2018 Notre Dame Football vs. 2012 Irish: Who wins?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In the NCAA’s eyes, the 2012 Notre Dame football season doesn’t exist.

There’s a worn-out punchline lurking in there somewhere, but the 12 vacated victories and the one vacated 28-point beatdown from Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game — as a consequence of ND’s 2014 academic scandal — are real and mostly spectacular when it comes to the rest of the college football world.

But how real and how spectacular? Using the current 12-0 season as a measuring stick, let’s explore which team — 2012 or 2018 — was better within the context of its own season, and which would win in a timeless battle against each other.

Personnel

The 2012 group definitely had more star power. Linebacker Manti Te’o is the most decorated defensive player in college football history, winning the Maxwell, Lott, Bednarik, Nagurski, Butkus, Lombardi and Walter camp awards, and finishing second to Johnny Manziel in the Heisman Trophy race.

Four players made at least third-team AP All-America in 2012 — Te’o, tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and center Braxston Cave. A fifth, left tackle Zack Martin, was a Walter Camp second-team All-American.

Realistically, the 2018 team’s contingent will top out at three, if that — cornerback Julian Love, linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery being the top candidates.

When you break it down by position group, the 2012 team has the edge at tight end, running back, edge defenders and interior defensive line, but not a wide gap in any of those spots, especially if you consider quality depth.

The 2018 team checks the boxes at QB, wide receiver and cornerback — and by lopsided margins. It also holds the upper hand at safety, special teams and yes, linebacker — even with Te’o on the ’12 team. He didn’t have the sidekick in Drue Tranquill that Coney has. Offensive line is a push.

Advantage: 2018.

Metrics

Looking at the nine major offensive statistical categories (using national rankings rather than averages), the 2018 team holds the advantage in five of them, and decidedly so in total offense and scoring offense.

The 2012 team gets the edge in six of the nine defensive statistics, including significant margins in total defense and scoring defense. In special teams/turnover margin, 2018 gets four of the six wins there.

Overall, it’s 13 advantages for 2018 and 12 for 2012. However, there are five key metrics that championship teams tend to excel in — rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin.

With a top 35 ranking in each category being the desired threshold for success, the 2018 team meets that in all but rushing offense (50th). The 2012 team falls short in rushing offense (38th) and pass efficiency (74th).

In fact, the pass-efficiency ranking of 74th is the worst mark ever among the 40 teams that have played for a national title in the BCS/Playoff Era, and by a large margin. Nebraska, the 2001 runner-up, has the next worst, at No. 43.

By computer models, though, 2012 played the tougher schedule, and the 2012 Irish were No. 1 in the AP poll at the regular season’s end. The 2018 team has been holding at No. 3 for more than a month.

Advantage: Push.

Eye Test

Those in the national media who have seen both teams play say the 2018 team is better, because it’s more balanced, it’s deeper, it is capable of stretches of dominance. The quarterback difference — Ian Book vs. Everett Golson — is chasmic.

The one-sided loss to Alabama in the title game is difficult to extract from the formula. The defenses play very different styles, but styles that benefited them in those seasons.

It’s clear that the 2018 Irish are deeper, and not just on the defensive line. The assistant coaching staff, the strength staff are both better — even head coach Brian Kelly is a better version of himself in 2018.

Advantage: 2018.

Intangibles

One of the most telling intangibles is being SEC-tested. When Notre Dame faced Alabama for a national title at the end of the 2012 season, the Irish hadn’t played an SEC team in six seasons (a 41-14 Sugar Bowl loss to LSU) or in the regular season since 2005 (a 41-21 home win over Tennessee).

Jack Swarbrick got proactive after 2012 and started to add SEC teams to the regular-season future schedules, and the Irish started to catch them in bowl games.

The 2014 team met and beat LSU in the Music City Bowl (31-28), then played two SEC teams last season, losing to eventual NCAA runner-up Georgia by a point (20-19) and rallying past LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl.

The Irish also played eventual playoff teams from the ACC on the road in 2014 (Florida State) and 2015 (Clemson) falling short in the closing moments of both games. Vanderbilt gave ND an SEC look this season, albeit not an elite one.

Above all that, even Kelly would say that the parts of the 2012 team may shine individually brighter, but the parts of the 2018 team fit together bette

Projected final score: 2018 Irish 23, 2012 Irish 14.

LEFT: Notre Dame inebacker Manti Te’o points to the sky as he leaves the field after a 20-3 win against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. in 2012. RIGHT: Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams points to the sky before the Notre Dame-USC in Los Angeles Nov. 24, 2018. Tribune Photos/JAMES BROSHER AND MICHAEL CATERINA
TOP: Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams finds open field on a touchdown run at Virginia Tech in 2018. BOTTOM: Notre Dame’s defense makes the game winning stop on fourth-and-1 in overtime to seal a 20-13 victory over Stanford in 2012.

2012

Coach: Brian Kelly

Captains: Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te’o

Record: 12-1

(Home Games in Bold)

Sept. 1* — Notre Dame 50, Navy 10

Sept. 8 — No. 22 Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17

Sept. 15 — No. 20 Notre Dame 20, No. 10 Michigan State 3

Sept. 22 — No. 11 Notre Dame 13, No. 18 Michigan 6

Oct. 6# — No. 9 Notre Dame 41, Miami, Fla. 3

Oct. 13 — No. 7 Notre Dame 20, No. 17 Stanford 13 (OT)

Oct. 20 — No. 5 Notre Dame 17, BYU 14

Oct. 27 — No. 5 Notre Dame 30, No. 8 Oklahoma 13

Nov. 3 — No. 4 Notre Dame 29, Pittsburgh 26 (3OT)

Nov. 10 — No. 4 Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6

Nov. 17 — No. 3 Notre Dame 38, Wake Forest 0

Nov. 24 — No. 1 Notre Dame 22, USC 13

BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Jan. 7^ — No. 2 Alabama 42, No. 1 Notre Dame 14

*At Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland

#At Soldier Field in Chicago

^At Miami Gardens, Fla.

2018

Coach: Brian Kelly

Captains: Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, Tyler Newsome, Drue Tranquill

Record: 12-0

(Home Games in Bold)

Sept. 1 — No. 12 Notre Dame 24, No. 14 Michigan 17

Sept. 8 — No. 8 Notre Dame 24, Ball State 16

Sept. 15 — No. 8 Notre Dame 22, Vanderbilt 17

Sept. 22 — No. 8 Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 27

Sept. 29 — No. 8 Notre Dame 38, No. 7 Stanford 17

Oct. 6 — No. 6 Notre Dame 45, No. 24 Virginia Tech 23

Oct. 13 — No. 5 Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14

Oct. 27* — No. 3 Notre Dame 44, Navy 22

Nov. 3 — No. 3 Notre Dame 31, Northwestern 21

Nov. 10 — No. 3 Notre Dame 42, Florida State 13

Nov. 17# — No. 3 Notre Dame 36, No, 12 Syracuse 3

Nov. 24 — No. 3 Notre Dame 24, USC 17

*At San Diego

#At Yankee Stadium in New York

Tale of the Tape

How the 2018 Notre Dame football team is faring in the national statistical rankings compared to the end-of-the-season rankings for the 2012 Irish team that played for the national title:

2018 2012

OFFENSE

Rushing 50 38

Passing 30 71

Total 27 54

Scoring 33 78

Pass Efficiency 32 74

Sacks Allowed 30 28

3rd-Down Efficiency 29 24

Red Zone 47 70

Turnovers Lost 36 13

DEFENSE

Rushing 31 11

Pass Efficiency 4 16

Total 22 7

Scoring 11 2

Sacks By 37 22

Tackles/Loss 62 78

3rd-Down Defense 58 35

Red Zone 29 7

Turnovers Gained 37 46

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kickoff Return 51 93

Kickoff Coverage 111 77

Punt Return 47 116

Punt Coverage 72 84

Net Punting 64 105

MISC.

Turnover Margin 35 27