What if I told you Notre Dame reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2012 only because of a referee’s mistake? What if I told you it would not have mattered in the College Football Playoff era?
The first of those two questions is hard to refute. In the second overtime of an eventual 29-26 triple-overtime victory against Pittsburgh, the then-No. 4 Irish needed a missed call — an objective one at that, black-and-white, no gray area involved whatsoever — to avoid gifting the Panthers first-and-10 at the 11-yard line.
Both Bennett Jackson and Chris Brown attempted to block Pittsburgh’s (missed) field goal attempt in the second overtime. Both wore No. 2 in doing so, a clear and obvious infraction and one that went uncalled. It does not take much in the way of mental gymnastics to figure making that call correctly would have led to a Panthers victory soon thereafter, be it by touchdown or by a made field goal from senior Kevin Harper, who finished 20-of-27 that year, never reaching a third extra period.
That weekend held something in common with this one: Notre Dame was coming off a three-possession road victory at a feared venue against a top-25 opponent.
“Whatever I did (to prepare for Pittsburgh then), I probably didn’t do a very good job,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said this week. “I’m not pulling anything that I did that week. I’m sticking with what our preparation has been, and the guys have done a really good job because it’s really how you reach the group you have in front of you right now more so than thinking about what the group was about back in 2012.
“We’re going to stick with the group we have and keep working on what we’re doing now.”
It is hard to envision Notre Dame reaching the top-two with that loss on its ledger, not when eventual No. 3 Florida’s sole loss was by one possession against Georgia (who finished at No. 7 in the BCS standings) and end-of-year No. 4 Oregon’s only fall was in overtime against Stanford (No. 6).
Why bring this up? Because of the second tag to this non-existent ESPN “30 for 30” trailer. A one-loss Irish likely would have still made a four-team Playoff.
Only five teams finished with one loss or fewer in 2012: Notre Dame, some other team, Florida, Oregon and Kansas State. In that order, they made up the top five of the final BCS rankings. To reach the Playoff, all the Irish would have needed was to finish ahead of the Wildcats. Looking at the BCS formulas now, it is hard to believe that would not have happened.
Kansas State was behind Georgia in both human polls considered (the USA Today Coaches’ poll and the Harris Poll) and tied with the Cardinal, and ahead of the Ducks, in the computer rankings at No. 4. There is no reason to think any of that would have changed as it pertains to the Wildcats — it is conceivable Stanford may have fallen a touch in correlation with Notre Dame’s drop.
Considering how human polls have always functioned, the timing of the Irish loss would have actually worked in their favor. Whether or not Notre Dame’s résumé would have been viewed more favorably than Kansas State’s (it should have been), the Wildcats suffered their only loss two weeks later in their season finale at unranked Baylor. For that matter, it was not even close, 52-24. The Irish could have tumbled below Kansas State in the human polls for two weeks, but certainly would have moved back into theoretical Playoff position with the Wildcats’ toes stubbed.
A Big 12 Championship Game victory over then-No. 23 Texas would not have even given Kansas State a proverbial “13th data point.” The Wildcats played only 11 regular season games.
Meanwhile, the BCS computers looked so favorably upon the Irish that it is hard to imagine them falling past Kansas State there, either. The deserved loss to Pittsburgh would have sent Notre Dame past Florida and perhaps Alabama, but probably no further.
Such a scenario would have left the Irish with … a semifinal matchup against the Tide.
This is all to point out the world may not come to a crashing halt if Notre Dame loses a game in the second half of 2018 — a Playoff berth may remain tenable simply due to the natural and inevitable attrition of each fall — and to acknowledge the comedy of how little would have changed if a Playoff existed six years ago and the referees noticed the blatant penalty in that second overtime.
Notre Dame’s notable wins in 2012: Sept. 15 at Michigan State, 20-3; Sept. 22 vs. eventual No. 18 Michigan, 13-6; Oct. 13 vs. eventual No. 6 Stanford, 20-13 in overtime; Oct. 27 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 30-13.
Florida: Sept. 8 at eventual No. 9 Texas A&M; 20-17; Oct. 6 vs. eventual No. 8 LSU, 14-6; Oct. 20 vs. eventual No. 10 South Carolina, 44-11; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 12 Florida State, 37-26. Lost to eventual No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 27, 17-9.
Oregon: Sept. 22 vs. Arizona, 49-0; Oct. 6 vs. Washington, 52-21; Nov. 3 at USC, 62-51; Nov. 24 at eventual No. 13 Oregon State, 48-24. Lost to eventual No. 6 Stanford on Nov. 17, 17-14 in overtime.
Kansas State: Sept. 22 at eventual No. 11 Oklahoma, 24-19; Oct. 20 at West Virginia, 55-14; Oct. 27 vs. Texas Tech; 55-24; Dec. 1 vs. eventual No. 23 Texas, 42-24. Lost at Baylor on Nov. 17, 52-24.