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How one night in November kept Notre Dame from winning the 2012 national championship

Notre Dame’s legitimate claim to its 22nd national championship died in November

The 2012 college football season wasn’t supposed to be anything special for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It was the third year on the job for head coach Brian Kelly, but nothing from the 2010 or 2011 seasons really showed that Notre Dame was much better than it was under the Charlie Weis regime.

THE BUILDUP

Prior to the 2011 season, Notre Dame was absolutely roasted by ESPN’s Wright Thompson in a video piece that has come to be known as “The Notre Dame Eulogy.” The Irish didn’t do much to defend themselves that year with an 8-5 season that ended in a bad loss to the Florida State Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl (now known as the Camping World Bowl).

In the summer of 2012, it was Rick Reilly’s turn to trash the Irish. Reilly wrote a piece about how Notre Dame had “relegated themselves to insignificance” that had Irish fans foaming at the mouths with anger. It was one of those articles that not only rallied fans — but Notre Dame players as well.

Of course, at the time, very few outside of the Notre Dame bubble were ready to defend the Irish going into the 2012 season. Notre Dame was unranked to start the season, and that 8-5 prediction was pretty close to what a lot of the media was saying at the time.

The Irish went to Dublin and beat the crap out of the Navy Midshipmen, and then came home to play like crap in a win over the Purdue Boilermakers. A dominating win over the #10 ranked Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing saw the Irish shoot up to #11 in the polls.

Notre Dame v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Notre Dame took care of the #18 ranked Michigan Wolverines and then went to Chicago to bully the Miami-Florida Hurricanes as part of the Shamrock Series. Ranked #7 in the nation, Notre Dame then welcomed the #18 ranked Stanford Cardinal and ESPN’s College Gameday to South Bend for an epic win in the rain.

After a tense win over the BYU Cougars inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish traveled to Norman and beat the 11 point favorite and #8 team in the nation — the Oklahoma Sooners. After a close win over the Pittsburgh Panthers, the Irish rolled to easy wins over the Boston College Eagles and Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

Notre Dame was now the #1 team in the country and beat its bitter rival, the USC Trojans, in Los Angeles to finish the regular season 12-0 and ranked #1 with a trip schedule to the BCS National Championship in Miami.

It was an incredible season. If you want to relive the magic of those twelve games, allow me to recommend this highlight video one more time:

Notre Dame’s championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide was absolutely not incredible — it was dreadful. The Irish took on a 12-1 Nick Saban Bama team that was experienced, ridiculously talented across the board, and had a giant chip on their shoulder because of that one loss. The Tide rolled to a 42-14 win over the Irish that was so dominating, all of the narrative that Notre Dame changed over the course of the season were completely thrown in the trash.

No one in the country was going to beat Bama that night — or even come close. That’s how good of a team that was, and because Nick Saban is outstanding with over a month to prepare for a game.

ONE WEIRD NIGHT IN NOVEMBER

Notre Dame lost the game to Alabama, but the championship was really lost on November 17th after they beat Wake Forest on Senior Day 38-0. Notre Dame was the #3 team in the country, and we all settled in for prime time games for the #1 Oregon Ducks and #2 Kansas State Wildcats.

Kansas State at Baylor Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

When you’re the #3 team in the country all you’re doing is praying for one of the two teams ahead of you to lose so you’re in a position to play for a national championship. Of all of the prayers thrown up to heaven from the Notre Dame faithful over the years, the many were answered on November 17, 2012. Oregon lost at home to Stanford and Kansas State lost to the Baylor Bears in Waco. After midnight — the Irish were the clear #1 team in the country with just one game left in the season.

Over the years we have fixated on Kansas State’s loss to Baylor as being central to the Notre Dame story in 2012. After all, it wasn’t a huge surprise that Oregon lost to a very good and ranked Stanford team. Baylor, on the other hand, was a dangerous team — but unranked and was seemingly outmatched before their game against the Wildcats.

At the time, it was the most incredible night since November 13, 1993. In the span of 8 hours, the Irish had gone from #3 to #1. I remember Wes ( @irishtightness) calling me on the phone — and we were going nuts. We debated about driving up to South Bend to watch them light up the #1 sign on Grace Hall, but given the time of night, we were both knee deep in liquor and smartly decided against driving the 90 minutes into God’s country.

There was no way we could have known that the absolute pure joy that we were experiencing was nothing more than a cruel illusion put forth by the football gods. That night set a collision course for Notre Dame and Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. It also directed both Oregon and Kansas State to the Fiesta Bowl — a game where the Ducks took out KSU 35-17.

Grace Hall Julie Hauenstein

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

Without a doubt, had Kansas State won that night in November, Notre Dame and the Wildcats would have played in Miami, and the Irish would have won the game and the title. Had Oregon won out instead, I firmly believe Notre Dame would have still won that game — but it would have been much closer than the hypothetical matchup against Kansas State.

That’s it. That’s the unclaimed glory. Notre Dame lost the 2012 title in November — not in January of 2013. If Notre Dame would have won that night in Miami against, for example, Kansas State — the entire narrative for the program would be much different today.

It’s a shame because that season was so insanely thrilling and satisfying for 12 games. It remains as one of my most favorite Notre Dame football seasons in my lifetime, and regardless of the result, that team will always have my utmost respect and love.

Michigan v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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