Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET, Lincoln Riley, 39, will stand on one side of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Marcus Freeman, 36, the other.
Riley is in his first year as the head coach of USC football, having been drafted by the Trojans after a strong five-year run at Oklahoma. Freeman is in his freshman year at Notre Dame, having been promoted from defensive coordinator.
USC is 10-1 and fifth in the country, Notre Dame is 8-3 and 15th. Riley’s club has more to play for this year: a Pac-12 championship and a berth in the College Football playoffs. Freeman’s has rebounded, however, from a shaky start to look impressive.
Both coaches are desperate for a jolt of credibility that can convince rookies and young players of the incredible promise they both intend to deliver.
This is an important match, both for this season and for those to come.
“Big challenge,” Freeman said. “Big chance.”
The USC-Notre Dame rivalry dates back to 1926, when Knute Rockne’s Irish traveled to Los Angeles by train and defeated Howard Jones’ Trojans, 13-12. They’ve played every year since (sans WWII and COVID), the rare annual inter-regional rivalry.
As great as each program has historically been, it has been, at least in modern times, a series of tackle-and-check rivalry that ping pongs back and forth.
From 1967 to 1982, the Trojans went 12-2-2. The Irish then took over, going on a 12-0-1 stretch. From 1996 to 2011, it was USC that enjoyed a 12-4 run. Or late, it was 7-2 for the Irish.
It all follows a coaching pattern, the era of John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll in Los Angeles, and Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly in South Bend. On the losing side is a cast of misfit hires, Charlie Weis and Bob Davie, Clay Helton and Paul Hackett.
Rarely did every school get it right at the same time. Rarely have both programs put their best foot forward in front of each other rather than one trying to play spoiler game. Rarely have both produced young and exciting coaches.
So how about now? Is this the start of something big?
The obvious high stakes here rest with USC. A win against the Irish and then the Pac-12 championship game would almost certainly propel the Trojans into the college football playoffs, a notable and significant statement for Riley.
He shocked college football by leaving Oklahoma last year. Originally from a small town in Texas, he felt like a perfect fit for Norman, with perhaps only the allure of the NFL attracting him. Instead, he faced the task of rebuilding the Trojans, which became easier as he brought in a slew of transfers, including quarterback Caleb Williams (Oklahoma), wide receiver Jordan Addison (Pittsburgh), and running back Travis Dye ( Oregon),
Now USC could make the playoffs, Williams could win the Heisman, and the groundwork for a behemoth could be laid before the Trojans head to the Big Ten in a couple seasons.
“The turnaround was very drastic and sudden,” Riley said last week on ESPN. “It took a lot of work and a lot of buy-in.”
USC’s most fundamental challenge is to get local recruits to believe they can win titles, play in big games, and reach 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). Partly it’s 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 like winning and winning the playoffs for the first time will help you. It’s what Riley craves. Though he inherited a 4-8 team, he never let this be a rebuild.
His stated preseason goal for this year?
“To win the championship,” he said in July. “My expectations are extremely high. I mean, this is a try-out kind of place… we didn’t come here to play for seconds.”
Freeman has a similar attitude when it comes to the future of the Irish. He lacks the experience that Riley had but he elevated recruiting, pursued elite players Notre Dame often misses and set a standard that even if he had things to learn, that wouldn’t be an excuse.
The Irish boast the no. 2 recruiting class in the country, for Rivals (and the current #1 for 2024). However, when Notre Dame dropped games against Marshall and a bad team from Stanford (not to mention Ohio State) there were questions as to whether Coach Freeman could match Freeman’s personality.
Still, Notre Dame rallied, going on a five-game hitting streak, including a cathartic blowout by Clemson earlier this month. The playoffs are out of reach, but a 9-3 regular season with a huge win over USC would put a stamp of validity on the players, the recruits, and the college football world at large.
It’s a game, but both coaches are desperate to use it to assert themselves and their programs’ credibility at the same time. They’ll have a chance in front of an expected huge television audience for the college game, perhaps over 10 million viewers on ABC prime time.
Nothing is promised. The future is never assured. A victory, or a season, doesn’t always have an impact. Even good coaches and seemingly perfect hires stumble and fall.
And yet, for the first time in a long time, USC and Notre Dame are staring at an exciting future at the same time, both breaking in new, modern, energetic coaches who are unapologetically focused on accomplishing, well, everything.
It’s a big challenge and a big opportunity, as Freeman noted.
And the start of something even bigger, maybe.