Changing of the guard?

If it wins a 3rd straight national title, USC may vault over Notre Dame as college football's all-time best program

College Football

December 09, 2005|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN REPORTER

These are heady days for Notre Dame football. The controversy and cries of racism that followed last season's firing of Tyrone Willingham - the school's first African-American coach in any sport - have been replaced by cheers, and more cheers, for old Charlie Weis.

The Fighting Irish are back in the Bowl Championship Series for the first time in five years.

They are also back in the picture for being recognized as one Fiesta Bowl official called them recently, "clearly a national program."

But has Notre Dame been passed by the University of Southern California as the best program in college football history?

There are arguments on both sides, but this fence seems to be tilting toward the Trojans. If, as expected, Reggie Bush is announced tomorrow as this year's Heisman Trophy winner in New York, the junior tailback would become the seventh USC player to win the award and the third in the past four seasons, following quarterback Matt Leinart last year and Leinart's predecessor, Carson Palmer, in 2002.

Only Notre Dame can claim as many Heisman winners (seven), but its last was wide receiver Tim Brown - in 1987. In fact, no Irish player has even been invited as a Heisman finalist since Rocket Ismail, in 1990. (Deserving junior quarterback Brady Quinn was cut out this year when ESPN decided to invite only Bush, Leinart and Texas quarterback Vince Young rather than the typical five candidates.)

If the top-ranked Trojans beat the second-ranked Longhorns in the Rose Bowl next month, it will mark the 12th time USC has won a "recognized" national championship. More significantly, the Trojans will become the first team in history to win three straight championships.

The Fighting Irish have also won a "recognized" 11 national titles. But the Irish haven't finished a season on top of any national poll since 1988, and seven of those 11 championships came before 1950.

USC's most remarkable accomplishments during this recent stretch of dominance are, of course, its 34 straight victories and 30 straight weeks being ranked No. 1.

The latter is a record, with the Trojans passing both Notre Dame (19) and Miami (20) earlier this season. The winning streak is not, but what the Trojans have done in their world of media coverage and relative parity is far more impressive than what the Oklahoma Sooners did in theirs by winning 47 straight games in the mid-1950s.

J.C. Shurbutt, recruiting coordinator for Rivals.com, said that USC's place in history will be riding on what happens Jan. 4 in Pasadena, Calif.

A big win over Texas, as USC did in demolishing No. 2 Oklahoma, 55-19, in the Orange Bowl last season, might be enough.

"You look at the first title Southern Cal won, it was a split title with LSU [in 2003]. You look at last year, they went through the season 12-0 and dominated everybody, but of course there have been teams that went through one year and dominated everyone, but if they go into the Rose Bowl and dominate Texas, you can definitely make that case," said Shurbutt.

"I think Notre Dame, because of their resurgence this year, has sort of crept back into the minds of people somewhat, despite their recent struggle and the coaching carousel and stuff. Definitely if they win their third straight title and Bush wins the Heisman, I think Southern Cal would pass [Notre Dame]. That mythical third straight title would definitely set them apart."

Yet there's still an argument to be made that the Irish remain college football's signature program.

Though the Trojans certainly have the glitter - from the poster-boy players in Bush and Leinart to the Hollywood stars roaming the sidelines (even Henry Winkler, the Fonz, has discovered the joys of Troy in middle age) to coach Pete Carroll becoming the game's latest genius - Notre Dame has its own substantial cachet.

It has the hottest coaching property in the business in Weis.

It has - if Bush decides to leave school after this season - next year's likely Heisman Trophy favorite in Quinn.

But Notre Dame's most legitimate claim to remain college football's top program has a certain distinct sound - cha-ching.

While the school in South Bend, Ind., remains a love-'em-or-hate-'em lightning rod for most diehard fans, its football team is the only one with a national television contract, currently worth $8 million a year. When NBC signed the Irish through 2010, its sports president, Dick Ebersol, called Notre Dame a "national brand."

How this battle is waged in future years depends greatly on recruiting. It could actually come down to one recruit, Jimmy Clausen, a junior quarterback who many believe could play right now and will likely pick one of three schools - Notre Dame, South Carolina or USC.

If Clausen watched Saturday's 66-19 win by USC over UCLA, he would have surveyed a scene that included a picture-perfect, 70-degree day in early December, with the best player in college football leading the best team in college football to the brink of its third straight championship.

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