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Though Playoff and winning records aren't on the line, USC vs. Notre Dame still matters

Though Playoff and winning records aren't on the line, USC vs. Notre Dame still matters
USC running back Justin Davis is tackled by Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith during a game last fall. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

A struggling USC team had just started an effectively meaningless game in 1996 when quarterback Brad Otton overheard a sideline conversation between an athletic trainer and USC's coach, John Robinson.

Otton had suffered bruises to his ribs and sternum a week earlier and needed a pregame shot of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory, to bear the pain in this, the season finale. Then, during the first drive, he took a helmet to the chest and needed to be helped off.

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"He's done," Robinson told the trainer, worried Otton might be seriously injured. "I don't want him back out there anymore."

But Otton was stubborn. This was the last game of his career. Robinson too had come under heavy pressure for USC's 5-6 record, and Otton knew his coach could be fired unless something drastic happened.

By chance, the game presented such an opportunity: USC was playing Notre Dame,  and the rivalry carries a significance that often extends beyond the game. More than once, it has saved a coach's job, or cost it.

Otton defied his coach and ran back onto the field. The risk paid off. USC won, 27-20. Robinson kept his job. USC did not make a bowl, but the meaningless game ended up mattering a great deal.

"You don't remember your record for too long," Otton recalled this week. "You're playing Notre Dame."

Like the version 20 years ago, this season's game is one that, on the surface, doesn't carry much importance. Saturday's result won't alter USC's shot at the Pac-12 Conference title game — it still needs a Colorado loss to Utah this weekend. Nor would it give Notre Dame a winning record.

But the game has significant implications nonetheless. A win would give the Trojans an opportunity for a Rose Bowl bid should the Pac-12 champion advance to the College Football Playoff. A loss would all but eliminate that possibility.

And though Notre Dame will have a losing record, win or lose on Saturday, it would still have an outside chance at a bowl invite with a victory. The outcome could also either tighten Fighting Irish Coach Brian Kelly's hold on his job or leave him in a fragile position at the start of next season.

Notre Dame's slog to a 4-7 record has raised questions over Kelly's job security. A Sports Illustrated headline this week asked,  "Is Brian Kelly on the Hot Seat?"

Kelly has the most wins of any active Football Bowl Subdivision coach. Working through the six-year contract extension he signed last winter would make him Notre Dame's second-longest-serving coach, behind Knute Rockne.

Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick stated in October that Kelly would coach Notre Dame in 2017. "I continue to have complete confidence in Brian," he told ESPN.com.

But nothing has improved much since then.

On Tuesday, the NCAA slapped Notre Dame with sanctions after it found an athletic trainer had completed coursework for two students and provided impermissible academic benefits to six others. It forced Notre Dame to vacate wins from its 2012 and 2013 football seasons, put the team on probation and levied a modest fine.

At a news conference after the NCAA's announcement, Kelly was asked whether he thought he would be coaching Notre Dame next season.

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"I have no reason to believe that I'm not," he said.

This rivalry game has rescued a coach under fire in the past. Before the 1977 game in South Bend, Ind., vendors sold bumper stickers that read, "Dump Devine," lambasting coach Dan Devine. Before the game, the sign over Devine's parking spot was spray-painted with the words "5 minute parking."

Never mind that Notre Dame was 4-1 and ranked No. 11 at the time. A Notre Dame win that day over USC was all that mattered. The Fighting Irish delivered a victory and, ultimately, a national title that season.

More recently, Charlie Weis was 0-5 in games against USC. Tyrone Willingham was 0-3. Neither is remembered fondly in South Bend.

USC Coach Clay Helton enjoys the security that comes with seven straight wins, but he said Tuesday, "We have so much to play for in this game. This is a critical, important game for us."

Helton noted that the outcome could affect USC's bowl placement. If USC misses out on the Pac-12 title game, it can hope Washington advances, defeats Colorado and makes the national playoff.

In that scenario, No. 12 USC could make the Rose Bowl by finishing above No. 9 Colorado in the final ranking. Both teams would have three losses, and the Trojans would have a head-to-head victory over the Buffaloes. A statement win over Notre Dame would help.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of bowl games means Notre Dame could qualify to play in one despite its losing record. Sixty-five teams have qualified for bowl games by securing a .500 record or better, leaving 15 slots to fill.

The NCAA will likely be forced to fill out the bowl slate with teams under .500, selecting first by record, then by Academic Progress Rating, or APR. Notre Dame's APR of 975 ranks eighth among teams that can possibly finish 5-7, putting it on the bubble.

However, whether the Fighting Irish would choose to play isn't clear. Kelly recently told reporters, "I'm not real supportive of a 5-7 football team in bowl games."

Regardless, neither team usually needs extra motivation. Twenty years ago, after Otton walked off the field sore but happy, it was Notre Dame's coach, Lou Holtz, who was in pain at his postgame news conference.

''My gut," he said, "feels like someone's reached in and pulled out my insides.''

Quick hits

Defensive tackle Josh Fatu (sprained ankle) and defensive back Jonathan Lockett (hip) returned to practice in limited participation. ... Defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (knee) and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (hip) also were limited as a precaution. ...  Left tackle Chad Wheeler (wrist sprain) practiced in a cast. ... Cornerback Adoree' Jackson (ankle) practiced fully. … USC is sponsoring a sneaker drive at Saturday's game to help homeless people in Southern California. Interested fans are encouraged to bring a pair of new or lightly used shoes to donate.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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