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Irish trying to turn USC rivalry their way

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The Notre Dame-USC rivalry has been defined by dominance over the last four decades. Two of college football's most celebrated teams have alternated long runs of success in the series that have coincided with the ups and downs of the programs.

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When the Fighting Irish and Trojans meet for the 84th time on Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Notre Dame will be playing for a spot in the national championship while USC will be trying to salvage a disappointing season.

The Irish appear primed to turn the rivalry back in their direction after a decade of USC ownership.

During Southern California's most recent dynasty, coach Pete Carroll's Trojans reeled off eight straight victories against the Irish from 2002-09, the longest winning streak by USC in the series.

In 2010, Brian Kelly's first season as Notre Dame coach, the Irish snapped that streak, 20-16, with the help of a memorable dropped pass that would have been a sure touchdown. USC came right back and won last season in South Bend, Ind., 31-17, to make it nine out of 10.

``Well, it's not a great rivalry right now,'' Kelly said this week. ``We haven't won enough games. They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry.''

From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was USC that was trying to make it a rivalry. As USC struggled to hold its place among the elite programs in college football, the Irish often contended for national titles under Lou Holtz and went 12-0-1 against the Trojans.

That number helps explain the relatively short tenures of coaches Ted Tollner (1983-86) and Larry Smith (1987-92) at USC.

Lane Kiffin is hoping his USC career is more like Carroll's than Smith's, but it has certainly been a tough season for the Trojans. They started the season, their first after a two-year, NCAA-imposed postseason ban, ranked No. 1, and with the presumptive Heisman Trophy front-runner in senior star quarterback Matt Barkley.

Maybe expectations were too high for a team that lacked depth and had some question marks on both lines. But few would have predicted that USC would head into its finale against Notre Dame 7-4 and unranked. Even more startling is that it's Notre Dame that will take the field Saturday as the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country, two victories from its first national championship since 1988.

The Fighting Irish started the season unranked. The last team to start out of the rankings and reach No. 1 was Missouri in 2007. The Tigers lost their final game before the bowls, falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, and lost a chance to play for the national title.

But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised about the Irish. Holtz, Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy all won national championships in their third season as Notre Dame coach, all beating USC along the way.

The picks:

THURSDAY

TCU (plus 7) at No. 18 Texas

Old Southwest Conference rivals, Frogs beat Horns once from 1968-95. ... TEXAS 32-27.

FRIDAY

No. 8 LSU (minus 12) at Arkansas

Before last year's big LSU victory, previous six meetings were one-score games. ... LSU 35-21.

No. 17 Nebraska (minus 14 1/2) at Iowa

Huskers clinch spot in Big Ten championship game with victory or Michigan loss. ... NEBRASKA 28-17.

Ohio (plus 10 1/2) at No. 23 Kent State

Golden Flashes already have MAC East title clinched. ... KENT STATE 34-27.

No. 24 Northern Illinois (minus 20) at Eastern Michigan

Huskies have MAC West title clinched. ... NORTHERN ILLINOIS 41-14.

SATURDAY

No. 1 Notre Dame (minus 7) at Southern California

USC QB Max Wittek tries to carve out spot in Trojans history in first start. ... NOTRE DAME 24-14.

Auburn (plus 31 1/2) at No. 2 Alabama

Nick Saban is merciful. ... ALABAMA 35-0.

Georgia Tech (plus 13) at No. 3 Georgia

SEC title game is locked up, but this is to keep Bulldogs' national championship hopes alive. ... GEORGIA 51-28.

No. 20 Michigan (plus 3 1/2) at No. 4 Ohio State

Perfection on line for Buckeyes in Urban Meyer's first game against Michigan. ... OHIO STATE 27-20.

No. 5 Oregon (minus 9 1/2) at No. 16 Oregon State

Ducks need to win and have UCLA beat Stanford to reach Pac-12 title game. ... OREGON 45-24.

No. 6 Florida (plus 8) at No. 10 Florida State

Both teams still in national title hunt. ... FLORIDA STATE 17-13.

Missouri (plus 22) at No. 9 Texas A&M

Last Heisman showcase for Johnny Football. ... TEXAS A&M 45-21.

No. 11 Stanford (minus 1 1/2) at No. 15 UCLA

Cardinal can clinch Pac-12 North with victory, set up rematch with Bruins in title game. ... UCLA 27-24.

UPSET SPECIAL

No. 13 South Carolina (plus 4) at No. 12 Clemson

Tigers could all but lock up BCS at-large bid. ... SOUTH CAROLINA 38-31.

BEST BET

No. 22 Oklahoma State (plus 7) at No. 14 Oklahoma

Big 12 title still a possibility for Sooners. ... OKLAHOMA 38-24.

UConn (plus 12) at No. 19 Louisville

Cardinals a win away from BCS-bid showdown at Rutgers ... LOUISVILLE 28-13.

No. 21 Rutgers (plus 2) at Pittsburgh

No easy games for Scarlet Knights ... RUTGERS 20-17.

No. 25 Mississippi State (plus 1) at Mississippi

Bulldogs have won three straight Egg Bowls ... OLE MISS 28-24.

Idaho (plus 39) at No. 25 Utah State

Took a while for everyone to realize it, but Aggies are really good. ... UTAH STATE 48-7.

Last week's record: 15-6 (straight); 5-9 (vs. points)

Season record: 197-43 (straight); 110-104 (vs. points)

Best bets: 5-7.

Upset specials: 7-5.

----

Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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