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Tony's Top 10: Irish should win at USC, but pressure does funny things

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Aaron Taylor, a captain on Notre Dame's 1993 football team, remembers it as the best six days of his life followed by the worst moment he has ever -- ever -- had in football.

It was the Sunday after Notre Dame had beaten Florida State to move to No. 1 in the polls. As a result, the school tradition was renewed as a lighted, eight-foot "No. 1" was placed on the top of Grace Hall on campus.

But on the following Saturday, the highest of highs was replaced by the lowest of lows as Boston College upset the Fighting Irish 41-39 on a field goal at the final whistle. The devastating loss would eventually cost Notre Dame a shot at the national championship.

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"It was the worst loss I have ever experienced in football," Taylor said.

Taylor, now a college football analyst for CBS, says a whole bunch of pressure comes with being No. 1 and in position to win a national title. And that's exactly where the current team at Notre Dame (11-0) finds itself on Saturday as the Fighting Irish go to Southern California (7-4).

The Football Gods do seem to be on Notre Dame's side. There was the overtime win over Pittsburgh, when it really didn't seem to be Notre Dame's day. Losses by No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon last Saturday put the Irish in this position when it looked like they would be the odd man out in the BCS title chase. With a defense that is No. 2 nationally in scoring and has given up only two rushing touchdowns in 11 games, it appears Notre Dame should handle USC with relative ease, especially since the Trojans will be without quarterback Matt Barkley.

But could luck, which was such a kind and generous lady to Notre Dame last Saturday, turn cruel under the pressure of having to win one final game? Is there one last gut-wrenching twist to the narrative of the 2012 season? Watching Notre Dame try to close the deal Saturday night is going to be compelling stuff.

Here is the rest of Tony's Top 10 for the Thanksgiving weekend:

Expect Alabama to have no mercy

Two years ago at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama had a chance to crush the national championship hopes of No. 1 Auburn. The Crimson Tide got up 24-0 but could not handle the force of nature that was Cam Newton, eventually losing 28-27. Auburn went on to win it all. Just two years later Auburn is 0-7 in the SEC and coach Gene Chizik is in serious danger of losing his job. Alabama, which appeared out of the BCS championship picture after losing to Texas A&M on Nov. 10, suddenly has new life. Beat Auburn, then beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game next week and the Crimson Tide gets a chance to win its third national title in four seasons. Expect Alabama to bring the hammer down.

Can Tech spoil Georgia's dreams?

At sundown last Saturday, Georgia (10-1, 7-1 SEC) was just thrilled to be going to the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year. But now the world looks completely different. If the Bulldogs beat state rival Georgia Tech on Saturday and upset Alabama in Atlanta on Dec. 1, they could play for their first national championship since Herschel Walker was a freshman (1980). All week Bulldogs coach Mark Richt would have nothing to do with a discussion that went beyond Georgia Tech (6-5, 5-3), which suddenly found itself in the ACC Championship Game against Florida State when Miami decided to self-impose a bowl ban for this season. It is the first time the old rivals have met when both of them are headed to their respective conference championship games.

Gators, Noles, bizarro world of BCS

This much we know: Florida (10-1) cannot win the SEC but in the bizarro world of the BCS, the No. 4 Gators still have a shot at the national title. Florida State (10-1) is No. 5/No. 6 in the human polls but No. 10 in the BCS. The only shot Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles have at the big prize is to put a number on the Gators in Tallahassee before facing Georgia Tech. Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel (ankle) is expected to return after missing a game. These are two first-rate defenses: Florida State is No. 1 (236.77 ypg). Florida is No. 4 (281.99). This is going to be a tough, ugly game with a lot on the line.

Things could get worse for Ducks

Oregon (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12) never thought it would be in this position. A week ago the Ducks were on the verge of playing for the national championship for the second time in three seasons. Now Oregon faces the real possibility that it might not play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Even if Oregon wins its fifth straight game against Oregon State (8-2, 6-2) in Corvallis, the Ducks don't play for the conference title if Stanford (9-2, 7-1) wins at UCLA.

Think UCLA is in a strange spot? If the Bruins (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12), who clinched the Pac-12 South last week by beating USC, beat Stanford in Pasadena, they will likely be headed to Oregon for the Pac-12 Championship Game next week (if Oregon beats Oregon State). If they lose to Stanford (9-2, 7-1) the Bruins will turn around and next Friday play the Cardinal for the second time in six days, this time in Palo Alto, for the conference championship. Some choice, huh?

Two reasons to watch Mizzou-Texas A&M

After a tough start to its first season in the SEC, Missouri (5-6) has a chance to become bowl eligible. But the most important reason to watch is to see what kind of numbers of Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel will put up against the Tigers. Manziel is second only to Baylor's Nick Florence in total offense per game (378.27). Manziel, who has 4,161 total yards, is one of only five players ever to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more. The others are Vince Young (Texas), Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) and Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois). He also leads the SEC in rushing at 101.3 ypg. The last freshman to lead the SEC in rushing was Florida's Emmitt Smith. It will be Manziel's last chance to perform before the Heisman ballots are due. I'm just saying.

The HBC goes for some more 'firsts'

Clemson (10-1) can't go to the ACC Championship Game because of its loss to Florida State way back on Sept. 22. South Carolina can't go to the SEC Championship Game despite being the only team to beat Georgia (35-7 on Oct. 6) this season. But a win would be Steve Spurrier's 65th at South Carolina, surpassing Rex Enright for No. 1 in school history. Spurrier's 122 wins at Florida are also No. 1 at that school. Only one other coach in SEC history is the winningest coach at two different schools. That would be Bear Bryant (Alabama, Kentucky). If South Carolina wins it would match the longest win streak ever by the Gamecocks over the Tigers (1951-54). It would also give South Carolina its second straight season of 10 wins or more. The Gamecocks have never done that in 120 years of football.

Sooners still in Big 12 hunt

Oklahoma (8-2, 6-1 Big 12) knew that an at-large BCS bid would be on the line when it hosted improving Oklahoma State (7-3, 5-2). The Sooners really didn't expect that the Big 12 championship could still be in the balance. But it is. After Kansas State's loss to Baylor, the Wildcats, who are off this week, must beat Texas on Dec. 1 to clinch the Big 12 championship. If Kansas State loses to Texas, then the Sooners can win the Big 12 by beating Oklahoma State on Saturday and TCU on Dec. 1. Even if the Sooners don't win the Big 12, they have a good shot at a BCS at-large if they finish 10-2.

Can Buckeyes close out 12-0?

Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) can't go to the Big Ten Championship Game even though it has won (and gets a trophy for winning) the Leaders Division. The Buckeyes can't go to a bowl. They can't win the BCS national championship. But Urban Meyer can post a 12-0 season, if the Bucks beat Michigan, which would make the Buckeyes one of the early favorites for 2013. And if Notre Dame gets beat against USC or in the BCS championship game, Ohio State will get some No. 1 votes in the final AP poll, for whose national championship it is eligible. I don't think a team on probation is going to get enough votes to win the national championship, but it will be interesting.

Watch the Tony Barnhart Show on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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