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NCAA Football: Emotion and Letdown Spots

   by Al McMordie - 09/11/2011

College football is littered with weeks where teams are soaring high off big wins, only to fall flat on their face the next week. This is the classic example of emotion taking too much out of a club that they are out of gas the following game.

Virginia Tech experienced this last September. After that hard fought, emotionally gut-wrenching last second defeat on national TV to Boise, 33-30, the Hokies had to face James Madison on short rest. Virginia Tech laid a colossal egg in a stunning 21-16 defeat. It's not a lack of talent on this team, or that they were overrated. Virginia Tech had a tremendous amount of talent on both sides of the ball, plus a great coaching staff. The defense only allowed 235 yards to James Madison.

The last previous times the Hokies faced James Madison, they won 43-0 and 47-0. "I don't know what's going on," tailback Ryan Williams said at the time. "I really don't."

But they were not in sync, making mistakes and missed tackles. Virginia Tech was the second ranked team to lose to a lower division team. The first was No. 5 Michigan, which fell 34-32 to I-AA Appalachian State on Sept. 1, 2007. Last week Auburn nearly got upset by Utah State, needing a miraculously late run to avoid a stunning defeat. They nearly became the first defending champ to lose their home opener since Michigan in 1998 (to Notre Dame).

What's happening is that there are things beyond stats, matchups and even coaching tendencies: Emotion. Emotion is such a huge part of college football. Sometimes a team will be so fired up and focused to play a team that, on paper, they have no business playing well against, but they perform as a unit far better than anyone might expect.

The catch is, a team can't do this every week. All that focused energy will take a toll with burnout, or a big letdown, around the corner. Other times a team is off a huge downer in a marquee game, like Virginia Tech, and does not have the intensity or focus it needs the next week.

Another example is when a team is off a terrible loss to a team that it is supposed to beat. The following week that team can be embarrassed by what happened and put in a monster week of practice, ready to come out firing on all cylinders the next game, not matter who they play.

Remember Kansas one year ago? New Coach Turner Gil had egg on his face when the Jayhawks fell apart in the opener, a stunning 6-3 home loss to North Dakota State. Everything went wrong on offense and there were even calls for his firing - just one week into his tenure!

Then all was forgotten and forgiven when the Jayhawks came out as a big underdog and smacked around No. 15 Georgia Tech, 28-25. Tech coach Paul Johnson was well aware of the emotional highs and lows of college football. While preparing for Kansas he told his Yellow Jackets, "How would you like to have lost to some small school? You'd play the next week like this was the Super Bowl. You guys had better be ready to face a tornado."

"It was a rough week for the team," Kansas junior tight end Tim Biere said. "And the locker room after the game, there's never been anything like it. Maybe after the Missouri game, when Todd (Reesing) threw (a game-winning touchdown pass) to Kerry (Meier, to beat the Tigers in 2008). Maybe I could compare it to that, but other than that it was the best thing I've ever been a part of."

It went far beyond Xs and Os, trends, angles and matchups. It was KU's first home victory against a Top-15 opponent since the Jayhawks beat No. 2 Oklahoma, 28-11, in 1984.

Note what Gill said after the win: "As they come in Monday, I need to see where their focus is," Gill said. "They've shown me how they handle a loss, now I need to see how they handle a win, how they handle prosperity." It's the coach's job to gauge where a team is mentally and that can influence how hard he pushes them in practice. And bad coaches won’t pay attention or be clueless about it.

Two years ago Penn State had an emotional roller coaster in September. After a 3-0 start against weak teams, the Nittany Lions had a showdown with Iowa, their Big 10 opener. The Lions laid an egg in a 21-10 loss at home. The next week the Lions were a 7-point favorite over Illinois and crushed the Illini, 35-17.

So did Oregon. The Ducks had their biggest win in years, a show stopping 47-20 rout of rival USC that put them in the driver's seat for the Pac 10 title. Coach Chip Kelly was in his first season as head coach and the players talked about the intense focus that Kelly has preached to his team, particular last week after the tremendous high from beating USC. Kelly wasn't worried about a letdown against the Stanford Cardinal the next week.

"It's a special team," Kelly said. "Their mindset is really good right now. We all live in the moment." Well they were living out of the moment the next Saturday, with the defense having an out of body experience in a 51-42 loss at Stanford as a favorite.

Travel time is another factor tied into this, with many non-conference teams travelling a long way. Keep an eye on Stanford this week, flying across the country to play a non-conference game at Duke, then having to fly to Arizona State for its Pac 10 opener next week. Keep close tabs on teams that are on highs and lows and team travel, because that can work for them or against them the following week - regardless of how oddsmakers may see the game. Good Luck, as always, Al McMordie.

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