BYU is so lucky! Angry about that? Welcome to college football, pal

Fans, when told that “YOUR TEAM IS SO LUCKY!”, often get upset.

Indeed, it often feels like an insult to be told that your college football team won a game because it was fortunate more than anything else.

I’ve been there.

Before any of us who write about sports began to watch games as chroniclers, we watched games as fans first. Before anyone makes that fundamental change and tries to watch a game with the mindset of an analyst, that person was originally hooked by college football (or any other sport) as a fan, probably through the prism of a given rooting interest.

Before any of us in a press box — or in my case, blogging from a room with televisions in it — seriously considered writing about college football, we grew up with the sport and fumed at our television set whenever the opponent of our favored team would benefit from a lucky break.

If you were a Miami fan, you couldn’t BELIEVE how Boston College benefited from Hail Flutie on that humid Thanksgiving Friday 31 years ago.

If you were a Michigan fan, you were IRATE that USC got a phantom touchdown in the 1979 Rose Bowl — the Trojans clearly fumbled before getting the ball to the goal line.

Beyond a single moment, if you were a Michigan fan or an Iowa fan, you had to curse the darkness every single time the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes narrowly avoided a landmine, the foremost case being “HOLY BUCKEYE” with Craig Krenzel and Michael Jenkins against Purdue on the road. The 2002 Buckeyes stand out as a team which was particularly fortunate to get through the entirety of its season unscathed. The 2012 Notre Dame team traced a similar path before Alabama offered a dose of reality in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.

The problem with using “YOU GOT LUCKY!” as an insult, however — leaving behind some (though not all) of a fan’s inclinations helps one see this — is that if you study college football history, the idea of a luck-free national champion, playoff participant, or conference champion just doesn’t represent the norm in this sport. It doesn’t.

In the 2015 season, no team embodies this reality more than the Brigham Young Cougars, and no player reflects this idea more than Tanner Mangum, the Hail Mary-maker who has obviously put the proper amount of pixie dust on his right arm.


One can choose from dozens of different angles, themes or snapshots in an attempt to capture the insanity of BYU’s 2015 season. No matter which angle you choose, however, the reality of the Cougars’ journey defies all the odds: In two games, they’ve produced two last-ditch Hail Mary completions. BYU has claimed two look-what-I-found-wins, courtesy of a freshman quarterback who was making the first two appearances of his collegiate career after stepping in for a starter (Taysom Hill) who possessed Heisman Trophy-level talent.

What BYU started against Nebraska in week one, it continued Saturday night in week two against a Boise State team which allowed BYU’s Tanner Mangum Magical Mystery Tour to matter.

Brian Murphy of the Idaho Statesman tweeted this nearly an hour before Mangum’s latest trip on the Hail Mary Express:

BYU IS SO LUCKY, so say Boise State (and also Utah) fans.

They’re not even wrong, mind you. However, as Murphy noted, Boise State — which had led by 10 points earlier in the fourth quarter — allowed BYU to stick around. A horrible interception thrown by BSU quarterback Ryan Finley enabled the Cougars to pull within three points, close enough to benefit from another Mangum miracle. Boise State’s offense again shut down in the fourth quarter. Just a couple of first downs would have taken the matter out of Mangum’s hands. There’s always something you can do about the final outcome; when you lose on one play, keep in mind that other plays — in most instances, though not all — could have changed the calculus in the first place.

We saw it throughout college football, especially in a night window of games which crackled and soared: Stacks of showdowns came down to one or two plays. Oklahoma converted a fourth down to stay alive against Tennessee before beating the Vols. Oregon missed a sure touchdown in the dying moments against Michigan State and didn’t get another chance to win. LSU-Mississippi State came down to one kick. Even Auburn had to survive by the skin of its teeth against Jacksonville State; one third-down conversion by the Gamecocks late in that tilt would have sealed Auburn’s demise and knocked the Tigers out of the College Football Playoff race.

This is what people easily forget about college football — or if they don’t forget it, they lose track of its absolute centrality in the workings of the sport: Luck is a necessity in this theater of activity, not a luxury. Go through the list of the past 19 national champions, and I’ll show you a moment when a team experienced noticeable good fortune.

In 1996, Florida needed Arizona State to lose in the Rose Bowl. Before that, the Gators needed Texas to upset Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game in order to draw a rematch with Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. 2003 LSU, 2006 Florida, 2007 LSU, 2008 Florida, 2011 and 2012 Alabama, and 2014 Ohio State all needed at least one team to lose at some point in order to reach the promised land. That’s eight of the 19 teams.

1997 Michigan needed the clock controversy at the end of the 1998 Rose Bowl against Washington State. Nine.

1998 Tennessee needed the Clint Stoerner fumble. Ten.

1999 Florida State needed Clemson coach Tommy Bowden to make the curious decision to kick a late field goal instead of playing for a win. Florida State partially blocked the ensuing kick and held on for a shaky 17-14 win in an early Bowden Bowl. Eleven.

2000 Oklahoma, with its juggernaut offense, scored only 12 points against one of the bad Oklahoma State teams of the past 20 years, and somehow lived to tell the tale. Twelve.

2001 Miami, as great as it was, needed Virginia Tech receiver Ernest Wilford to drop a tying two-point pass in the fourth quarter to remain unbeaten. Thirteen.

2002 Ohio State needed that low-percentage throw from Krenzel to Jenkins against Purdue. It also needed Maurice Clarett’s improbable strip of Sean Taylor in the Fiesta Bowl… and that late penalty against Miami. Fourteen.

2004 USC needed California’s special teams unit to slip up. Three special teams failures made the difference on a day when the Golden Bears mostly controlled the line of scrimmage. Fifteen. 

2005 Texas needed USC to drop an interception on the Horns’ winning drive in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Texas also needed the bizarre Reggie Bush lateral in the first half. Sixteen.

2009 Alabama needed a blocked field goal to avoid losing to Tennessee at home. The Tide also needed Colt McCoy to get injured in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Texas. Seventeen.

2010 Auburn needed an improbable fumble out of the end zone by Alabama’s Mark Ingram, plus multiple dropped passes by the Tide, in order to avoid falling behind by a 35-0 score in a game they did trail, 24-0. Eighteen.

2013 Florida State needed Auburn to miss a field goal in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game. The Seminoles also needed Auburn to miss tackles on a short pass which turned into a game-breaking play by Rashad Greene.

There you have it — each of college football’s last 19 national champions needed at least some luck along the way. The last truly luck-free national champion was the 1995 Nebraska squad which was never breathed on during its march to the winner’s circle.

Luck is, if not an inherent part of this sport, very close to being an unceasingly annual ingredient in any championship season.


You’ll notice that the 2013 Florida State team, last on the list above, played Auburn for the national title. That Auburn team was profiled just this past week in a new SEC Storied documentary for SEC Network.

When Auburn played Florida State on even terms for 60 minutes in Pasadena, it became clear that the 2013 Tigers were a legitimately great team, one which belonged on the same field with a loaded national champion from Tallahassee. Yet, in order for Auburn to gain that stage and that moment, it needed two of the most iconic (and ridiculously unlikely) plays in the history of a sport that’s almost 150 years old… IN CONSECUTIVE WEEKS.

If you think 2015 BYU is lucky, 2013 Auburn serves as a reminder that other teams have produced consecutive games with even more absurd conclusions.

The money line: Being lucky does not detract from being good. You can be both, and as the great Lefty Gomez first taught us when he gave his now-immortal line to the world, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” What you might not realize about Gomez, though, is that while he might have been lucky in spots, he was pretty darn good as a player. The New York Yankee pitcher was a seven-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion, an easy choice for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Lefty Gomez — a humorist as well as a baseball player — was being modest. He was lucky AND good.

The two often coincide with each other.

Just ask the past 19 national champions in college football.

Just ask 2013 Auburn.


The 2015 BYU Cougars have plenty of company. You might think you’re insulting them by telling them how lucky they are, but they know that luck and skill — using the latter to take advantage of the former — are simply different ingredients in the recipe for college football success.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |