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Monday, November 19, 2012
The Butterfly Effect: Notre Dame edition

By Matt Fortuna

What if Ndamukong Suh had not been so fast?

What if Nebraska's all-everything tackle had been a split-second slower in pursuit of Colt McCoy on the second-to-last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game?

That would have made Suh's pursuit of McCoy the last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game. And if Suh's pursuit of McCoy had been the last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game, McCoy's throw away to the near sideline would have hit the ground after the clock inside Jerry's World struck zero, making Nebraska 12-10 winners over Texas.

And if Nebraska had been 12-10 winners over Texas, the Cornhuskers would have been storming the field in celebration before lifting up the hardware after the second-to-last Big 12 title game. And the dejected Longhorns would have been walking off the field after their first loss of the season, assuring them a drop from their No. 3 ranking.

That would have ruined Texas' chances of moving up a spot after No. 1 Florida fell earlier in the day to No. 2 Alabama in the SEC title game. And if No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Texas had both lost on Dec. 5, 2009, the Crimson Tide would have needed a new opponent on Jan. 7, 2010 in Pasadena, Calif.

And, wouldn't you know it, just hours earlier on the final regular-season Saturday of 2009, there was No. 5 Cincinnati, completing a 21-point comeback at Pittsburgh and scoring the winning touchdown with 33 seconds left in the de facto Big East title game, escaping as 45-44 victors.

You know where the Bearcats landed in the next day's BCS rankings? Third.

You know where they would have landed had Texas lost to Nebraska? Second.

You know who would have been playing Alabama at the Rose Bowl in that scenario? Cincinnati, coached by Brian Kelly.

And if Kelly had been preparing a team for the BCS title game three years ago, well, he may have had a much more difficult time accepting a job offer from Notre Dame around the same time.

Instead, Suh was too quick in his pursuit of McCoy on the second-to-last play of the 2009 Big 12 title game, forcing McCoy to throw the ball away to the near sideline a split-second too soon.

Nebraska stormed the field in celebration, but the Cornhuskers didn't lift up any hardware. Officials reviewed their ruling, they concluded that McCoy's pass had, in fact, hit the ground just before the clock inside Jerry's World struck zero, and they allowed Hunter Lawrence to come on with one second left, before he drilled a 46-yard field goal to make Texas 13-12 winners over Nebraska.

The Longhorns went to Pasadena, Cincinnati went to New Orleans, Kelly went to South Bend.

Three years later, Kelly has brought Notre Dame back to the top of the college football world, one win away from a national title game appearance.

Absurd to think about the alternative? Probably. But it also illustrates the thin line between fate and circumstance, between cause and effect.

A late throw here, a missed field goal there -- all of it conspires to doom one team or another, sooner or later.

One team's misfortune is another team's gain. Few groups these last 20 years have experienced the pain of that more than Notre Dame. And amidst a season of close calls for the nation's new No. 1 team, the turning point can come in the oddest of places.

Perhaps even three years earlier, in Suh's motor.