Five Biggest "What If" Moments Of Notre Dame Football

Bryan Driskell

The first time I watched a Notre Dame football game, at least that I can remember, was when I was nine years old and Tim Brown was going through his Heisman Trophy winning campaign. That is the beginning of my knowledge of the Notre Dame football program.

Over the years Notre Dame has had plenty of success, especially early on during that tenure, but the last 25 years certainly weren’t as much fun as the first five.

During the last 25 years there have been several moments that I look back and wonder, “What if?”

What if certain events, or outcomes, would have turned out different. How could those events have changed the trajectory of a Notre Dame program that dipped for almost 20 years before its recent slow ascent towards the top.

Below are five events that I believe could have had a significant impact on Notre Dame’s success, or lack there of, over the last 30 years.

1993: David Gordon Misses

Notre Dame rattled off 10-straight wins in 1993 and was coming off a 31-24 victory over No. 1 Florida State in the “Game of the Century.” The Fighting Irish outplayed the Seminoles from start to finish, and all that was standing between Notre Dame and a bowl matchup against Nebraska was No. 17 Boston College.

The Eagles jumped out to a 38-17 fourth quarter lead before quarterback Kevin McDougal and running back Lee Becton led a fervent comeback. Notre Dame scored 22 unanswered points to take a 39-38 lead. Boston College got the ball back with just over a minute remaining, and after Pete Bercich dropped an interception on 2nd down, Boston College marched down the field and Gordon nailed a 41-yard field goal for the win.

The loss ended Notre Dame’s chance for a second national title under Holtz. But what if Gordon missed?

Notre Dame would have capped off a perfect 11-0 regular season and would have faced No. 2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl with the title on the line. Nebraska’s offense was average that season and scored just 19.3 points in three games against ranked opponents that season (including the Orange Bowl). I like Notre Dame’s odds to win that game and win another national title.

1995: Randy Moss Gets Into School

Notre Dame signed Randy Moss as part of its 1995 recruiting class, but Moss was eventually denied admission after getting into a fight at his high school and spending time in jail. With Moss that 1995 class could have been special, and who knows how it would have changed Notre Dame’s future.

“It’s one of the best I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been evaluating high school talent,” Tom Lemming told the South Bend Tribune at the time. “On paper, I think it’s even better than the 1990 class.”

Could you imagine a 1995 Notre Dame offense with Moss, Derrick Mayes, Autry Denson, Randy Kinder and Marc Edwards? How does Ron Powlus’ career end if he gets to throw to Moss and Mayes? We would likely view his career quite differently had Moss made it to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame went 9-2 during the regular season in 1995, including a 17-15 loss to Northwestern, something I don’t see happening with Moss. Notre Dame went 8-3 in 1996, which included a pair of overtime losses. Do those losses happen with a player like Moss? I don’t see it.

Notre Dame’s entire trajectory as a program would have been different had Moss made it in, I truly believe that. The Irish would have won a lot more games, would have been a very attractive job once Holtz left and it likely would have had a significant impact on the next two decades of Irish football.

In my view, losing Moss was the beginning of Notre Dame falling out of the upper echelon of college football, and it has yet to truly return.

2005: Urban Meyer takes over in 2005

Notre Dame made a run at Urban Meyer after it fired Ty Willingham following his disastrous 21-15 campaign. Meyer chose Florida and went on to compile a 65-15 record in six seasons that included a pair of national championships. After leaving Florida after the 2010 season, Meyer returned to coaching in 2012 and spent the next seven seasons at Ohio State, where he went 83-9, adding another title to his resume.

I often wonder how Notre Dame and Meyer’s trajectory would have changed had he chosen to return to South Bend. Would Meyer have three national titles? I doubt it. Would he have won at least one? I think so, and as Holtz proved, winning one title at Notre Dame can make you a legend.

Meyer’s reputation would likely be different as well. Winning at Florida took a toll on how people view him beyond just his ability to coach, but he would have had to recruit a completely different type of player for the Irish. Notre Dame committed to building up its facilities under Charlie Weis, and I imagine Meyer would have been able to accomplish even more, especially since he would have won more.

We won’t ever truly know how effective Meyer would have been at Notre Dame, but considering how brilliant he was at every stop he made, including Bowling Green and Utah, it’s same to assume Notre Dame would have been incredibly successful under Meyer, for however long he would have stayed in South Bend.

2005: Tuck Returns In 2005

Something else happened around the same time Meyer chose Florida, and that was the decision by defensive end Justin Tuck to leave for the NFL.

Even if Meyer chose Florida, the 2005 season could have turned out quite different had Tuck returned for his senior campaign. A defensive line of Tuck, Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws and Derek Landri, with Chris Frome coming off the bench, would have been tremendous for the Irish.

One of the what ifs I considered was what if Matt Leinart’s fourth-down, fourth quarter throw fell incomplete in against the Irish. But with Tuck in the lineup who knows if Leinart would have had a chance to make the third and fourth-down throws on that final drive.

Tuck coming back could have very well been the difference between 9-2 and 11-0 during the 2005 regular season.

2015: Elko/Lea/Balis in 2015

With all due respect to the 2005 squad, I contend Notre Dame’s most talented team since Holtz left was the 2015 squad. Think about it, you had a first round pick at wide receiver, a third round pick at running back, a second round pick at quarterback and four offensive linemen that went in the first or second round.

On defense you had four future NFL players on the defensive line, a pair of future NFL players at cornerback and the best linebacker in the nation. You had elite speed and talent on both sides of the ball.

Yet Notre Dame underachieved that season, going 10-3 and losing to the three best teams they played, mainly because the strength program was subpar and the defensive coordinator was abysmal.

When you watch what Mike Elko, Clark Lea and Mike Elston did in 2017, and what Lea, Elston and the rest of the defensive staff have done the last two seasons I often wonder how good the 2015 defense would have been with them in charge. The 2019 defense didn’t have anywhere close to the talent that Notre Dame had in 2015, and yet it was far more effective.

Throw in Matt Balis running the strength program and look out.

For all the talk about Notre Dame lacking top-end talent, that’s the one roster that I would have put against any in the country. Imagine what that team would have done with not only competent coaching on defense, but with the top-level coaching that Elko and Lea brought to the program.

That team would have competed for a national championship.

Runners Up (From The Kelly Era)

*** What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate returned for their senior seasons in 2010 — The team still would have lost a couple of games, but that offense would have been incredibly fun to watch.

*** What if Everett Golson wasn’t suspended in 2013 and kept his head on straight — If that scenario do you know who the quarterback would have been in 2015? A mature and poised Everett Golson. Now that is a very, very scary thought.

*** What if the pick penalty isn’t called against Florida State — This one got strong consideration for the top five, but there’s no way to know how that team would have finished in November even with a win against Florida State. The poor coaching on defense combined with the massive amounts of injuries likely would have resulted in at least two or three losses down the stretch.

In the comments section below tell me what you think of my selections, and tell me your big what if moments. You don’t have to use my timeframe if your memories of Notre Dame football go back even further.

Let me hear your stories!

Comments (74)
No. 1-19
Jamestulane
Jamestulane

Man, that’s a depressing read. Well done of course, but what if...

allenm5333
allenm5333

Where would you rank Golson in terms of pure talent that BK has recruited at the QB position? This may be a fun pod/article series. Looking at the most talented RECRUITS at each position under BK.

T_RICCIO
T_RICCIO

Great stuff. ND has had quite a few bad events since late 1993, as one would say.

MDLambert
MDLambert

My biggest what if is the "Bush Push". WHAT IF a penalty was called. Sort of along the lines with the FSU game. Both of those what ifs have haunted me for awhile

Great article!

Bryan Driskell
Bryan Driskell

Editor

I thought about having another "What If" on there, about what if Kelly was let go after 2016. But figured that one would create an out of hand discussion! lol

Jacob15
Jacob15

What if George O’Leary hasn’t lied on his resume?

Jacob15
Jacob15

Did Kelly try to convince Clausen and Tate to stay? Were there any conversations?

Bjamin41
Bjamin41

Bryan missed the biggest "what if" in the past 30 years.... What if Kansas State doesnt lose to Baylor in 2012? Notre Dame would have faced KSU in the BCS Championship game instead of Alabama.

irish_polak
irish_polak

Aside from the ones coach has here here are a few of my own:

  1. To go along with 2014 FSU (bs) loss...what if ND did not have the worst collapse of any ND team I have witnessed (that only dates back to 2005)? What if they didn't lose to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, and USC and instead went 11-1. This really should have been no trouble for this team.

  2. What if DeShone Kizer returned for the 2017 season? I always supported Wimbush but the guy couldn't get out of his own head. That season was great but had obvious flaws. Could a more mature & refined Kizer have beat Stanford, Miami, and/or Georgia? I think they'd win at least two of those three.

  3. This one's probably out of left field, but what if ND signed Christian McCaffrey? I don't know much about his recruitment, so hopefully coach can enlighten me, but it seems like he would have fit perfectly. Clearly competent in the classroom as he went to Stanford, went to a Christian high school, crazy high school stats. I'm just imagining him running the ball for the 2015 team and drooling a little bit.

Jacob15
Jacob15

Not a major “what if” but I often think of a defense in the 2013-2015 range including Ronald Darby, Alex Anzalone, and Eddie Vanderdoes. I know ND had their fair share of swinging recruits in their favor (Tuitt, Fuller, etc) and decommitments happen but it’s fun to think “what if” for this fun purpose.

ucdtke132
ucdtke132

What if Manti hadn’t been catfished? He was dominant that year and was the heart and soul of that team but in the Bama game his head wasn’t in the game and he clear wasn’t the same player. I’m not saying we’d have won but I think the score would have been more respectable, setting the stage for a completely different narrative, impacting recruiting and giving the program momentum.

Caveman79
Caveman79

1990 Orange Bowl. Rocket punt return. Clipping call. What if??

Derdawa
Derdawa

What if Meier came to Notre Dame? We would of gotten Tebow period. Tebow came and tried to get to Notre Dame but Tebows dad didn’t like how weis was coaching practice. When he asked Weis about it he told Tebows dad that’s why he had 4 Super Bowl rings...

I think would of brought back some major Echo’s....

irish4life2
irish4life2

So I have 2 big what ifs. 1. Urban Meyer and 2. What if the Irish had hired Jon Gruden in 2009 instead of Coach Kelly? For Urban, the answer is simple; I truly believe that ND would have won at least 3 national titles, a bunch of NY6 bowls, and Urban would've retired from ND as even more of a legend then he already is. I bring up Jon Gruden because he was one of the names being floated out there as the next guy to take over after Weis was fired. In my opinion, Gruden's personality and offensive philosophy would've worked very well at the college level, and I think he would've been incredibly successful at ND.

Michael-FIC
Michael-FIC

If you add the other players (Davaris Daniels, KeiVararae Russell, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore) that got suspended alongside Golson, that is an even bigger what if! Even Kendall Moore was expected to assume a bigger role in his last season, and all of the others were big time contributors already.

DannyGiles
DannyGiles

I have the exact same feeling how about Randy Moss. I often thought about that Randy Moss, Derrick Mayes, Ron Pawles. I totally agree I really believe we win a couple of national championships with him, just a complete game changer. Also Allen Iverson at a slot receiver, because he was supposed to come around that time frame as well.
GO IRISH!!!❤️☘️🏈💪

IrishRoo12
IrishRoo12

I know you’re only doing recent history, but to me the most interesting all-time is what if Notre Dame hires Vince Lombardi to replace Leahy? He was just a lesser known assistant coach during the time, but a daily communicant who was interested in the job and even wrote a letter to Hesburgh requesting an interview, to no avail :(

jackq1916
jackq1916

I can only go from 1998-present, when I was old enough to start following Notre Dame Football.

  1. What if ND had beaten USC in 2005? -- The Irish would have ended up in the Rose Bowl against Texas, playing for the national championship. Would they have defeated the Longhorns? I doubt it, but I also don't think they would have gotten trucked the way they did against Alabama.

Would a recruiting bump from a title game appearance have been big enough to infuse enough talent into the '07-'09 rosters to the point where Weis would have continued? Probably not, but it's fun to think about.

And in a vacuum, October 15, 2005 would have been one of the greatest days of my life.

  1. What if they hadn't called offensive pass interference against Notre Dame in Tallahassee in 2014?

The '14 Irish seemed to be an emotionally fragile group to being with, as evidenced by their tendency to play down to the level of opposition (save Michigan). Losing the way they did to Florida State was absolutely crushing, and their season essentially died that night. Despite Notre Dame's flaws (and their were many re: BVG) , part of me wonders: If the official kept the flag in his pocket, would the Irish have gone to LA undefeated?

  1. The 2001 coaching search. -- This one is two-fold.

What if George O'Leary hadn't been fired? At the time, I thought Notre Dame should have let him apologize and move on. I still believe this. The story would have only lasted until the next college football scandal, and coaches have done far worse and kept their jobs.

So how would he have done?

It's hard to tell, because we don't know what kind of staff he would have assembled. But based on his results at Georgia Tech, and the fact that he would have had an expanded recruiting base at Notre Dame, I think it's safe to say that over a seven-year period he would have won a solid 8-9 games/ season. Maybe with a BCS bid or two thrown in. O'Leary certainly would have been superior to Davie and Ty, but eventually would have been run out due to "mediocre" results.

What if Gruden had taken the job? -- Was he ever even interested? I don't know. The story at the time was that he wanted to come but Al Davis wouldn't let him out of his deal. Then why didn't Notre Dame buy him out? Would he even have been a good college coach? I don't know.

I can tell you this: The staff that O'Leary, Gruden, Mariucci, or any other candidate could have assembled would have been better than what Notre Dame ended up with.

  1. What if Davie's '98-'99 teams hadn't had such absurd in-game foul ups?

If Jarious Jackson had simply run out of the endzone at the end of the '98 LSU game, Notre Dame would have likely gone on to beat a below-average USC team the following week in the LA Coliseum. That would have resulted in an Orange Bowl bid, and perhaps a win against an 8-3 Syracuse team.

Pair that with the wasted timeouts against Michigan early in the '99 season, and the ensuing end-of-game foul-up against Purdue, and Davie's first four years may have looked drastically different (If you grant that ND won the UM and Purdue games in '99, I'm assuming two more wins based on positive momentum, probably MSU and Pitt)

7-6 (After starting 1-5)
11-2 (Orange Bowl)
9-3 (Gator Bowl)
9-3 (Fiesta Bowl)

  1. What if Golson had been eligible in 2013?

Notre Dame would not have gotten back to the BCS Title Game even with EG in 2013, but they would have a much better chance of beating Pitt, Michigan, and/or Stanford, which would have earned the Irish a trip to the Fiesta or Sugar Bowl. The Alabama disaster would have been a lot more palatable had it been followed up with an 11 or ten win season with a BCS bid, as opposed to going 9-4 and playing Rutgers in the Bronx. Recruits know the momentum of a program.

KMoore-24
KMoore-24

Me personally I have often wondered how much Moss would have changed things had he been allowed to come to Notre Dame? Lou Holtz loved him. Bobby Bowden said that Moss was the only player he had ever seen that can match Deion Sanders athletically. That's high praise and it shows you the kind of program changing talent we missed out on. One thing is for certain and that's after all these years and thats Randy Moss still has a ton of love for Notre Dame. I read a article maybe about 5 or so years back where Moss said that he would still choose Notre Dame over everyone else.


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