Debates Down South: How many SEC teams would have beaten Notre Dame at the end of 2012?
If you’re reading this as an upset Notre Dame fan, I’ve got news for you.
This isn’t your day.
You might not like me by the end of this because the goal today is to find out how many SEC teams could have beaten the Irish at the end of the 2012 season. It’s something that my SDS Podcast co-host Chris Marler and I have talked about a lot as we’ve done various “It Just Meant More” and “Debates Down South” episodes.
I bring this up today as someone who watched that Notre Dame team. I was living in the suburbs of Chicago, where it’s often difficult to make a college football team truly relevant. Notre Dame did that in 2012. They were appointment viewing in part because of the fact that they were always on NBC — this was just before conference networks became a thing everywhere — and because they always found themselves in thrilling games.
The Manti Te’o storyline captivated the nation, and for many, it felt like he was a folk hero who was ready to lead the Irish to the program’s first national title since 1988.
Then Alabama happened.
The 42-14 thumping in Miami certainly made it look like the Irish were a bit more human than what the national narrative was to that point. The Irish lost so badly that instead of sitting at No. 2 in the final Associated Press Top 25, they dropped to No. 4.
And in a year in which the SEC was extremely good having claimed its 7th consecutive national title, well, this is something that needs to be discussed.
For what it’s worth, we’re talking about playing for a national title in January, just as Alabama did. No questions of motivation are needed.
Why was/is this a debate?
Besides the obvious “because we said so,” let’s break this down just so you don’t think this is coming from a place of complete and total ignorance. It’s not. It’s coming from someone who admittedly bought into the Notre Dame hype and then realized a few things after the fact.
For starters, it’s impossible not to wonder about a team that was 6-0 in games decided by single digits. Brian Kelly’s squad won 7 games in which it was held to 22 points or fewer. And the Irish beat 1 team (an overtime home win vs. Stanford) that finished ranked in the top 14 of the AP Poll.
Why do I say top 14? The SEC had a whopping 6 teams finish ranked inside the top 14:
- No. 1 Alabama
- No. 5 Georgia
- No. 5 Texas A&M (people forget they tied with UGA)
- No. 8 South Carolina
- No. 9 Florida
- No. 14 LSU
All of those teams had 1 or 2 regular-season losses. There was a bit of cannibalism in the SEC that year, too. We saw LSU, Georgia and A&M all play down-to-the-wire late-season games against Alabama (1 neutral, 1 road, 1 home), which Notre Dame obviously didn’t come close to doing.
So what are the parameters for this argument? Should this conversation be open to the entire SEC? No. Including Vanderbilt, there were 7 SEC teams that finished the season ranked. Obviously we’re not going to break down Alabama because we all saw how that played out. And I’m actually not going to dig into Vandy as much for this reason.
Don’t hate me, Vandy fans. I have my reasons.
I know that the Commodores ended the year on that 7-game winning streak en route to that historic season. But only the bowl game in Nashville came against a Power 5 bowl team. To that point, James Franklin had yet to beat a ranked team (he only beat 1 in his 3 years at Vandy). Heading into the 2012 postseason, he was also 0-9 against teams that finished with double-digit wins.
I think it would have been a grind for Zac Stacy to try to run the ball against that Notre Dame defense, which was loaded in the front 7 with Te’o, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix III and Prince Shembo. That’s why that defense was No. 2 in scoring in the country.
So, that means we have 5 SEC teams to break down — Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M.
What people said at the time
Let’s try and present this in the most balanced way possible. I’ll look at this by referencing the thing I think Notre Dame wouldn’t have fared well against and what would have been a struggle against the Irish for each SEC team.
No. 5 GEORGIA
What would have fared well against the Irish — That defense, man.
After they had those early issues, they were darn good. Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins and Shawn Williams led a unit that was absolutely loaded. If not for Te’o, Jones would have been widely considered the best defensive player in America that year. In all, 7 players were drafted off the nation’s No. 18 scoring defense, which was led by Todd Grantham.
Against a Notre Dame offense that ranked No. 81 in scoring, the Dawgs’ d-line would have had a field day. It’s not that the Irish never faced elite defenses. They just didn’t fare very well against them.
Here’s how it turned out for Notre Dame against top 30 scoring defenses in 2012:
- No. 1 Alabama (scored 14)
- No. 3 BYU (scored 17)
- No. 9 Michigan State (scored 20)
- No. 11 Stanford (scored 20 … with overtime)
- No. 20 Michigan (scored 13)
- No. 23 Pitt (scored 29 … in 3 overtimes)
In other words, no, I don’t think the Irish would have hit 20 points against that Georgia defense. In those final 8 games after the embarrassment against South Carolina, Georgia allowed an average of 16.3 points. Notre Dame wasn’t built to come back with its passing game, which ranked No. 100. It got an unfriendly reminder of that against Alabama. Giving Grantham’s defense — with that much NFL talent — a chance to pin its ears back could have made for a long night.
What would have been a struggle against the Irish — Georgia fans already know — Aaron Murray in a big game.
As decorated as he was, the biggest knock on the SEC’s all-time touchdown passes leader was how he crumbled when it was all up for grabs. That was already a storyline in Murray’s junior season. That year, he played in 3 games against teams that finished in the top 15 (South Carolina, Florida and Alabama). He was awful in 2 and OK in the other.
- South Carolina: 11-31, 109 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
- Florida: 12-24, 150 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs
- Alabama: 18-33, 265 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
- Total: 41-88 (47%), 524 yards (5.95 YPA), 2 TDs, 5 INTs
At that point in his career, Murray was still just 3-10 against ranked teams. You could argue some of that was on the play-calling of Mike Bobo, or you could claim that he really lacked the deep threat he needed in 2012. There was no Amari Cooper or Odell Beckham Jr. for Murray.
But still. Assuming that Murray would have lined up with a chance to win Georgia’s first national title in 32 years and dealt against the No. 2 defense in America would have been, I’d say, ambitious.
You can be a pro-Murray person and at least acknowledge that there were plenty of playmakers in the front of the Notre Dame defense who could have continued that trend.
No. 5 TEXAS A&M
What would have fared well against the Irish — Jonathan Manziel.
Fresh off his Heisman Trophy ceremony, Manziel was scorching hot. After that LSU loss in October, A&M averaged 46.2 points per game. The Alabama win, which cemented Manziel’s Heisman season, was the only time during that 6-game stretch in which the Aggies didn’t hit at least 38 points, and that was still a 29-point road showing against the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Aggies finished the 2012 season with the No. 4 offense in America. Who was the best scoring offense that Notre Dame faced? No. 12 Alabama, which scored 42 against the Irish, and No. 16 Oklahoma, which was held to 13 against the Irish. Not to take away from what Notre Dame did at Oklahoma — more on that later — but A&M showed the world in a 41-13 Cotton Bowl beatdown of the Sooners that they were far from invincible on that side of the ball.
What’s undeniable is that Notre Dame’s defense never had to cover anyone like Manziel. Even a unit as disciplined as Alabama’s couldn’t keep up with his pace and escapability.
There’s a reason he took the college football world by storm.
What would have been a struggle against the Irish — Jonathan Manziel.
Wait, what? Let me explain.
Go back to that month leading up to the national championship. What was the only thing — and I mean the only thing — that was capable of outshining Te’o during that time? Manziel.
Let’s not forget that the public didn’t find out about the hoax involving the death of Te’o’s fake girlfriend (Lennay Kekua) until 9 days after the BCS National Championship. Te’o and Notre Dame, however, kept this all behind closed doors from early December until the middle of January. Notre Dame didn’t find out about it until Dec. 26, which prompted the university to hire a private investigator.
Te’o, however, continued to exist in this world in which he was playing for his dead girlfriend, which obviously dominated the pregame conversation. He wasn’t nearly as good as he was during the season. Te’o had missed tackles and wasn’t the player who captivated college football. Was that the entire reason Notre Dame lost? No, but it showed how average the Irish looked when Te’o wasn’t at an All-American level.
Back to Manziel.
Is it crazy to think that Manziel, playing for a national title instead of the Cotton Bowl, would have taken some of that attention away from Te’o? There’s no doubt that Manziel was far more interesting to talk and write about than anything on Alabama, which was playing for its 3rd title in 4 years. Te’o still would have been playing while knowing that secret, so obviously there’s no guarantee that a little less attention would have allowed him to make plays.
There would have been all sorts of pressure on Manziel. As great as he was in 2012, there’s no guarantee that the first redshirt freshman to ever win the Heisman would have been able to take that increased attention in stride and deliver a national championship-winning performance against an elite defense. There wasn’t any pressure on him to win the Cotton Bowl.
Manziel vs. Te’o for the title would have been electric, and maybe, just maybe, it could have allowed Te’o to retain his focus a little better.
No. 8 SOUTH CAROLINA
What would have fared well against the Irish — South Carolina rediscovered its identity after Marcus Lattimore’s season-ending injury.
The sensational tailback had dealt with a hip injury in between the Gamecocks’ 2 losses that year (LSU and Florida). On Oct. 27, the horrendous knee injury happened. Many teams would have crumbled. South Carolina wasn’t one of them.
The Gamecocks finished the year 5-0 with wins away from home against Clemson and Michigan. How did they do that? They dominated the turnover battle. They had the advantage in that every game during that stretch, wherein they forced multiple turnovers in every contest.
It also helped that in those 4 final games against Power 5 competition, the Gamecocks averaged 34 points … and did so with 2 quarterbacks. Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson became primary runners without Lattimore. In the Outback Bowl against Michigan, South Carolina won despite the fact that Steve Spurrier only dialed up 5 carries for 1 yard to a tailback.
The Gamecocks became a team that relied on dual-threat quarterbacks to play smart football, and they took chances on defense. They would still give up the big pass play occasionally, but they contained the ground game (No. 18 vs. the run) and got those takeaways. The combination of Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor was dominant. Speaking of Clowney, in those final 4 games vs. Power 5 competition (he sat vs. Wofford), he had 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery.
Oh, and 1 viral moment that deserved a statue:
On this date in 2013, Jadeveon Clowney rocked the Outback Bowl with a hit for the ages. pic.twitter.com/O3bApo59ft
— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2018
What would have been a struggle against the Irish — I’m gonna say something that’s not going to be popular.
Clowney might not have taken over against Notre Dame like he did against virtually everyone in those final 4 games.
If you recall, the Irish’s left tackle was Zack Martin. That’s the same dude who was an All-American in the midst of his 3rd season as a starter. Better yet, he’s the guy who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 1st round of the 2014 NFL Draft … and who has made the Pro Bowl every year he’s been in the NFL.
What people forget about that Outback Bowl was as great as that play was, future 1st-round pick Taylor Lewan actually performed pretty well against Clowney. Lewan, who was a 2-time Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, later told NFL.com that was one of the best games of his college career and that he wasn’t assigned to Clowney on that play:
“It was not my fault. I hate to say it like that because it’s like I am blaming other people, but it was a double team between me and the guard on the backside linebacker. He just went unblocked. At the same time, whether he was unblocked or not, that was one hell of a hit.”
The point is, it wasn’t like Clowney would always just line up against future All-Pro linemen and throw them around like rag dolls. As South Carolina fans saw in 2013, he had his moments of disappearing. There’s no guarantee he would have made his presence felt in Outback Bowl-like fashion against an established, NFL-ready tackle like Martin.
No. 9 FLORIDA
What would have fared well against the Irish — That defense was all sorts of battle-tested.
I mean, we’re talking about a team that would have gone 12-0 if not for 6 turnovers and a fumble on the 5-yard line against Georgia. Still too soon?
It wasn’t just that Florida’s defense, led by the likes of Jonathan Bostic, Matt Elam and Dante Fowler, beat a trio of top-10 teams. It was that they stymied all of them. They held top-10 teams to 15 points per contest in 2012. By the way, that didn’t include going into College Station and holding Johnny Manziel without a touchdown pass in a winning effort.
That defense had 8 players drafted the following 2 years, and it showed. In Year 2 of the Will Muschamp era, that group was dominant all year. In the regular season, only 3 teams hit 20 points. Florida State was the only team that hit 21, and that was only because of a garbage-time touchdown run by EJ Manuel as time expired in a Gators victory in Tallahassee.
And then Teddy Bridgewater’s Louisville squad hit 24 points in the first 27 minutes in the Sugar Bowl.
What would have been a struggle against the Irish — Jeff Driskel against that Notre Dame defense would’ve been … ugly.
As touted as the former 5-star signal-caller was, Florida’s 2012 success happened in spite of his play, not because of his play. In 6 of 13 games as a starter in 2012, Driskel failed to pass for 115 yards. Woof.
He was not the guy who was going to lead a 2-score comeback. How do I know that? Well, because he didn’t face a 2-score deficit until the Sugar Bowl. Between that game and the Georgia mess, we saw how frustrating Florida was when it was forced to throw late. It’s not a coincidence that he had multiple interceptions in both of those games.
Florida wanted Driskel to be the guy. Badly. “…They may have found (a Tim Tebow successor) in Jeff Driskel.”
It’s weird because in many ways, Florida and Notre Dame had eerily similar identities in 2012. They relied on a lights-out defense to do all the heavy lifting. They wanted to beat teams with their ground games instead of relying on their dual-threat quarterbacks (Everett Golson) who were in Year 1 as starters. That formula resulted in both teams playing down to their competition at certain moments.
Let’s just say the Golson vs. Driskel battle wouldn’t exactly have been Baker Mayfield vs. Patrick Mahomes.
No. 14 LSU
What would have fared well against the Irish — Remember when Amari Cooper torched the Irish in the title game? It was like Notre Dame didn’t have him at the top of the scouting report. Well, something tells me that LSU’s elite, NFL-ready receivers would have had a major advantage against the Irish, too.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry could have continued a trend that quietly followed Notre Dame in 2012. That is, in the rare event that they faced NFL-ready receivers, the Irish struggled. We saw that before Cooper went off in the title game. Against USC, Robert Woods put up 92 receiving yards and a score, while Marqise Lee added 75 yards. Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders put up 181 yards on 15 catches in that loss to Notre Dame.
Why? As solid as that defense was most of the time, the Irish didn’t have a defensive back drafted in the first 5 rounds in 2013 or 2014. That explains why whenever Notre Dame actually faced a receiver who was drafted in the first 4 rounds, it showed.
Beckham and Landry were coming off a regular-season finale in which they combined for 188 yards and a score in a win against Arkansas. Could they have continued that against Notre Dame, a la Cooper? Possibly, but there’s a reason maybe that wouldn’t have happened.
What would have been a struggle against the Irish — If LSU plays in a phone booth — like it did too often in 2012 — it plays right into Notre Dame’s hand.
Far too many times, that’s exactly what proved costly. We saw that against Clemson. A conservative game plan was that team’s downfall. It was predictable. How else do you explain that team, with Beckham and Landry, having the No. 94 passing attack? That wasn’t all on Zach Mettenberger, who never hit the 300-yard mark in 2012.
There’s no reason LSU should have only hit 24 points in 2 of 8 SEC games. That LSU team acted like it had Alabama’s ground game, and quite frankly, it probably should have. It had 3 future NFL backs in Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Spencer Ware. Yet that group was only No. 51 in rushing.
There was a common denominator in LSU’s losses — it couldn’t get the ground game going. The Tigers had 2.8 yards per carry in that devastating loss to Alabama, they were limited to 1.7 yards per carry against Florida, and Clemson held them under 100 yards in the bowl game.
Les Miles’ idea of creativity was fake field goals, onside kicks and going for it on 4th down. That didn’t work. An offensive scheme that was begging for a makeover didn’t get it until 2013 when LSU made the big splash of hiring Cam Cameron.
It’s fair to wonder if LSU would have been willing to take those chances against Notre Dame.
The worst take you can have about this debate
“The Irish shouldn’t have been allowed to play for a national title.”
You can think that the Irish weren’t as good as many thought while also acknowledging that they were a deserving BCS National Championship participant. Alabama exposed Notre Dame’s weaknesses, but to say that they only got in because they were a blue blood is inaccurate.
True, Notre Dame only had 1 win vs. a team that finished ranked in the top 14. But Notre Dame beat 9 bowl teams, and that’s not including a 7-win Miami team that had a bowl ban. In addition to beating eventual Rose Bowl-winner Stanford, Notre Dame beat Oklahoma by 3 scores in Norman. The Sooners had 15 rushing yards on the day. That’s fitting because they finished No. 15 in the country with a top-20 offense.
Also, look at the competition:
- 1-loss Oregon
- Lost to the Stanford team that Notre Dame beat
- Didn’t play for a conference title
- At the time, Oregon State was lone win vs. top-15 team
- 1-loss Florida
- Also didn’t have a conference title to play for
- If you’re going to hate on ND for Pitt or BYU scare …
- What about Florida’s late rally vs. Louisiana-Lafayette?
- Or Florida’s 13-point opener vs. Bowling Green?
- Or Florida’s 23 points against FCS Jacksonville State?
- 2-loss Georgia
- We just saw the Dawgs play Alabama
- Had wins vs. 5 bowl teams (Notre Dame had 9)
- People would have quit CFB with another all-SEC title game
- That’s also why Texas A&M wouldn’t have been there
- 1-loss Kansas State
- Was 2 weeks removed from losing 52-24 to unranked Baylor
- Only win vs. team inside top 15?
- A 5-point win at Oklahoma … which Notre Dame beat by 17
See what I’m saying? Don’t tell me a 12-0 Notre Dame team wasn’t deserving. You can say Alabama deserved far more than 3 of the 59 first-place votes in the AP Top 25, but don’t say the Irish only got in because of its national brand.
Thing I didn’t know/forgot about until researching this
It’s how key that Oklahoma win was for Notre Dame.
Let’s not forget that while a good chunk of college football fans were sold on the Irish heading into the postseason, Notre Dame went into Oklahoma in the last week of October as an 11.5-point underdog. That was supposed to be the end of the Irish’s “feel-good story.”
Instead, it was a loud statement. Winning in Norman by 3 scores was quite the feat. Holding Landry Jones and that offense without a touchdown for 50 minutes was quite the feat, as was the aforementioned 15 yards of rushing allowed to Oklahoma (they had a capable back in future Chiefs Super Bowl hero Damien Williams).
Think about the significance of that win. It was sandwiched between quite the stretch for Notre Dame:
- Oct. 13: Overtime win vs. No. 17 Stanford
- Oct. 20: 3-point win vs. BYU (scored winning TD in 4th quarter)
- Oct. 27: Win by 3 scores at No. 8 Oklahoma
- Nov. 3: Triple OT win (with just 29 points) vs. unranked Pitt
- Nov. 10: 21 points in win vs. 2-10 Boston College
Take away that Oklahoma win and yeah, Notre Dame’s perception would have been even more in question.
(What else did I forget? That Mike Golic Jr. was the starting center on that Notre Dame team. I always think of the ESPN radio host as much older than I am when he was my year in school.)
Where I stand on this debate
No, I don’t think that 6 SEC teams would have been Notre Dame. As good as the conference was that year, I don’t think all of those losses were the product of SEC cannibalism. There were teams with some major issues.
For example, I can’t say I’d have much confidence in LSU beating the Irish. Even with a month to prepare, trusting the LSU coaching staff to recognize the need to stretch Notre Dame out and cover the whole field like Alabama did seems ambitious. That team had a month to prepare for Clemson and it made sure to get Beckham and Landry a combined 7 touches for 87 yards (those poor guys had to watch DeAndre Hopkins dominate all game in a competent passing offense).
I struggle with Florida and South Carolina because I don’t think either team would have dominated Notre Dame. I’ll say that Florida would have won but South Carolina would have lost a nail-biter.
That’s not just based on the fact that the Gators dominated Spurrier’s squad when they lined up in the middle of the season. That Florida defense would have come out with much more motivation than we saw in the Sugar Bowl (credit Louisville for being ready to roll). They wouldn’t put Driskel in a tight spot to lead a late 2-score comeback. I brought up my concerns about Driskel facing that Notre Dame defense, which I’d still have.
I would, however, have at least some optimism about Florida’s ground game duo of Mike Gillislee and Matt Jones. They might not have been able to pull off the Eddie Lacy-T.J. Yeldon attack that Alabama had, but I still think they could have been the driving force for the offense with the aforementioned Reed and Trey Burton providing those key red-zone targets to avoid running at that stingy Notre Dame run defense in tight space.
South Carolina, in my opinion, would have beaten Notre Dame with Lattimore. Without him, though, I don’t think they would have been quite as successful following their formula as they were against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. By the way, people forget that the Gamecocks needed that 33-yard touchdown pass in the final 10 seconds to beat the Wolverines.
I think Clowney still would have made plays, but I don’t think Martin would have let him take over the way he did time and time again in that 5-game winning streak to end the season.
As for Georgia and Texas A&M, yes, I think both teams would have beaten Notre Dame by at least 2 scores.
I don’t think Murray would have necessarily exorcised his demons and thrown for 350 yards against the Irish, but I do think he would have made enough plays to win. Let’s not forget that the duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall was special when healthy, which it was at the end of 2012 (they combined for 204 yards and 2 scores in the Capital One Bowl win vs. Nebraska). Gurley and Marshall could have replicated the Lacy-Yeldon combination that was too much for the Irish.
Besides, while I think Martin would have helped alleviate some of the edge pressure that Grantham would have sent, I can’t imagine that offense consistently moving the ball downfield against the Dawgs’ improved defense. Notre Dame could have relied on Theo Riddick some, but falling behind against Georgia would have been a death sentence.
That brings me to A&M.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — A&M would have beaten anyone in America had it lined up on a neutral site in January. That includes Notre Dame. The Aggies were a scorching hot fire after that LSU loss. That’s why the Aggies took down Alabama in Tuscaloosa and dismantled Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
The increased Manziel spotlight (and decreased Te’o spotlight) would give me slight pause to say it would have been something like 50-14, as would the departure of Kliff Kingsbury, who wasn’t the offensive coordinator for the Cotton Bowl because he accepted the head coaching job at Texas Tech. Kingsbury was an important part of Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Houston and A&M.
Having said that, I’m not sure anyone could have really stopped the Aggies. They had a pick-your-poison offense with elite receivers in Mike Evans and Ryan Swope. That all-world offensive line would have protected Manziel, and they could have still moved the ball even if the Irish took away the traditional ground game.
So how ugly would it have been vs. A&M? While I’m at it, why don’t I do scores for all of these games:
- Notre Dame 21, LSU 17
- Notre Dame 24, South Carolina 21
- Florida 14, Notre Dame 13
- Georgia 35, Notre Dame 21
- Texas A&M 45, Notre Dame 17
By my count, including Alabama, that’s 4 SEC teams that I believe would have beaten Notre Dame in 2012. I don’t think the Irish would have been particularly successful on the offensive side against any of those SEC squads, but I can’t say that it would have been a clean sweep.
Notre Dame had its strengths. Alabama just made us forget what exactly those were.