Five Biggest "What If" Moments Of Notre Dame Football
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!