College football's alternate realities: Biggest 'What Ifs' from classic games

Tom Osborne ended up winning three national championships at Nebraska but he wouldn't have had to wait so long if he just would've kicked the extra point in 1984. AP Photo/David Longstreath

So many of our favorite college football games come down to one play -- the Kick Six, the Bush Push, a late flag in Miami vs. Ohio State. And if those plays go the other way, not only does the outcome change, but the domino effect is almost impossible to measure. Legacies get rewritten, coaches stay put and programs go on a trajectory they might not have otherwise enjoyed.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are featured in multiple games here. And after writing about how close Rich Rodriguez, not Nick Saban, came to coaching the Tide in 2007 -- along with other great coaching "what ifs" -- it's time to turn our attention to our reporters' favorite what ifs involving classic games.

Ryan McGee: I will never question Tom Osborne's desire to win the 1984 Orange Bowl instead of tying. In fact, going for two and losing to Miami was the fuel that powered the Huskers into what they became for the next decade-plus. BUT ... they totally would have won the title if they had kicked the PAT.

Adam Rittenberg: What if Colt McCoy never goes down with injury in the first quarter against Alabama in the 2009 BCS title game? Texas has never been back, and Alabama has been on a historic run ever since its first championship under Nick Saban. Or what if Notre Dame beats USC in 2005, and the game was deemed over before the Bush Push? Maybe the Irish reach the national title game that year. Maybe it still ends up badly for Charlie Weis at his alma mater. USC also might never play Texas for the championship in arguably the greatest CFB game ever.

Chris Low: What if referee Terry Porter doesn't throw the controversial fourth-down penalty flag in overtime for pass interference in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (after about a 3-second delay, as Miami fans will gladly remind you)? Miami would have won its second straight national championship to cap the 2002 season with the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, meaning the Hurricanes would remain the last FBS team to win back-to-back national championships and go unbeaten both seasons. They went 12-0 in the 2001 national title season and had won 34 straight games prior to that 31-24 double-overtime setback to the Buckeyes.

Mark Schlabach: What if Alabama's Nick Saban had punted -- instead of attempting a walk-off 57-yard field goal -- on the final play of the 2013 Iron Bowl? What if Saban hadn't challenged the timekeeper and argued for one more second? Adam Griffith's long field goal try was short, Auburn's Chris Davis caught the ball in the end zone and ran 109 yards for the winning touchdown in a 34-28 victory. It was one of the most iconic touchdowns in college football history. The victory put the Tigers in the SEC championship game, which they won to reach the BCS National Championship, losing to Florida State 34-31.


2013 Iron Bowl unforgettable because of 'Kick Six'

The 2013 Auburn-Alabama game was decided by one of the most famous plays in college football history: "The Kick Six."

Alex Scarborough: There's another Alabama "what if" that won't send Saban's blood pressure through the roof: What if he hadn't benched Jalen Hurts at halftime of the CFP National Championship game in favor of Tua Tagovailoa? It was perhaps the most unprecedented in-game coaching decision of the past decade, benching a former SEC Offensive Player of the Year in favor of an unknown true freshman with no meaningful experience, but it paid off with Saban's fifth title at Alabama. Tagovailoa might be at USC otherwise, transferring over a lack of playing time. Hurts might have never left for Oklahoma. And those are just two Heisman Trophy finalists directly impacted by the move. Take a step back, and the move indirectly impacted a number of other programs, including Georgia, Ohio State and Miami.

Ivan Maisel: Florida State began the 1991 season ranked No. 1 and for seven weeks looked every bit like one of the best teams in modern memory. In consecutive weeks, the Seminoles set a Big House scoring record by thrashing No. 3 Michigan 51-31, then embarrassed No. 10 Syracuse 46-14. It looked as if this would be the season that Florida State upended cross-state rival Miami and won Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden his first national championship. But in Week 8, Florida State played at LSU in a rainy, muddy Death Valley. Florida State won 27-16, coming back from 13 points down, but lost the war. Seven Seminoles suffered serious injuries, including three shoulder separations and two knee sprains. Florida State was never the same team. The Seminoles finished the season by losing to Miami 17-16 in Wide Right I. What if the Seminoles had been healthy?


Florida State Wide Right I, II and III

GameDay 100: 1991, 1992 and 2000 matchups between the Seminoles and Hurricanes are decided by wide right kicks.

David M. Hale: Few coaches have been cursed by "what if" more than Mark Richt. What if Rex Grossman hadn't carved up his defense in 2002? What if D.J. Shockley hadn't gotten hurt just before the Florida game in 2005? What if Steve Spurrier hadn't pulled the massive upset in Athens in 2007, the year Georgia finished No. 2 in the polls? But, of course, no what-if looms larger than the one in 2012, when Aaron Murray's pass was deflected and caught by Chris Conley at the 5-yard line, running out the clock on the Bulldogs' comeback attempt against Alabama in the SEC championship game. A loss by the Tide wouldn't have done much to change Nick Saban's legacy, but boy would that win have altered how we view Richt. A Georgia victory likely sends the Bulldogs to the national championship game, where a less talented Notre Dame would've been the last obstacle to a trophy. Instead, assuming he never coaches again, Richt will take his place in the pantheon of greatest coaches never to win a national title, alongside Frank Beamer, Pat Dye and Bo Schembechler. Ah, what might've been.

Heather Dinich: What if undefeated 2014 Florida State -- the team that won seven of its 13 games by a touchdown or less -- finally saw its luck run out in the ACC championship game against Georgia Tech? The Seminoles were the only undefeated Power 5 team left in the country that season -- the first year of the CFP -- and the selection committee had them at No. 3, behind two one-loss teams in Alabama and Oregon. That was the year the committee shocked everyone with the final ranking when it dropped TCU from No. 3 to No. 6. If Georgia Tech had won the ACC, though, FSU likely would've dropped out of the top four, making room for one of the Big 12 teams. If TCU or Baylor would have gotten in, would the Big 12 still have a conference championship game?