In 1978, college basketball’s Final Four convened in St. Louis, Missouri: Notre Dame, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Duke competed for the national championship in hoops.
This year, the 1978 Final Four has taught college football fans and pundits a lesson that must be absobed each and every autumn: The process of grading teams doesn’t fully end until the season does.
You might have thought that Arkansas was a bad team at the end of October, and you would have had a decent argument to make. However, that isn’t and cannot be the case anymore. Arkansas’s overall resume might not be great, but the Razorbacks are certainly not a bad team or a bad loss for an opponent. Winning one SEC game against LSU merely wiped away a bagel. Winning a second game against Ole Miss makes it well-nigh impossible to dismiss Woo Pig Sooie. If one’s an accident but two’s a trend, the Razorbacks have backed up one good result with another. It took them awhile, but they showed what they were made of before the season ended. Being able to win an SEC road game this Friday against Missouri would further burnish their credentials, but the Hogs have at least been able to win consecutive conference contests. That’s important.
Other teams that have similarly shown better, bolder sides of themselves over the past month? Georgia Tech, now the ACC Coastal Division champion; Northwestern and Illinois, both within one win of being bowl-eligible (the winner advances and the loser stays home when the Wildcats and Illini meet this upcoming Saturday); and Arizona, which has surged to a 9-2 record after looking spent in a 17-7 loss to UCLA at the beginning of November. If you had given up on any of these teams three weeks ago, they’ve all changed the way you think about them. Letting the full season play out has to be done.
Then consider the other sides of this same story:
Remember when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (above) led his team within one uncalled pick play of a win in Tallahassee? That same squad has imploded over the past month and must now beat USC (in a matchup of wilting brand-name schools) to avoid a 7-5 finish. This past Saturday’s loss to Louisville was bad enough; that it occurred with Louisville using a backup quarterback following an injury to starter Will Gardner only makes the fullness of the Irish’s decline that much more striking.
Speaking of Louisville…
Remember when Kentucky was headed for a bowl? The Wildcats must beat those very same Cardinals this upcoming weekend just to make a bowl. The failure to reach the postseason and get those extra December practices would represent a gut punch for Mark Stoops, halting the seemingly boundless momentum the gridiron Cats had begun to establish in the middle third of the season. This UK crew is unrecognizable compared to the one witnessed in the middle of October.
What about Duke?
The Blue Devils had just won consecutive road games at Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Sure, Duke got really lucky in the Pitt win (the Panthers gacked on a 24-yard game-winning field goal attempt and then lost in overtime), but plenty of teams — such as Arizona — have needed copious quantities of luck to win. (See Auburn how much luck helped in 2013.)
Duke made the most of its luck as it returned to Durham for a season-ending three-game homestand. All the Blue Devils needed to do was win two of three against Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Wake Forest. North Carolina has rounded into a decent team, but Virginia Tech and Wake — participants in the 6-3 double-overtime game which will live in college football infamy this past Saturday — should have been easy kills for a team that had so conspicuously overachieved the past 1.5 seasons. All of a sudden, however, Duke has utterly collapsed, and it was that Nov. 15 loss to Virginia Tech — far more than Thursday’s blowout loss to UNC — which marked a change in the way we will evaluate the Blue Devils in 2014.
Yes, there are ONLY two more weekends left in the season.
Yet, there are two WHOLE weekends in which to continue evaluating a great number of teams.
You might think Team X can safely be pegged as a quality win or a bad loss, and in many instances, you can actually arrive at such a conclusion, because enough information has been gathered. For teams that still have to play contentious games against tricky or formidable opponents, however, the evaluation process continues.
Credit the 1978 Final Four in basketball for helping us to see the 2014 football season with greater clarity.