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A Loss Cause

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By BJ Bennett
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Looking over the schedule of your favorite team this pre-season, don’t waste time highlighting sure wins. It may be worth searching far and wide, instead, for the one perfect slip-up that could have your team front and center come the end of the year.

Of all the laws on the books, the law of averages just might be the most unforgiving. A living, breathing being fit with the impervious power of parameters, the law of averages is always in pursuit and is always within reach. It patrols the human condition with a calculator and a box score, anxious to go all “Whack-A-Mole” on anyone or anything that steps out of line. Though futile, efforts to the contrary are absolutely essential. The chase keeps our minds and bodies in motion. 

Sports, by proxy, is designed to push those limits to the limits. Despite the odds of utter inevitability, the athletic landscape is one where constant perfection is the ever-empty expectation. Reach your goal one year? Congratulations. Now do it again the next. It’s a cycle unrealistic in nature and unfulfilling in context more times than not.  

Combatants constantly come and go; hope is often the only challenger capable of a multi-round bout.      

Legendary college football coach Lou Holtz once said that you can’t win every game on your schedule, only the next one. Through those words and that mindset, perspective often held by innovators and pioneers, life can deliver numbers a rare blow. Even then, however, the law’s lean is ultimately too much. Division I wins record holder Bobby Bowden has a career coaching winning percentage of 74.3%, meaning he came up short one-quarter of the time. Holtz, himself, won 65% of his games. Three-time national championship winning head coach Nick Saban currently rests at 73.6%.      

Urban Meyer, fresh off of a 12-0 campaign in his first year at Ohio State, leads today’s crop of coaches with a career success rate of 83%. With a very favorable schedule, his biggest challenge en route to championship contention this fall may simply be time. The Buckeyes longest winning streak in school history, 22 consecutive victories, came in the late 1960s. Breaking that mark by one game even wouldn’t be quite enough to get Ohio State into the BCS National Championship.  

Winning, at every turn, is a staggeringly tall task. Meyer’s previous employer Florida has claimed three national championships, produced a trio of Heisman Trophy winners and has been guided by some of the best leaders in the history of the game, yet has never finished a single season perfect. And the Gators are about as tradition-rich of a program as you will find.     

If we accept the fact that, despite our best interests, even the best of the best will lose at least one game on their schedule the vast majority of the time, the timing and traits of imperfection then become the true earmark of championship success. It seems counter-intuitive on the surface, but in the current college football landscape, losing can be the very real secret to winning it all. The statistics speaks for themselves. Teams must coax facts and figures to best fit their masterplan.

Of the last ten national champions, six have had one loss and the 2007 LSU Tigers had two. One of the three undefeated title winners from the last decade, 2004 Southern Cal, was retroactively forced to vacate the crown. Technically, nobody won the BCS National Championship that year. Translation: most of the time the who, what, when, where and why of one single loss can outweigh the sum of those parts for upwards of a dozen victories.

Looking over the schedule of your favorite team this pre-season, don’t waste time highlighting sure wins. It may be worth searching far and wide, instead, for the one perfect slip-up that could have your team front and center come the end of the year.

It’s a poignant process, identifying the perfect defeat. The victor must be at least in your same ballpark in talent and ability, yet shouldn’t be a direct competitor towards your immediate goals. In most cases, timing is critical as well, as a late-season loss generally doesn’t allow enough time for a recovery in the rankings. Like the prices on after-Thanksgiving Day shopping, the earlier, the better.    

An interesting philosophical test-case for this fall would be the Georgia Bulldogs, a team that was a fingertip away from the final this past year. Likely to be ranked somewhere in the top 10 this pre-season, UGA has one of the more difficult opening months of play in recent college football history. Georgia will open on the road at Clemson and then play South Carolina before a bye week and a home game versus North Texas serves as an undercard to a visit from LSU. The Tigers, Gamecocks and Tigers should all be top 12 teams when the official polls are released this summer.  

Even the most advantageous of Bulldog fans have acknowledged that a 4-0 run through September would be somewhat of a surprise. Couple in the annual Jacksonville tussle with archrival Florida and road games at Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Georgia Tech, not to mention a potential SEC Championship Game, and it’s quite unlikely that Georgia will go undefeated in 2013. With quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley among the returnees, a perfect slate isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. It would, however, stand as a dramatic program outlier considering the school has just two perfect seasons (minimum five games played) since beginning play back in 1891.

If it is essentially understood that UGA, for example, will lose a game this fall, isn’t the natural next step from a fan’s perspective to then compare and contrast the consequences of what a specific defeat would mean in relation to team goals? There’s logic there, even if awkward to accept. A loss to the Volunteers would effect the Bulldogs’ season differently than a stubbed toe against the Commodores, a slip-up against the Gators or a head-scratcher versus Appalachian State. Within that minutiae, champions are determined and legacies are defined.     

Furthering the sentiment, the law of averages suggest that for every big game Georgia, or any team, wins, the more likely they obviously are big picture to lose when facing one of their next formidable foes. If, for sake of argument, the Bulldogs’ talent level alone is enough for eight wins to serve as their statistical floor, their performances in four regular season “toss-up” games will determine their stature on a national stage.

Looking at recent history, Georgia has performed admirably in their most high-profile regular season pairings. Last year, the Bulldogs went 3-1 in such contests. Two years ago, they were 2-2. Both runs resulted in SEC Championship Game appearances. As 2011 and 2012 speak to, any attempt to predict or project widespread results over a condescend conference schedule, much less a full four-month season, is extremely difficult. What happens outside of a team’s scatter-diagram can greatly impact just how significant internal results may be. 

Each of the last two years, Georgia has lost to South Carolina but has been able to overcome that head-to-head tiebreaker through both their own resiliency and the direct struggles of that opponent. Every year, variables like cross-division scheduling, rotating home-and-away game sites and on-field injuries, for example, disrupt the statistical ebb and flow. It’s an incredibly complex web to get stuck in, one teams can avoid by winning all of the games of their schedules. Considering how infrequently that occurs, though, it’s quite reasonable to consider the alternative.

For Georgia, the uncertainty in their season is likely to come down to performances in games against Clemson, South Carolina, LSU and Florida. Despite the last two years, it’s fair to think that a loss to the Gamecocks would considerably derail the Bulldogs’ chase at another division title. The same can be said for the for the annual grudge match with the Gators. Though less immediate in terms of the effect on the conference standings, the tussle with the LSU Tigers still has leaguewide ramifications.

Georgia’s season opener is a fascinating one. Obviously a victory over pre-season ACC favorite Clemson in Death Valley would give the Bulldogs an early boost. That said, this appears to be the one game on the schedule most overcomable in terms of absorbing a loss and still contending for a national championship — which is this program’s goal. The week one slotting provides ample time to recover from a dip in the polls. The fact that it is a non-conference matchup means there would be no effect on qualifying for the SEC Championship Game, which has become a national title semifinal as of late.

That is one very elementary look at the anatomy of defeat. The pretense, for every contender, resonates throughout the year.  

If it is understood that almost every team in football loses at least one game per year more times than not, Georgia’s first game of the season is the place where all of this emotionally-uncomfortable discussion starts. If the law of averages suggests that the Bulldogs must lose, this is the spot that, on the surface, looks like it makes the most sense. And ask the folks in Athens, the circumstances definitely matter.

Georgia fans have watched SEC rivals Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU win recent national championships. The perception created is one of clear division, with the Bulldogs topping the list of conference teams lacking the hardware needed to move to the top of the list. The reality isn’t necessarily so. Six of the SEC’s last seven national champions won titles with blemishes on their resume. Meanwhile, Georgia’s star-studded 2002 team rests in history without the same acclaim. That bunch defeated Clemson, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Florida State, but lost one game by one score on a neutral field to Florida.

Much of what prevents UGA ’02 from being remembered alongside other iconic conference teams, championship teams, from the modern era: situation and time. There are numerous examples just the same.         

This mindset of mathematical manipulation is regards to the law of averages is one players and coaches simply cannot take. Their collective, constant push forward is what stretches the elasticity of the realm’s reach. Dedication, drive and persistence force outliers on the system. And there are times, see Alabama’s recent stretch, where numerical nuances lose their bearings. Exceptions, as the old addage goes, do prove the rule.

Considering the passion and pride at play, perhaps fans shouldn’t dabble here either. The idea of even considering how a loss could positively influence a program’s big picture tugs at the very core of what makes such support so special. Psychologically even, trying to rank-and-file losses is tricky business. It’s a delicate balance, the relationship between fan and team. Even though we don’t push the buttons and control the action at hand, results hit us as if we did. Perhaps now, situation depending, we can find a silver lining with more meaning.
Fate or frustration, meaning or madness; here, efficiency is measured. Not the efficiency of certain wins, rather the efficiency of individual losses. It’s a formula that, minus emotion, has at least somewhat-functional rationale.

The law of averages can be a rigid, stubborn foe. Over time, the median wears down everyone with its piercing glare and smug tone. Standing alongside, rich in irony, so does the mean.

BJ Bennett – B.J. Bennett is’s founder and publisher. He is the co-host of “Three & Out” with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the “Southern Pigskin Radio Network”. Email: [email protected] / Twitter: @BJBennettSports

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