Commentary

Tide might be turning in rivalry series

Updated: August 9, 2010, 4:15 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Notre Dame and USC remain among the biggest brand names in college football. Yes, that's true even now, with the Fighting Irish mired in a long stretch of mediocrity and the Trojans reeling from major NCAA sanctions.

So it's naturally big news when either team changes coaches. When both do it in the same year, it's really big news.

Last time it happened was in 1941, when Notre Dame hired Frank Leahy and USC hired Sam Barry. Advantage: Irish. Leahy went 87-11-9 and became one of the legends of the game; Barry went 2-6-1 in his only year on the job.

This time, with Lane Kiffin at USC and Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, the coaching changes offer another potential swing in favor of the Golden Dome. And from an Irish perspective, a reversal of rivalry fortunes is frantically overdue.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame/USC
Kirby Lee/US PresswireNew coaches at Notre Dame and USC might mean the balance of power in the rivalry will be up for grabs.

The last time Notre Dame beat the Trojans was 2001, when Bob Davie was coaching the Irish. Since then, the school has struggled through three poor hires -- Tyrone Willingham, George O'Leary (for a minute) and Charlie Weis -- and eight straight losses to USC.

Until the current Trojans hegemony, Notre Dame had never lost more than five straight in the series, which dates back to 1926. And these games have rarely been close: The average margin of victory is just less than 25 points.

So among all the sky-high demands placed on Kelly -- compete for a national championship, embrace the school's traditions and sprawling alumni base, recruit like Alabama and graduate like Duke -- he must stop the bleeding against USC.

Tough job. But you have to like Kelly's chances.

Just ask Texas coach Mack Brown. Once, when Brown was coaching in the Hula Bowl, he had an excitable coach on his staff from Grand Valley State. Brown put this Brian Kelly guy in charge of play calling for the bowl game.

"He was so excited, so pumped," Brown recalled. "I didn't even know where Grand Valley State was until I met him."

Today, after watching Kelly burn a trail of success through Division II, the Mid-American Conference and the Big East, Brown is a believer.

"He's won everywhere he's been, so there's no reason to think he can't win," Brown said. "I think he's a great choice [for Notre Dame]."

Kelly himself isn't going in for premature self-promotion. As he pointed out last week, "The jury's still out. I haven't won a football game here."

But Kiffin hasn't won any at USC -- nor has he won that many games elsewhere.

Kiffin's career record as a head coach of the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers is 12-21. Kelly's career record at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati: 171-57-2.

Kiffin will almost certainly put a more talented team on the field this year than Kelly, who is breaking in a new starting quarterback and must largely rebuild Notre Dame's offensive line. (The line concerns are such that program insiders believe freshman Matt James might have started immediately at left tackle had he not died in a tragic accident over spring break.) Most preview magazines have USC ranked in the top 15 -- and many place the Trojans in the top 10 -- and they have the luxury of playing Notre Dame in Los Angeles this season.

But Kiffin also must overcome some serious negative momentum.

A two-year postseason ban has cost USC several upperclassmen, plus its top recruit: offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, who is now with Miami. Major scholarship reductions will make recruiting a challenge for the next couple of years.

And then there's the looming shadow of Pete Carroll, Kiffin's former boss at USC. For years, Carroll was the charismatic Teflon don of college football, before being tainted in absentia by the NCAA sanctions levied against his program. Kiffin is closer to Velcro -- throw something uncharitable at him and it sticks.

In his head-coaching career, Kiffin seemingly hasn't gone longer than 15 minutes without infuriating someone, committing a secondary NCAA violation or accusing another school of committing a violation. We'll see how well the Kiffin charm works on a new university president and athletic director who seem quite serious about restoring USC's image.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil CoaleJimbo Fisher will try his hand at swinging the Florida State-Florida rivalry back in the Noles' favor.

Pull it all together and you can understand why, in terms of program trajectory, optimism is high regarding the Irish and skepticism is high for the Trojans. Notre Dame has a lot of catching up to do, but the opportunity to close the gap on its biggest rival is clear and present.

In the same vein, here are five other potential reversals of rivalry fortune in this crossroads season of college football:

Florida-Florida State

Upper hand: Belongs to the Gators, who have won six straight in the series, while the Seminoles have slid from the top-five perch they enjoyed in the Bobby Bowden heyday.

Why it might change: This is a huge transition year in Gainesville. Urban Meyer has to replace stellar defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, hero quarterback Tim Tebow and eight other NFL draft picks. It's also a huge transition year in Tallahassee with Bowden's retirement, but that might be a short-term net gain for Florida State. Jimbo Fisher takes over with a fully cohesive staff, a complete mandate on program direction and what should be a renewed energy at the top.

Outlook: Much like Notre Dame-USC, the upper hand isn't likely to change overnight, but if Fisher is up to the job the series should even out a bit over time.

Texas-Texas A&M

Upper hand: Longhorns have won eight of the past 10, including two straight.

Why it might change: The Aggies actually have the most accomplished quarterback in the Big 12 in Jerrod Johnson, plus a ton of skill-position sizzle to go with him. Texas, meanwhile, has lost four-year starter Colt McCoy and has only a rumor of a running game.

Then again, A&M is relying on an inexperienced offensive line to protect Johnson and open holes for all those running backs. And the defense has completely abdicated the stout Wrecking Crew tradition.

Outlook: The opportunity exists, but it's still hard to see Texas A&M overhauling Texas, this year or in the near future. As long as Mike Sherman is in College Station and Mack Brown is in Austin, the advantage goes to the Longhorns.

[+] EnlargeUT/Texas A&M
AP Photo/David J. PhillipColt McCoy is gone at Texas, but Jerrod Johnson remains at Texas A&M. Will that be the difference for the Aggies in 2010?

Virginia Tech-Virginia

Upper hand: The Hokies have won six straight and 10 of the past 11. Few of those 10 have been close.

Why it might change: The Cavaliers hired head coach Mike London to improve their recruiting in the talent-rich Tidewater area and to break the Hokies' stranglehold there. Combine that with the fact that 63-year-old Frank Beamer is due to slow down at Tech, and you have reason for optimism in Charlottesville -- eventually.

Outlook: Not this year. Virginia Tech is the solid preseason favorite to win the ACC, and Virginia is picked to finish last in its division.

Tennessee-Kentucky

Upper hand: The Volunteers have won 25 straight in the most lopsided intraleague series in America. There have been blowouts (11 losses by 20 points or more), shutouts (four) and freakouts over agonizing near misses (eight losses by a touchdown or less, including in three of the past four).

Why it might change: For the first time since the SEC split into two divisions nearly 20 years ago, the Wildcats were picked by the media to finish ahead of the Volunteers in the East. Tennessee is in a complete state of flux, with its third coach in three years, an ongoing NCAA investigation and a distinct talent deficit on this year's roster. Kentucky is not exactly flush in its first season under new coach Joker Phillips, but it has returning depth at quarterback, running back and wide receiver -- and multipurpose threat Randall Cobb might be the most versatile player in the country.

Outlook: If it doesn't happen this year, will it ever happen for Kentucky?

Big East-Pittsburgh

Upper hand: The rest of the league. After all these years in the league, a school steeped in football tradition has managed just one co-championship and BCS bowl. In the past five years, Pitt has failed to capitalize on the power vacuum at the top created by the defection of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC. The Panthers have watched West Virginia (two), Louisville (one) and Cincinnati (two) gobble up the BCS bowl bids in the past five seasons.

Why it might change: Brain drain. In the past few years, West Virginia, Louisville and Cincinnati have lost coaches who had taken their programs to new heights. A league without Rich Rodriguez, Bobby Petrino and now Brian Kelly is conquerable -- even for Dave Wannstedt.

Outlook: Time for a change. Pitt is the heavy favorite to win the Big East in 2010.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.