute on a consistent basis. The Blackhawks will be in great shape if they can confidently roll four lines that have the potential to find the back of the net on any given shift.

4. Patrice Bergeron vs. Jonathan Toews.

Two of the best two-way centers in the league will go head-to-head, and it's always a fun matchup to watch. Bergeron leads the league with 597 faceoff wins, and is ranked fifth with a 58.4 percentage at the dot while Toews ranks eighth in wins with 473 — despite missing nine games with a back injury — and sits at sixth with a 57.5 percentage. Both of the perennial Selke Trophy candidates have struggled offensively this season, with Bergeron recording only 21 points in 45 games and Toews with 22 points in 38 contests. Bergeron has been heating up as of late, though, scoring three goals and six assists in his last eight games. Bergeron also leads the league in possession numbers, with the Bruins controlling 61.9 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when he's on the ice.

5. Brad Marchand.

In September, Marchand inked an eight-year, $49 million deal and it's already paying dividends for the Bruins. He has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in his last eight games, and 45 points total, which is by far the most on his team and tied for sixth in the NHL. He's 16 points away from tying his career high of 61 set last season, with a little less than half the year to go. He's also had great success against the Blackhawks. In his last six games against Chicago, dating back to the 2013-14 campaign, he has registered at least a point in all of them, scoring four goals and adding five assists. To make life more difficult, he's a player that enjoys getting under people's skin, so expect him to be a big factor tonight.

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