Monday, January 6, 2014

At the intersection of luck and skill

As those of you who follow me on Twitter are no doubt aware, I am an Auburn football fan--I'm originally from Alabama, and my brother is an Auburn alum. Since my own alma mater (the University of Pennsylvania) isn't what you'd call an athletic powerhouse, my football loyalties remain with that family tie.

Last year Auburn was painful to watch. They went 3-9, 0-8 in conference. As almost always happens in such cases with a major program, that meant head coach Gene Chizik was fired. His replacement was Gus Malzahn, who had been Auburn's offensive coordinator under Chizik until that very year. As a fan watching the team from the opposite corner of the country, I was happy with the choice and figured we'd see a marked improvement right away, since it wasn't like the team lacked talent. Along with Alabama and LSU, they're one of the traditional powerhouses of the SEC West, the stronger division of the mightiest conference in football, and they were just three years out from their last national championship. I figured they'd go 7-5, maybe 8-4 with a little luck. They'd go to one of those random bowl games between Christmas and New Year's, thump their opponent, and be in a position to contend for a championship in 2014 or 2015.

And that would've been a fine turnaround indeed. But instead they finished 12-1. They're SEC champions, and tonight they're playing Florida State for the national championship. FSU is the heavy favorite, since they've dominated opponents all season while Auburn has tended to win nailbiters. Auburn, naysayers say, is just lucky. They then point to these two plays as evidence of that luck.

Here's the winning touchdown from the second to last game of the regular season vs. Georgia. Hail Mary tipped by two defenders with 25 seconds left on the clock:

And here, two weeks later, is the winning touchdown from the last game of the regular season, vs. cross-state rival Alabama. Until this moment, the last second of the game, this was undefeated Alabama, unstoppable machine Alabama, New York Yankees of college football going for a threepeat as national champions Alabama. The score was tied thanks to an amazing last-minute touchdown by Auburn, and Alabama coach Nick Saban decided to try to avoid overtime by attempting a 57-yard field goal despite his team having struggled with the kicking game all day. He put in a freshman kicker instead of the regular who'd been doing the struggling, and, really, what did he have to lose? If he makes the kick, game over, we all go home, and the Tide keeps rolling. If the kick falls short or is blocked, they're just going to overtime, same as they would if they'd just let the clock run out. That's the worst that can happen, right? There's no POSSIBLE way it could backfire, right?

Let's watch what happened:

I've been watching football all my life, and I didn't even know you could run a missed field goal back like that. For the first fifty yards of that run, I was muttering, "He can do that? That's allowed?" After that I was screaming, screaming so loud and long Miss Fraser came racing downstairs to make sure I was OK.

So...were those two plays nothing but luck? For the first one, luck certainly played a big role. That wasn't a great pass. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it either falls incomplete or is intercepted or batted down by one of the Georgia players. But this time it was batted up, and Ricardo Louis was alert enough in the moment to get his hands on it, pull it in, and run it into the end zone. When luck gave him an improbable opportunity, he had the skill to make the most of it.

As for the second play...I'm calling that one almost all skill. It feels like luck because it's so rare--I believe it's the only time in collegiate football history a game has ever been won on a field goal return. But the odds of that kick falling short were very high, when you think about it. A 57-yarder? That's rare even in the NFL. And the Auburn coaching staff, unlike a mere fan like me, knew very well that you can run back a missed field goal, so they sent their best return man, Chris Davis, to wait in the end zone. And the Bama staff, despite also knowing the rule book backwards and forwards, only had big, lumbering linemen out there to guard against a blocked kick as opposed to the kind of speedsters who might've had a chance of running Davis down. Improbable as it was, beautiful and thrilling as it was for anyone but a Bama fan, that last play was skill, skill, skill.

After the game a reporter interviewed Davis and asked him what he was thinking when he saw that the kick was going to fall short. He grinned, shook his head, and said (paraphrased), "Just catch the ball and run. Catch it, and run." Because, really, what else could you think in that moment?

Tonight Auburn plays FSU, and we'll see whose luck and skill dominates. But win or lose, this Auburn season is going to inspire me for a long time to come. (OK, I'm human. It'll inspire me a lot more if they win.) Because improbable is not the same thing as impossible. Because failure isn't the final answer unless you let it be. Because sometimes turnarounds after disappointment happen quicker than you would've imagined possible. Because if you practice and work your ass off to be the best you can be, you'll be good enough to be lucky. And if opportunity falls into your hands, you just need to be ready to catch it and run.

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