“If you could change the outcome of one single game, which would you choose?” That social media debate – which crossed sports, fan bases, and continents – is a fascinating one for Notre Dame fans to consider. If we set narrow parameters for football only (with a shout-out to the ’15 Kentucky Elite 8 game) and the Brian Kelly era, it’s an easy choice – with our magic wands I think 99% of Irish fans are reversing the blowout loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS Championship.
But what other “what-ifs” would have had a significant impact on Notre Dame football and the college football landscape in general? Which are realistic, would change a season or trajectory, and alter the way Kelly is perceived? Let’s lay out a few ground rules before unveiling the top ten in descending order.
- It has to be pretty realistic: We aren’t going to go through some fantasy scenarios where Brian Kelly is fired in 2016 and Bob Stoops magically appears and leads the Irish to a 2017 title. I’m also not going to consider blowout wins or losses – i.e. the nightmares in what is now known as Hard Rock Stadium – reversible.
- No recruiting Hail Mary’s or ridiculous transfers: It’s fun to imagine Leonard Fournette or JJ Watt in an Irish uniform, but neither was ever close to happening. “If you could add one player to Notre Dame for four years who would you pick and why?” is a good message board thread but not a fit for “what-if” territory.
- Weighting is heavily tilted toward impact on the ND program: A few of these scenarios have interesting implications for the national college football landscape but on their own probably don’t change things for the Irish all that much. The final ranking is measured primarily by impact on Notre Dame, with an eye toward multi-season impact versus a single year.
#10 JuJu Smith-Schuster is Irish
Picking recruiting “what-ifs” are tough, because it’s impossible to know just how close any high schooler was to signing with Notre Dame that ultimately ended up elsewhere. Sick grandmothers aside, there are a number of one-time verbal commits or stars who probably had ND second to choose from. Would they have still developed the same way in South Bend? What impact would that individual have had on a season or two?
It’s impossible to answer these questions, but if I had to pick one to add to a Brian Kelly program, JuJu Smith-Schuster is up there. Notre Dame was the runner-up to USC in his recruitment, and I think he’s the perfect complement in Will Fuller in the passing game. Even as a freshman in 2014, I think he gives Everett Golson an upgrade to Corey Robinson as a dependable receiving threat that maybe flips a couple of close losses down the stretch like Northwestern and Louisville.
The real potential is in 2015 –how do you defend an attack with Smith-Schuster (who tallied a ridiculous 89 catches for 1454 yards his sophomore year), peak-“Esplosiva” Fuller, Chris Brown, CJ Prosise, and Josh Adams? For a team whose two regular season losses were by a combined four points, I think there’s a significant chance the Irish out-score every opponent in this scenario, even with the Van Gorder-led defense leaking holes.
And when Fuller leaves (more on this to come), Smith-Schuster provides DeShone Kizer the security blanket he could have desperately used in 2016. Equanimeous St. Brown ended up emerging as “the guy” with Torii Hunter Jr. battling injuries all year, but the passing offense plummeted from 10th in Passing S&P+ in 2015 to 53rd in ’16. With seven losses in one possession games, it’s easy to think 4-8 becomes something like 6-6 – still unsatisfying, but less meme-inspiring.
#9 No pass interference in Tallahassee
My gut reaction is that this is too low on the list. At kickoff in 2014, Florida State was ranked second, undefeated coming off of the 2013 BCS Title, and had won 22 straight games. If the refs hold the flag in their pocket on Corey Robinson’s go-ahead touchdown, as they seem to do for 95% of pick plays, this is one of the biggest Irish wins of the Kelly era. The Irish have sorely been lacking a primetime win in the game of the week over a traditional power.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that it changes the trajectory of the 2014 season too much. Ravaged by injuries on defense, and already dealing with an Achilles known as Brian Van Gorder, the Irish lost four of their last five regular season games after Tallahassee. Even if you hypothesize that a galvanizing win over the defending champs somehow leads to close losses vs Northwestern and Louisville turning into wins, road games at Arizona State and USC still feel like losses no matter what.
The bigger impact of this “what-if” is on the national scene, where there’s a good chance the Noles get left out of the playoff. Even as undefeated ACC champs, FSU was only the #3 seed in the final CFP ranking after scraping out a ton of close, uninspiring wins. We would be deprived of Oregon smoking Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl, as the Ducks would presumably meet #3 Ohio State in one semifinal with 1-seed Alabama facing Baylor (instead of Ohio State) in New Orleans. It’s hard to imagine the playoffs resulting differently, since we know that Ohio State beat Oregon and Alabama, and it’s hard to believe Baylor (who lost to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl) takes out Saban. But one play of difference an already heated debate about the last playoff spots gets even messier in the CFP’s first year.
#8 Malik Zaire doesn’t break his ankle against UVA in 2015
In hindsight, it was a precipitous fall for Malik Zaire’s career after a near-perfect game against Texas to open the 2015 season (19 of 22 for 313 yards, 3 TD’s). In a trap game in Charlottesville the following week, Zaire got off to a shaky start (7/18 for 115 yards) through the air but was still a threat with his legs (87 yards on 10 carries). The Irish were up 19-14 and driving when Zaire broke his ankle, DeShone Kizer was thrust into QB1, and then Will Fuller destroyed the hearts of UVA fans.
What does 2015 look like with a healthy Zaire? Does his confidence mean more performances like eviscerating the Longhorns, or was Virginia more indicative of his passing accuracy? His decision making and passing were poor in 2016 (and at Florida in 2017), but how much of that was health/circumstance in QB competitions? You can make a compelling case either way – that Zaire would maintain a higher pre-injury level of play, or that he’d eventually regress to what we saw later in his career.
Ultimately, as the #8 ranking indicates, I think his performance would be fairly similar to 2015 Kizer or worse. Against tougher defenses, like Clemson and Temple, I think Zaire would have struggled (as did Kizer for stretches). The big difference is what happens moving forward – does Kizer stay as a backup in 2016? Does never-injured Zaire change anything in 2017? Does Brandon Wimbush stay or even play meaningful snaps before 2018?
#7 Will Fuller returns
This one was probably closer to happening than most other scenarios – during the season Fuller had announced he would return for his senior season. It’s hard to fault Fuller for reexamining the decision in the offseason and going into the draft – he was a 1st round pick for the Texans and it would have been difficult for him to do much more than a 1,258 yard, 14 touchdown season.
Fuller’s return would have had a tremendous impact on the 2016 offense. Bill Connelly’s work on returning starters has shown that returning receiving production is most closely correlated with the change in the next season’s change compared to other offensive position groups. By himself, Fuller greatly tips the balance for a corps that lost four of their top five receivers. Throw in the gravitational pull of Fuller’s 4.32 speed opening things up for the rest of the offense, and it’s easy to see him swinging the Duke, NC State, Stanford, Virginia Tech, or Navy games.
Going 6-6 or a little better though, may have actually been worse for the Irish program. Does Brian Kelly fire Van Gorder and Paul Longo, change his coaching approach, and give up some control if he goes 8-4 instead of 4-8? Or does he stick with his guys and stay stubborn to his approach, validated by another bowl performance? I’d like to think Van Gorder would still have been removed, but I think there’s a good chance fewer meaningful changes are made that extend a run of mediocrity a little further. We still don’t know if 2017 is an inflection point or just another high point in a series of peaks (which haven’t been high enough) and valleys of the Kelly era. But if 2017-18 starts a run of better performances, the changes necessitated by 2016’s struggle will stand out.
#6 A historically awful loss to USF sets 2011 on a different course
It’s hard to lose when you outgain an opponent by 2.99 yards per play (and double them up by 508-254 total yards). Using some historical data from Bill Connelly, teams with a yards per play margin of +2 to +3 won 95% of games and the average scoring margin was +23.9. Five turnovers, including the infamous fumble returned 96 yards for a South Florida touchdown, is one particularly painful way to end up in the losing 5%.
It was a no-good, very bad loss that set the stage for a sequel the next week in Ann Arbor. The “turn around Gary Gray!” game followed, along with a loss to USC that featured another drive to the opponent one-yard line that became a fumble return for a TD. The 8-5 final record was an underperformance from a strong team in Brian Kelly’s second year – the only teams in 2011 that finished top 20 in both Offensive and Defensive S&P+ were Alabama, LSU, Boise State, Oregon, Texas A&M, and Notre Dame. So the two best teams that had a re-match in the BCS Championship, a peak Chip Kelly Oregon squad, a 1-loss Chris Petersen team, and the underachieving Irish and Aggies.
Notre Dame is losing to Andrew Luck and Stanford (11-2, #9 in F+) no matter what happens in 2011, and probably to the Trojans as well. But the Irish were #10 in F+, and could easily have made a BCS Bowl in BK Year 2 if they just beat the Bulls in a thunderstorm and don’t let Denard Robinson underthrows kill them at Michigan. The early recruiting boost those few games could represent could help but the early Kelly era on a different trajectory, with a BCS appearance and undefeated regular season back to back. Instead it’s a season that felt and looked mediocre, and made 2012 seem like an aberration until another 10-win season in 2015.
#5 Everett Golson doesn’t get suspended for the 2013 season
Marching on, 2013 yet again featured a series of stupid losses by a team that flashed a high ceiling. This edition handed Michigan State (13-1, #6 per F+) its only loss of the season, beat USC (10-4, 11th in F+) and Arizona State (10-4 / #13). They also lost to two 7-6 teams, Michigan and Pitt, and two good teams in Oklahoma (11-2, #20) and Stanford (11-3, #3).
The suspension of Everett Golson due to an academic violation really stings when you take a closer look at those games. Golson wasn’t perfect but flashed tremendous potential as a redshirt freshman in 2012, and while Irish fans remember the collapse at the end of 2014 they conveniently seem to forget his red-hot start. Through the first eight games of his second year as a starter, after missing 2013, Golson averaged 289 passing yards per game, completing 63% of his passes, and with 29 touchdowns (22 passing) to 7 interceptions.
The Irish really could have used that Golson in 2013. While Tommy Rees had some strong showings over the course of the year, he threw 9 interceptions in Notre Dame’s four losses. Against Oklahoma, a game where the Irish clawed back to get within 6 in the 4th quarter, Rees threw a pick six on the first possession of the game, followed by a second pick on the very next Irish offensive play. The Sooners were spotted a 14 point lead, and for the game Rees was a ghastly 9-24 for 104 yards. At Stanford, the Irish again were within a score late but two fourth quarter picks from Rees ended the game. The final line was another ugly one – 16/34 for 199 yards.
The butterfly effect from having Golson extends beyond just a much better 2013 season, introducing the possibility of another leap forward in 2014 (ideally cutting down on the turnovers that plagued him late in 2014) and potentially having a veteran redshirt senior QB leading the loaded 2015 offense. Would that kind of continuity, for a team that under Kelly has rarely had the same quarterback as the main guy two years in a row, make a difference? And who would have been left to compete in 2016?
Alternate: What if Malik Zaire starts in 2013?
In compiling this list, podcast / newsletter superstar @rakesofmallow kindly referred me to a great old post of his arguing for Zaire to start over Rees as a true freshman. At the very least check out the comments section – it’s a nice trip down memory lane in the old neighborhood as it used to exist. It’s a compelling argument – would more of a run-heavy approach, with Zaire’s legs as a threat, have benefitted the Irish?
Definitely, maybe. Throwing 32 times a game with a QB completing 54% of his passes was not ideal, but the rushing attack also sputtered at time. The three-headed attack of McDaniel-Atkinson-Folson was not the most talented stable of backs the Irish have had. At Purdue the ground game could only muster 91 yards on 37 attempts. Michigan State was similar – 82 yards on 32 attempts. At Stanford, 64 yards on 24 rushes. Even in the Pinstripe Bowl, which I remembered as a dominating running performance since Zack Martin won MVP, the Irish only ran for 4.07 yards per carry (175 yards total) against Rutgers. That would have been the 4th worst rushing performance of 2017!
Maybe a mobile quarterback changes things dramatically with a line that featured a future NFL All-Pro in Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Nick Martin, and Ronnie Stanley. But that group should have been able to produce better even with vanilla playcalling, a statue at QB, and mediocre backs, right? So I’m not totally sold. But it would have been extremely interesting, and schematically certainly a step towards the future for Kizer/Wimbush/whatever mobile QB would have followed.
#4 Completing the Clemson comeback
Despite going down 14-0, in a monsoon at Death Valley, Notre Dame almost pulled off an incredible 4th quarter comeback against Deshaun Watson and the eventual playoff runner-ups. The Irish out-gained the Tigers by over two yards per play, in part because with terrible conditions Dabo Swinney and company elected to play somewhat conservatively with the lead (Watson passed for just 84 yards on 21 attempts). But here’s a short list of things that went wrong that easily could have been a 2+ point swing, allowing Notre Dame to win and likely make a playoff. These are listed in descending order of how well I remember them, and some I had frankly deleted from my brain:
- Going for two too early: When the Irish scored on a bomb to CJ Prosise with 14 minutes to go, they were down 21-9. Brian Kelly went for the two point conversion, it failed, and of course later had to go for two again down 24-22.
- Failing the second two point conversion: As shown in this excellent film post by pburns, Notre Dame had a pretty good play call with the Kizer keeper but didn’t execute well on the play
- Chris Brown’s fumble: With Notre Dame driving, down 8 and with just over two minutes remaining, Brown caught a pass wide open over the middle and then fumbled inside the Clemson five fighting to make it to the goal line. The senior wideout was tremendous in this game but this fumble put me in wall-punching territory. Watching the replay, Will Fuller was also tantalizingly close to breaking a tackle and scoring on a screen the play before.
- Kizer’s pick: After touchdowns on two straight possessions to make it a one-score game, the ND defense forced a three and out. Kizer, who was also really good in terrible conditions (19 of 34 for 321 yards and three TDs), threw an interception to a Clemson linebacker he didn’t see in coverage. It easily could have been the ballgame, but the defense – that was pretty great in this one, especially late – held and Clemson missed a field goal attempt.
- Sanders’ fumble: The kickoff after halftime, with the Tigers up 14-3, CJ Sanders fumbled on a hit by the Clemson kicker. It gave Watson the ball on the ND 29, which the Tigers converted into their third touchdown of the game.
Of course, some of these assume Notre Dame could have then won in overtime, which is some Stepfan Taylor revisionist history crap, but man, what a litany of small things that could have flipped an enormous game. The implications here are huge for the 2015 CFP – I’d project that if you flip this game, the four teams and seeds are #1 Alabama (12-1), #2 Clemson (12-1), #3 Michigan State (12-1), and #4 Notre Dame (11-1, and in even with a late loss to Stanford).
I don’t think that playoff goes particularly well for the Irish, which is why this is #4 on the list, but a playoff appearance, even with a hypothetical loss to Bama, is a nice feather in the cap of Brian Kelly and the program.
#3 Kizer stays for 2017
When DeShone Kizer left last offseason, it didn’t feel like an enormous departure. Some of that might have been the seeming inevitability of the decision, after his NFL prospect hype jumped to potential 1st round pick (early in the season, some even had him mocked as #1 overall). But between the disappointment of the 4-8 season and Kizer’s lack of improvement (declining in yards per attempt, completion %, and team Passing S&P+), it felt like a lot fans were frustrated and ready for a change. Everyone loves blue-chip backup quarterbacks!
Unfortunately, the passing game was the offense’s Achilles heel in 2017. A dominant rushing attack didn’t need an all-world passing game, just one with enough consistency and threats to keep defenses honest. Kizer had already established a connection with Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson the year before, and would seem to be a perfect fit with Chip Long’s scheme.
Kizer isn’t the threat of Wimbush in the run game, but he’s no slouch either, rushing for over 600 yards and averaging 5.8 yards per carry in both seasons he started (excluding sack yardage). In his third year starting he’d also represent an upgrade in ability to make correct reads/decisions in both the running and passing game. Even if we chalk Miami up as a loss either way, I think its very plausible to think that with Kizer the Irish can score 21 points to beat UGA, and avoid the second half collapse and outscore Stanford.
I’d project the playoff in this case to be #1 Clemson (12-1), #2 Oklahoma (12-1), #3 Notre Dame (11-1), and #4 Georgia (12-1). With the eventual champions out of the picture, I truly have no idea what would have happened, but it would have been very fun to find out.
#2 BVG not hired in 2014
The hire of Brian Van Gorder is probably the defining misstep of the Brian Kelly era to date. It has multi-year impact- not just the poor performance in ’14, ’15 (squandering a lot of defensive talent), and early ’16. It’s also the opportunity cost of current juniors and seniors that could be much further ahead in their development with better coaching and without having had to shift scheme midway through their careers. And while we don’t have a ton of insight into recruiting differences between coordinators, there’s been a marked uptick in incoming defensive talent since the Elko/Lea transition.
It’s hard to dig up exactly who else was on the short list with Van Gorder after Bob Diaco took the UConn job – Mike Elston was seriously considered, but not chosen. Other coordinator candidates available that cycle that would have been interesting and surely an upgrade:
- Mike Elko! Who was much less of a known commodity, but had performed well with Dave Clawson at Bowling Green. It would have been a reach at the time, but given what we know now, it probably would have worked.
- Manny Diaz’s reputation was not good at the time, just having been fired from Texas, but he was extremely available and landed at Louisiana Tech for a rebound year. The turnover chain could have been a Notre Dame thing! Probably not, though.
- Kerry Cooks hasn’t been a full-time defensive coordinator, but held the co-DC title in South Bend and is now associate DC at Oklahoma. At the very least he’d have been less of a thorn in Notre Dame’s side against the Sooners in recruiting.
- Dave Aranda wasn’t quite “top defensive coordinator getting paid more than most head coaches Dave Aranda” yet, but clearly a star on the rise. He was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012 after elevating Utah State from 70th in Defensive S&P+ to 10th in his first year. In his first year at Wisconsin he inherited a much better defense (17th in S&P+ the previous year) but again raised them to 10th in his first season.
#1 Kansas State beats Baylor in 2012
Nothing is as big of a “what if” as a potential national title. And this relatively innocuous game could have dramatically increased Notre Dame’s chances at bringing home the 2012 BCS title. Winning championships often takes some luck, and Bill Snyder’s team avoiding a let-down might have been the break the Irish needed.
With just two regular season games left in the 2012 season, the Irish were stuck at #3 in the BCS Standings behind fellow unbeaten Oregon and Kansas State. Both the Ducks and Wildcats lost close games on the same night – Oregon falling to a very good Stanford team, and K-State dropping a game in Waco to an 8-5 Baylor team that finished 21st in F+.
It wasn’t a fluky win for Art Briles’ team – they outgained the Wildcats 580-362, rushing for 342 yards in the game. Collin Klein, a Heisman finalist, threw three interceptions. It was a no-show in a big game, that happens all the time in November, especially as pressure mounts for a title contender. But with some Snyder voodoo and better game from Klein, the Irish could have faced Big 12 champ Kansas State (#5 in F+, #9 Offense / 19 Defense in S&P+) in the BCS Championship game instead of 1-loss Alabama (#1, #7 Offense, #3 defense). An undefeated conference champion from a power five conference was never snubbed for a 1-loss team in the BCS era, so it seems safe that the Wildcats would have remained ahead of the Crimson Tide despite their history of BCS snubs.
A lot went wrong for Notre Dame in Miami that year, but the Wildcats were a far less talented team than the Crimson Tide and I’m guessing the odds would have been 50/50 or titled slightly in Notre Dame’s favor. The Irish defense was well suited to defend Kansas State’s rushing attack, and would have had a much easier time moving the ball against a defense that wasn’t littered with future NFL 1st Round picks all over the two deep.
There are some interesting questions from the game that took place against Nick Saban’s Death Star, especially early in the game. Notre Dame’s first drive ended after what looked like a Tyler Eifert catch was ruled incomplete on 3rd and 2. The following play Bama muffed a punt and the Irish recovered and would have had possession in the red zone, only to have fair catch interference called. Alabama then took that drive to jump to a 14-0 lead, which stretched to 28-0 by halftime.
As a fan in attendance it would have been nice to have one enjoyable moment after the opening kick in Miami – I’m not asking for much. I’m glad Snapchat wasn’t popular back then, because “Sad Irish fan gets even sadder after finding out championship concession stand out of Papa John’s” might have made me a meme.
Ultimately some breaks might have changed the final score, but probably not the outcome.Changing the opponent, however? Definitely a title becomes a much more likely proposition.