Saturday, December 27, 2008

What if?

Everybody does it. You think back to that play -- a dropped pass, a fumble, a questionable call -- and you wonder: What if?

It's funny to think how thin the line is between great and ordinary, between praised and hated, between coach of the year and out of a job. With so many thousands of plays in a given season, it's easy to look past the few that truly determined the outcome of a game (or more). Or, as a coach would say in an effort to deflect criticism from a single player: One play doesn't decide the game.

Except sometimes, it does. And sometimes history changes with it. A recent Yahoo article looks back at some of the fortune-changing moments from this season, as well as a few of the "what if" scenarios that could have significantly altered the college football landscape.
Tennessee, for example, lost to UCLA (the Volunteers lost a fumble at UCLA's 6-yard line in a 27-24 overtime loss), Auburn (the Tigers recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown in a 14-12 victory) and Wyoming (the Cowboys returned an interception for a touchdown for the winning margin in a 13-7 victory).

Tennessee finished 5-7 and dismissed coach Phil Fulmer. Without those three costly turnovers, the Vols would have finished 8-5 and Fulmer would have been contractually guaranteed a raise and a contract extension.

Did Fulmer suddenly lose his status as a good coach because of three fluke plays? Tennessee seemed to think so.

Another perfect example: Texas freshman safety Blake Gideon dropped an easy interception off a deflected Texas Tech pass in the closing seconds of the Longhorns' only loss. If Gideon holds on, Texas finishes undefeated, wins the Big 12 and is preparing to play Florida for the national title right now. Oh, and Colt McCoy wins the Heisman. There's no way a QB with McCoy's numbers -- playing for the only major undefeated team and a unanimous No. 1 -- doesn't win the award.

West Virginia lost three games in overtime or in the final minute of regulation. Buffalo won three games in overtime and one on a hail mary on the final play of regulation. These are the differences between a disappointing season and a conference title.

This makes sense, right? Yet I constantly read about how Ohio State shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the national title game for the foreseeable future or how Oklahoma can't win a big game. Those conclusions are made based on microscopic sample sizes -- one game -- from different years.

If LSU doesn't put together a 21-point second quarter in last year's BCS title game, Ohio State is your defending national champion. If Boise State's tight end drops that fourth-down touchdown pass in the '07 Fiesta Bowl, all the talk of Bob Stoops' failures in BCS games (which is ridiculous to begin with) goes away.

Basing the strength of a conference, a coach or a team on one particular result (or a small set of results) just isn't going to provide you with an accurate analysis -- there are simply too many games that are arbitrarily decided by a single play, providing you no real information about which team is better.

Judgments like those are for bad columnists and talking heads who don't understand how thin that line is. All you have to do is look at the examples above and say to yourself, "What if ... ?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some more stuff on Tennessee's bad decision to fire Fulmer:

5 Reasons Fulmer should still be the coach at Tennessee