• The NCAA took the Irish's 12 regular season wins off the books, but it can't erase the memory of one of the weirdest national title game runs of the past decade.
By Joan Niesen
February 16, 2018

Vacating wins is a funny business. I don’t want to get too graphic, but I’ve always likened it to vomiting: Your stomach is empty, yes, but you still ate lunch. Similarly, the results are wiped from the record books, but we all saw the games.

Love Notre Dame or hate it—and there’s not much of an in-between, is there?—you remember the 2012 season for its action and its absurdity, with the Irish in the center of it all. Now, according to the NCAA, there’s a golden dome–shaped void in the story of that year in college football. On Tuesday Notre Dame lost its appeal of a 2016 ruling to vacate the Irish’s wins in 2012 and 2013 as the result of academic misconduct findings that allowed ineligible players to play during those two seasons. The Irish are now 0–1 in ’12, the sole mark in that year’s win-loss column a 42–14 beatdown at the hands of Alabama in the national title game. The memories of that game in South Bend are almost certainly more graphic than the aforementioned retching.

The Irish self-reported that a student trainer had done coursework for and given impermissible benefits to a group of football players, and the school’s appeal was based on the fact that the level of punishment was somewhat unprecedented for a rules violation that involved only students. In the end, the lesson here seemed to be that schools shouldn’t self-report misconduct findings, but the tangible damage done by the final penalty is tenuous at best.

Still, rules are rules, right? In honor of Notre Dame’s illustrious 2012 season in which it made the national championship with a .000 winning percentage, let’s relive the wild ride the NCAA now has ruled never happened.

Sept. 1: Notre Dame did not travel to Ireland for its opening game against Navy. Quarterback Everett Golson did not make his first career start. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o did not log the first fumble recovery and interception of his career.

Sept. 8: Notre Dame did not beat Purdue on a last-second field goal. The Irish did not remain undefeated by squeaking past the Boilermakers thanks in part to an Everett Golson rushing touchdown that was originally called out of bounds in the second quarter. Former starting quarterback Tommy Rees, back from a one-game suspension after he was arrested outside an off-campus party over the summer, did not come in for the final drive to set up the 27-yard field goal with seven seconds left that won the game for Notre Dame.

Sept. 15: Notre Dame did not get its first win over a top-10 team since 2005. It did not put on a defensive show in a 20–3 victory over Michigan State. Te’o did not have one of the best games of his career, only days after the (fake) death of his (fake) girlfriend and the (real) death of his (real) grandmother.

In fact, Te’o’s fake girlfriend hardly factors in at all in this version of history. In the NCAA’s alternate universe, only Te’o comes out looking great. His starring role in the most bizarre catfishing story to ever hit sports was exposed a few days after the national title game, but the story would not have gripped the country in the same way if Te’o had not spent the last four months as the heart and soul of an undefeated team on the way to a runner-up finish in the Heisman voting.

Oct: 13: The Irish didn’t snap a three-year losing streak to Stanford in overtime to move to 6–0. The game wasn’t the first in which Notre Dame had trailed all season, and the Irish didn’t score a touchdown with 20 seconds left to force overtime. It wasn’t the second game this year in which Rees had come in for a game-winning drive, and Notre Dame didn’t put up an all-time defensive stand in overtime to seal the win, stopping Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor twice on the one-yard line. There wasn’t any ensuing controversy over whether Taylor should have been ruled down before he crossed the goal line on his second effort. After the game, Stanford coach David Shaw didn’t say that Taylor swore he was in, imply there should have been a second overtime, or suggest Notre Dame should have had to fight through another period to earn its undefeated record.

Oct. 20: Notre Dame didn’t win by one score for the second consecutive week. BYU didn’t lead 14–7 at the half and 14–10 going into the fourth quarter in South Bend before the Irish took a 17–14 lead and held off several scoring opportunities for the Cougars. With 8:20 remaining, BYU quarterback Riley Nelson didn’t miss wide-open receiver Cody Hoffman by 10 feet for a completion that almost certainly would have let to a go-ahead touchdown. It wasn’t yet another near-disaster for still-undefeated Notre Dame.

Nov. 3: The Irish didn’t beat Pitt in one of the most exciting games anyone played all year. Notre Dame didn’t trail by two scores in the fourth quarter only to find the end zone twice (and needing a two-point conversion to tie the game after missing an extra point) to force overtime. Golson wasn’t benched and then un-benched, and the game didn’t go to three overtimes as both teams’ defenses held off touchdowns in extra time. Notre Dame didn’t almost win in the second overtime only to fumble in the end zone, and it didn’t finally win on a one-yard touchdown run by Golson.

Nov. 24: Notre Dame didn’t arrive in Los Angeles to play USC ranked No. 1. It didn’t beat up on the Trojans, who had won nine of the past 10 rivalry games, winning by a score of 22–13 that was less lopsided than the actual game appeared. It didn’t all but assure a trip to the national title game with the win, foiling the title hopes of one-loss Florida, Oregon and Kansas State and sealing the Alabama-Georgia SEC championship game as an epic BCS title semifinal.

… But somehow, it found itself playing in the title game against a 12–1 Alabama team. That’s when the season started, according to the NCAA, with a 42–14 Crimson Tide win in which Notre Dame went into halftime down 28–0 but looked overmatched from the opening minutes. Te’o in particular looked completely overmatched as Alabama rolled up 265 rushing yards, ground the Irish into dust and drained the title game of its drama with a quickness. 

If the Irish had failed to get that two-point conversion against Pitt, if Golson had been ruled out of bounds near the goal line against Purdue, if the whistle hadn’t blown as Taylor fought towards the goal line on fourth down in the rain ... With even the tiniest ebb of the team’s fortune, college football could have had a second straight all-SEC title game. Maybe a Florida-Alabama matchup would have been more of a competition, or even Georgia-Alabama, as unappetizing as another SEC rematch may have been to the rest of the nation after the Tide throttled LSU 21–0 the year before. Instead, we saw a magical run that ended in a senseless beating in South Florida at the hands of Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper. For Notre Dame, keeping that game on the books may be punishment enough.

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