Wednesday, August 10, 2011

on championships and "luck"

For my many Auburn friends and family, the 2010 season was a truly memorable ride. And, like most people who experienced such a memorable ride, they are fiercely protective of it.
So it's not a huge shock that most Auburn folks turn nasty around people attempting to marginalize the 2010 season. They cheated ... they were dirty ... they got lucky.
They got lucky. For whatever reason, this one sets people off more than anything. Including me, by the way — my entire life, I've listened to my Auburn friends complain about Alabama: "They're the luckiest (expletives) on the planet."
I guess this makes us angry because we take it to mean our favorite team is somehow undeserving of its wins; that anybody could've won those games, if only they'd just been lucky like we were.

That's not really fair, though. To win a championship these days, particularly in the mine field that is the Southeastern Conference, you need to be a) a great team; b) lucky.
(Note: I was going to add in "be very well-coached," but as you'll see, that doesn't always appear to be the case. Then again, what do I know, right?)

Take a look, for example, at Auburn in 2010. They got lucky when the best player in the country fell out of the sky to play quarterback for them (and even luckier he stayed healthy for the entire season). They got lucky with the schedule: Auburn didn't play a truly tough game away from home until November (in Tuscaloosa). They got lucky when Clemson's Kyle Parker missed Jaron Brown in the end zone in overtime. They got lucky Ryan Mallett was injured in the second half of the shootout vs. Arkansas. They got lucky when Steve Spurrier inexplicably pulled Stephen Garcia in the fourth quarter. They got lucky when Mark Ingram fumbled (he never fumbles) and it rolled through the end zone, when Trent Richardson dropped an easy TD pass, when Anthony Steen stopped playing after surrendering a sack because he didn't realize the ball was still in play.
(Hang on, I have to go outside and walk through a patch of briars. I'll be right back.)
(And, we're good.)
You get the idea. Auburn stayed healthy. Auburn recovered most of its fumbles.
By the time Darvin Adams caught a ridiculous tipped pass in the end zone to close the first half of the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, it was cemented: the ball was bouncing Auburn's way in 2010, and nobody could do anything to stop it. The Tigers even got a little extra luck in the BCS title game, for good measure.

Auburn fans aren't apologizing, and they should not. In fact, looking over the 5-year run of "dominance" by the SEC in national championships, luck bears itself out in each championship run.

2006 Florida: While researching for this post, I realized I had little to no memory of the '06 Gators, an unremarkable team that won with a relatively pedestrian offense and a nasty D. So I read a little, and remembered:
• Florida survived a 1-point win over Tennessee, a 7-point win over Georgia, a 6-point win vs. Vandy and a 1-point win over South Carolina. The Carolina victory stands out the most: Spurrier's Gamecocks had an extra point and potential game-winning field goal blocked in the fourth quarter.
• After winning the SEC title (and by the way, Arkansas was up in that game in the second half before stupidly fumbling away a punt return inside the 5), UF got one really big break: They rose above the pool of 1-loss teams to get a bid to the BCS title game. Specifically, they somehow were selected over 1-loss Michigan, the team top-ranked Ohio State had just beaten in November.

2007 LSU: Good Lord, where do you even start? Despite arguably the most talented team in SEC history, Les Miles' eventual national champs seemed to make things difficult on a routine basis, and only escaped by the narrowest of margins. Running down the list:
• They escaped an upset vs. Florida only after a 15-play, 60-yard drive that featured two fourth-down conversions (including the game-winning TD).
• They survived vs. Auburn only after a completely unnecessary TD pass that could've (should've) been disastrous. In fact, this one really deserves to be viewed.

Miles admitted after the game he had no idea how much time was left on the clock. That kind of recklessness really should not be rewarded, but it was.
• Two weeks after that, LSU had to rally from behind twice to beat outmanned Alabama, converting on fourth down (really) for the game-tying TD, then forcing a John Parker Wilson fumble that led to the game-winning TD. That 'Bama team, incidentally, had no business being within 3 scores of LSU.
• With its starting quarterback out, LSU trailed Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game late, only to have Erik Ainge throw a pick-6 for the game-winning points.
• In the middle of all that, LSU actually lost two games (to Kentucky and Arkansas) ... only to see dominoes fall around them that allowed them into the BCS title game against, yes, Ohio State. Big win, 'nother BCS title for the conference.

2008 Florida: The Gators were actually pretty dominant on their way to the BCS title game, their September loss to Ole Miss aside. It is worth noting, though, that if Dont'a Hightower didn't get called for a facemask on the game-deciding fourth-quarter drive in the SEC Championship Game, this conversation might be different. Also, there's the ongoing conversation about injury luck: How many times can you run your quarterback between the tackles in the country's strongest conference without him suffering an injury? The mind boggles, really. Since I have nothing else to add, here's a video where people say "Tim Tebow" over and over again.

2009 Alabama: Survived a three-game stretch in the middle of the year in which the offense basically disappeared (particularly near the end zone), including the game most people point to when discussing 'Bama's luck that season:

(Worth noting: I was so frustrated by the turn of events that preceded that I actually walked out before the last play, unwilling to watch Tennessee fans celebrate in the middle of our stadium. If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about that game and how lucky we were to win it, I'm not sure what will.)
• Two weeks after that, 'Bama got lucky that a fourth-quarter interception by Patrick Peterson was incorrectly ruled incomplete. LSU probably wasn't going to win that game anyway, but it was still a break.
• Bama needed a long drive to beat Auburn later that month, aided by a couple timely third-down conversions and the officials not noticing all the illegal picks we set to free our receivers.
• In the actual championship game, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy went down on the first possession with a shoulder injury. His backup, untested freshman Garrett Gilbert, played well but really never stood a chance.
(Note: I said this at the time, but TU kind of had that one coming. As we said earlier regarding Florida and Tebow, making your quarterback your primary rushing threat, with no hint of a backup plan ... you're kind of asking for it.)

One other note, while were here: This "luck" thing tends to even itself out. In all four of these championship defenses, the charmed life of a champion didn't carry over to the following season. Only 2009 Florida — returning much of its cast from the previous season (particularly ... well, you know, the quarterback) — lost fewer than three games. In every case, the teams weren't demonstrably worse — just didn't catch the same breaks as the year before. For 2011 Auburn, already playing a much tougher schedule with the greenest roster in college football, the mountain looks even more difficult to climb.
As for the rest of us, let's cross our fingers and hope we catch a break or two this fall. From the looks of things, we're definitely going to need it.

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