Monday, October 12, 2015

Desperate Times

By Jonathan Lowe

There's no denying that football is king in this country. At the professional level, it's a showcase of aerial feats and rumbling violence. Something different accompanies the collegiate version of this sport, though. Sure, the same feats and violence are available (even if they aren't as fast or hard-hitting). But, alongside the passion of alma mater, there's an anxiety that belies the format of each season.

I have disagreed with (and will continue to) the "every week is a tournament" or "each game is sudden death" notion that some prescribe to this game. Honestly, that kind of thinking in this particular situation just irks me. No real rhyme or reason. However, if you take another shot at describing what keeps fans involved in this game, and all of its possible outcomes, I believe there's one simple word that we can agree provides an overall approach ... desperation.

This isn't anything new to people to follow the sport. But the combination of potential "antacid factors" mix quite well. Start off with a short season, giving an amplification to any mistakes found on your record. Next comes the scale factor, weighing a blemish by the amount of quality said vanquisher displays. Add in some timing, as later losses leave little time to recover. Finally, fold the human element into the mix. (That's how an undefeated Florida State team in 2014 found itself with so many questions around it heading into the inaugural playoff.) Together, this is a recipe for drama that I think is unmatched when compared to any other sports season — complete sports season — on the American calendar.

On Saturday night, I was surrounded by monitors that were displaying a multitude of college football contests. It was on this day when the light went on. It was at that time when I realized that desperation was the key to the fascination. I also realized that said desperation doesn't come in one stock package. There are forms of this stuff that vary on your situation.

There's the desperation of staying one step ahead. For the second week in a row, Michigan State needed to hold on to knock away the efforts of a lessor opponent and stay undefeated. The Spartans needed a late score to push past Rutgers, and that was after Purdue couldn't complete what would have been a stunning comeback in East Lansing the week before. For the second time in three games, TCU had to muster a drive in the final minutes to win on the road. Overcoming an 18-point halftime deficit in Manhattan wasn't as dramatic as a toe tap to win in Lubbock, but fans of Horned Frogs everywhere probably needed a defibrillator all the same. A loss, in any of those cases, may push them out of contention for good.

There's the desperation of returning to relevance. Utah is now the last undefeated team in the Pac-12. Their win over previously undefeated Cal marked the fourth time that the Utes have reached the 5-0 mark since 1999 (their first year in the Mountain West Conference). However, this is the first time they've hit this mark since joining the Pac-12. It took them a while to catch up to the "big dogs" of the West, but Kyle Whittingham appears to have led his squad to big dog status. This week was the latest that the Golden Bears displayed a national ranking this late in the season since 2009. If they had pulled off the upset, the program would have boasted its first 6-0 team since 1950. Sonny Dykes has this program back to the status it had a decade ago, when then-coach Jeff Tedford had some guy under center by the name of Aaron Rodgers.

There's the desperation of just getting on to the next day. Um, Oklahoma State is walking on eggshells at this point. Yes, the Cowboys enter the second half of the season with a 6-0 record. Yes, Mike Gundy's crew is 3-0 in true road games in 2015. Yes, they will have a really good shot to get to 8-0 before hitting the meat of their schedule to close out the year. But you have to admit that they're living on borrowed time. There was the ultimate shanked punt at Texas. Then, there was the "official-aided" victory over Kansas State. Saturday, they needed overtime to get out of Morgantown with another victory. Yes, wins are wins are wins. Usually, though, you can only dodge so many salvos before one catches you across the schnoz (see 2014 Florida State).

And then, there's the desperation of avoided the circling buzzards. In college football, securing three items can help a coach achieve a status of comfort in his position. Those would be wins, wins in bowl games, and wins over your rival(s). When it comes to the rival portion of this equation, the compact nature of a this sport's calendar magnifies its importance. Where playing a rival constitutes a small sample size of any other season, it plays a big role in a college football season works itself out. Former Ohio State coach John Cooper is a standard test case for this theory. While in Columbus, he won 70% of his games (111-43-4) and 67% of Big Ten contests (70-30-4). His bowl record was 3-8. His record against rival Michigan ... 2-10-1. That helped get him canned after the 2000 season.

On Saturday, there were a couple of cases where this kind of desperation reared itself. The buzz has been growing around Texas' Charlie Strong and Miami's Al Golden. These once feared programs have fallen to "middling-at-best" status, which doesn't really fly with many boosters and/or some fan bases. But when the Longhorns play Oklahoma, and when the Hurricanes face Florida State, the chance for the ultimate "stick-it-to-ya" moment can be a job saver.

The 'Horns are having a bad season. They were 2-3 going into Saturday's Red River Rivalry game. They were throttled by Notre Dame (season opener) and TCU (heading into the Cotton Bowl). Their special teams infamously blundered in close losses to Cal (botched extra point) and Oklahoma State (that shanked punt that went minus-6 yards). The 'Canes started the year off with three straight wins. One of those was over a Big Ten opponent in Nebraska. Going into Saturday, their offense averaged eight points better than Texas' (37 to 29). Their defense was about 14 points stingier than Texas' (21.75 to 35.25).

Somehow, someway, Strong's Longhorns upset the 10th-ranked Sooners. The feeling of relief was so euphoric that the players lifted their coach in celebration. Golden's Hurricanes couldn't rally late, losing by five to the 12th-ranked Seminoles and leaving QB Brad Kaaya's monster effort (29/49, 405 yds, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) for naught.

Strong is now 1-1 against Oklahoma. The whispers have quieted down for a minute.

Golden is now 0-5 against Florida State. The vultures continue to circle.

And, in delight or frustration, this is why we come back. We love to watch the desperation as it unfolds over four 15-minute clocks. As the pressure of the season ramps up, that desperation will only grow stronger ... and we'll be there to see how it plays out.

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