Want to get a college football fan base riled up?
Tell that fan base its team is LUCKY.
It feels like such an insult, such a putdown, such a diminishment of what a bunch of young men and a coaching staff have just accomplished.
It’s understandable — we’ve all been there as sports fans. When a fan becomes a writer, though, the perspective changes. Being lucky doesn’t become an insult; when you are assigned to watch hundreds of football games, year after year, you realize very quickly that luck is simply a core part of the sport.
The salient question is not, “Was Team X lucky to win?”
No, the important question is, “Did Team X make use of the breaks that came its way?”
In order to make sense of Auburn’s 20-14 win over Kansas State last night, a discussion of luck has to be part of the larger story.
There’s no need for a long and sprawling discourse about luck in sports, especially college sports and particularly college football, to pound home its importance and centrality. If your team makes the national title game, chances are it received a powerful dose of luck at some point along the way.
Oregon needed a false start from California’s placekicker to reach the 2011 BCS National Championship Game against Auburn.
LSU needed an incorrect non-call of simultaneous possession in its 9-6 win over Alabama to get to the 2012 BCS title game in New Orleans. (That was the Eric Reid-Michael Williams play near the goal line, in case you’re wondering.)
Notre Dame needed Pittsburgh’s field goal kicker to gack in overtime in order to reach the 2013 BCS title game. The Fighting Irish needed timely mistakes from Stanford and BYU in other contests during the 2012 regular season.
Alabama needed Georgia to catch a deflected pass in bounds in the final seconds of the 2012 SEC Championship Game to advance to the BCS title game against Notre Dame.
Texas needed a railing in AT&T Stadium to stop the flight of a Colt McCoy pass with one second left so that it could kick the winning field goal against Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game. The kick sent the Longhorns to the 2010 BCS National Championship Game against Alabama.
LSU needed Missouri and West Virginia losses on the final night of the 2007 regular season to make and then win the 2008 BCS National Championship Game against Ohio State.
Oklahoma needed the comparatively arbitrary features of the Big 12 South’s awkward (non-)tiebreaker system to reach the 2009 BCS title game against Florida.
Just about every year, folks, if a team plays for the national championship of college football, it has encountered a lucky horseshoe along the path, or found a four-leaf clover in its pocket. The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers represent the exception that proves the rule.
This doesn’t mean any of these above-referenced teams were second-rate or undeserving of what they achieved. This doesn’t mean their accomplishments were cheap, or that their efforts didn’t amount to much.
Goodness gracious sakes alive, what is college football? It’s a sport played by 19- and 20-year-olds growing into their bodies before screaming crowds of 85,000 people and national television cameras. The ball has an odd shape and will take all sorts of weird bounces.
Do we expect cold, machine-like, Tom Brady-level consistency from each and every quarterback? Do we expect games bereft of abrupt and startling plot twists? Do we expect an absence of nerves and the jettisoning of jitters?
This is part of college football’s appeal for those who love it: The drama of young athletes trying to find themselves under pressure is precisely what creates an immensely compelling spectacle. The fact that these are not 10-year veterans who have been there and done that many times over is what lends college football its endlessly-entertaining lack of predictability. Constant variety and a dearth of obvious outcomes make this sport enduringly fresh for mind and ear and eye.
The chaos is a feature, not a bug. It’s part of the charm, not an off-putting element.
The point should be plain: Luck stands at the heart of this sport. The sin is not to receive luck; it’s to fail to make good use of it.
Kansas State kicker Jack Cantele, who missed three field goals on Thursday night, lost this game for the Wildcats, as did teammate Tyler Lockett when he dropped a can-of-corn touchdown pass and watched his clanger float into the arms of an Auburn defender in the end zone.
Had Auburn lost, the Tigers would have had just as much reason to say that they lost this game as opposed to Kansas State winning it. The Tigers dropped a touchdown pass and dropped several other passes that would have moved the sticks on drives that ultimately failed to score points. This game was very much like a BCS championship game in that it was jam-packed with nerves on both sides. The conceptually simple but situationally difficult act of SETTLING THE HECK DOWN was the primary task for both teams as the game developed, and Auburn clearly did a better job of getting out of its own way just enough to survive.
Were the Tigers lucky? Please — do not try to insist that this was a luck-free victory. There’s no negative connotation or intent in saying that the Tigers were very fortunate. This is merely the reality of college football ever since the sport was founded in 1869, nearly 150 years ago.
What’s the true measure of a team, especially if it tests itself on the road and out of conference in a nationally televised prime-time weeknight game? Making use of that luck.
Auburn finally punished Kansas State for its missed kicks and sloppy ballhandling, forging a 20-7 lead. When the Wildcats moved within six points under the four-minute mark of regulation, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn went for the win on third down instead of going the NFL route and trying to drain 45 seconds, followed by punting the ball back to the opposition.
Did Kansas State help Auburn a lot? Sure.
The point to emphasize after Thursday night’s game, though, is that Auburn didn’t refuse KSU’s offer of assistance.
Early-season college football, in case you have forgotten, is consistently and annually unsettled. So much pressure envelops September contests of appreciable significance and stature. New roster combinations and new hopes create tremendous pressure in the young minds and adrenaline-fueled bodies of the players who are trying to make a mark on the season… for themselves and their own careers, yes, but also for their teammates, coaches, and the schools they represent.
Auburn and Kansas State both wobbled in the face of that overwhelming internal heat on Thursday night in the American Heartland. This shouldn’t strike us as new, or as surprising, or as negative reflections of these teams, who both played some very good defense and lacked the sharpness most teams lack when tested by strong opposition early in the season. The coaching staffs had their players in position to make plays, for the most part. The players — mostly on offense — failed to make those plays for much of the evening. This happens. It happens regularly in this sport, in fact.
You can choose to say that this was a game in which Kansas State handled the moment worse. Fair enough.
Just realize that the above statement also means Auburn handled the moment better… and as the road team in this fight, not the home team.
September is a month to be survived in college football if your team aspires to make the national championship game. It’s not a month to be mastered with dominance, because crisp, letter-perfect football is usually quite elusive in September. The object of competition in this part of the season is to get the result, no matter how ugly or fortunate. The hope is to escape September, evolve into a more complete team, and then attain well-oiled precision in October and November.
Auburn is following this trajectory so far in 2014.
If the Tigers are still booting passes and committing all sorts of blunders two months from now, you can bet they’ll be punished for them. However, you can also bet that Auburn will stabilize and improve as the season moves along.
Don’t allow big September games to serve as defining verdicts on teams, especially when early-season nerves hijack levels of performance. September is a time to get the result and move on.
Auburn’s Gus Bus is headed in the right direction… with a horseshoe and four-leaf clover sitting above the dashboard.
If you have a problem with Auburn being lucky, well, no one can stop you from feeling that way. Just realize that Auburn has no problems with being undefeated on Friday, Sept. 19… while Kansas State laments what might have been.