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What USC and BYU's Upset Losses Teach Us
by Hollywood Sports - 09/26/2009
Both the Washington Huskies and the Florida State Seminoles enjoyed surprising straight-up upset victories over USC and BYU in week three of the college football season as underdogs of at least a touchdown. Now, the point here is not toot our own horn -- but the Seminoles and the Huskies were our two biggest plays on the college football card last weekend. Both of those situations were encapsulated by five variables that we try to keep in mind when handicapping college football. This pair of upset victories offers a good opportunity to discuss these concepts.
(1) Emotion is a critical component in the success and failure of college football teams.
One of the important skills for any successful professional (in any profession) is consistency. College athletes are not professionals. Rather, they are generally 18-22 year old young adults learning the skills necessary to become a competent professional through all of the opportunities provided in a collegiate environment -- which, of course, includes but is not limited to athletics. BYU and USC were previously emotionally charged-up in their important matchups with Oklahoma and Ohio State respectively. However, it is near impossible to maintain that level of emotional intensity. Letdowns are common after big games -- particularly in situations where a team is then expected to win. On the other hand, both Florida State and Washington had the luxury of using their underdog status as an opportunity to get revved up. Florida State already had an emotionally charged game with Miami where they fell short. Not surprisingly, the Seminoles were then flat against Jacksonville State the next week and needed to score two late touchdowns to win 19-9. Of course, that game was very important to Jacksonville State as they had a great opportunity to knock off one of the big shots in their state of Florida. Notice the common theme in all these situations: significant gaps in emotional intensity between two college football teams create the foundation for an upset (or at least an underdog covering the spread). This plays out perfectly in the Washington/USC game. The USC players cannot help but be flat after their road win over Ohio State as they then travel to play a team that was winless the year before. Undoubtedly, Pete Carroll harped on-and-on about the past letdowns the Trojans experienced against the second-tier of the PAC-10 conference. And, Carroll had the extra ammunition of mentioning that they were entering a very dangerous situation given that the Trojans' offensive and defensive coordinators of last year,Steve Sarkisian and Nick Holt, were now coaching their opponents. Yet, USC could not match the intensity of a Huskies squad very excited and motivated to earn themselves the programs' biggest win in years. Emotion overcame the significant talent advantage the Trojans enjoyed.
(2) Avoid being a "prisoner of the moment."
College football teams are never as outstanding or as dreadful as they appeared the week before. There is a myth that truly excellent teams consistently perform at their top level. However, individuals that subscribe to this point-of-view are looking for qualities in teams that rarely exist -- especially in college athletics. Instead, what makes teams excellent is their ability to succeed in competition despite not performing at their highest level. Florida State was impressive in their win against Jacksonville State because they were able to do what they needed to do to succeed in that game despite struggling and not being emotionally engaged in the matchup. So, rather than being scared off by an FSU club that barely survived against Jacksonville State, we saw a team that persevered under a challenging situation. Similarly, BYU's 54-3 win over Tulane that followed their win over Oklahoma did not do much to change our opinion about the club since we would always expect them to trounce a team like that. Washington may have been 0-12 last season but when outstanding coaches get the opportunity to teach eighteen returning starters from last year's team, good things can happen.
(3) Do not forget that past games tell two conflicting stories: one about the winning team and one about the losing team. Any conclusion must resolve this conflict in some way.
It is too simplistic to assume that the winning team must be great and the losing team is awful. Most often, the result is much more complicated regarding how both teams will perform in the future. Did BYU's upset win over Oklahoma say more about how good the Cougars are ... or did it reveal more about the weaknesses of the Sooners this season? After watching the game, we came to the conclusion that it was the latter. Oklahoma had four new starters on the offensive line as well as new starters at the various offensive skill positions. Even with Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford at quarterback, the offense was tentative and cautious in the first half. Yet, the Sooners were leading and controlling the game due to their dominant defense. However, when Bradford left the game due to his right-shoulder injury, everything changed. Of course, credit goes to BYU for doing what it took to eek that game out. But, the BYU victory seemed a stronger testament to the vulnerability of this year's Sooners team than it was about the relative strength of the BYU club. In a similar vein, the Florida State loss against Miami was less an indictment of the Seminoles than it was a strong endorsement of the Hurricanes who have since looked very good in their win against Georgia Tech. But Florida State was a dropped touchdown pass in the last moments of that game from winning that game. When presented with an opportunity to earn some redemption as a road underdog against a #7 ranked BYU club, the Seminoles responded with an outstanding effort.
(4) College athletes struggle in the face of pressure.
As two teams ranked in the top ten and in a very nice position to earn a BCS bid later in the season, both USC and BYU faced pressure in their "must-win" situations. Washington and Florida State were no longer burdened with such pressure since they both had experienced losses already this season. Of course, both those teams would have prefered to be undefeated and have to deal with the pressure of higher expectations. However, there is something to be said for a group of college athletes that have "nothing to lose" so to speak. The experience of college is about learning how to perform as a professional which includes learning how to manage and adapt to pressure. It is not surprising that college athletes have not mastered this skill. In fact, it is only the very best professional athletes that earn a reputation of maintaining their excellence in the face of pressure. The concept of "choking under pressure" exists for a reason. Motivated teams that do not face nearly as much pressure as their opponents are very dangerous.
(5) Pundits are usually wrong.
People can (and do) get rich ignoring the opinion of sports pundits who are apt to change their opinion as quickly as the wind changes directions. After BYU defeated Oklahoma, BYU was practically anointed as a BCS-buster. Too bad the Cougars could not travel to the BCS Championship immediately after their first game of the season. Florida State was thrown to the scrap heap after they lost their heartbreaking game with Miami. The legend of USC was firmly in tow after they defeated yet another Big 10 team last week in Ohio State. We love to pick on the sports pundits who are first and foremost just entertainers rather than real experts. The problem that most pundits have is that they fail to grasp the lessons that the upsets of BYU and USC once again offer us. Do not underestimate the power of emotion. Be careful to not be a prisoner of the moment. Learn both sides of the story from previous games. Be sensitive to the impact of pressure on college athletes.
Now, lets keep these lessons in mind as the college football season moves forward. Best of luck -- Frank.