Seven. No number has more mythology or legend associated with it. Many classic tales center on the premise of an occurrence “every seven years.” Football, a sport where the value of its primary form of scoring totals seven points, isn’t immune to this lore.
College football, in particular, in the 21st century (the first century since the game’s invention that is a multiple of seven) could write such a fable. While no sport has more variety of its outcomes from week-to-week, few sports have less variety in their outcomes year-to-year. The traditional powers always win and become difficult to dislodge, and to ascend in ranks is a generational task. But once every seven years, things go haywire, producing a season beyond comprehension.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how similar the 2014 season has been not just for the Ducks, but for college football as a whole. All the weirdness and chaos that dominated the 2007 season has returned in 2014, creating a year filled with interloper contenders and bizarre outcomes.
In 2007, we had late-season top ten teams emerge from nowhere in Kansas and Hawaii. In 2014, it is Mississippi State and Ole Miss. In 2007, the season began with Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan and saw Navy end a 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame. In 2014, we had week six. In 2007, Oregon had a Heisman front runner and was one of the two best teams in the conference, along with Arizona State. In 2014…you get the idea.
The thing about the “every seven years” lunacy in college football is the bizarre outcomes are just sporadic enough to be dismissed as outliers rather than some supernatural myth. The majority of events happen in line with conventional expectation, only to suspect that myth when a genuinely bizarre moment occurs.
Which is what happened Saturday night in Salt Lake City.
Saturday was meant to be a trap game for Oregon. It was a road game in a rowdy stadium, at altitude, and against another physical opponent only a week after playing Stanford. Oregon played Utah the week after Stanford last year and struggled early in that game before pulling away. This year’s game had a much more formidable (read: ranked) Utah team, without any of the comfort of playing in Autzen Stadium.
The makings were already in place for a potential loss when the Ducks decided to ramp up the bad omens by wearing the same jerseys they wore against Stanford last season (on the same weekend, no less). All those factors appeared to be in play as the traditional narrative was setting in. Oregon looked to find itself in an early 14-0 hole, one they would have to scratch and claw out of against arguably the conference’s best defense to save their season.
Unless you were on Mars the last two days, you likely saw Clay’s bizarre blunder: negating a surefire 78-yard touchdown by casually dropping the ball on the one-yard line. Most impressively, senior defensive back Erick Dargan had the wherewithal to pick up the ball, and after a brief scramble with a Utah player, linebacker Joe Walker returned the ball 100 yards for the touchdown. Utah never led again.
It was the kind of bizarre play that historically has happened to the Ducks rather than for them. Yet for all the randomness of that play, it could be called a regression to the mean in the world of bizarre plays.
In 2007, Oregon was driving for a game-tying touchdown against Cal, and one of the most devastatingly bizarre plays in school history occurred, when a Cameron Colvin fumble was ruled a touchback, putting a dent in Oregon’s national championship hopes and forever shaping this writer’s opinion on that particular rule.
Seven years earlier, a bizarre goal line play derailed Oregon’s championship hopes. In 2014, it saved them.
To assume the chaos of this year has run its course would be folly, so expect the madness to continue to the season’s final day. What cemented 2007’s reputation for bizarreness was how the season started strange, finished weirder, only to end with a conventional champion. Going into the season’s final weekend, Missouri and West Virginia would have been paired up in the BCS Championship Game, only losses in both schools’ rivalry games led to Ohio State and two-loss LSU (the only two-loss team ever to play for or win National Championship) being selected instead. In a year full of upheaval, classic powerhouses being selected to play for the title was its strangest outcome.
So it could go in 2014. Only two undefeated major programs remain: one with a 95% probability of losing before bowl season (Mississippi State), and the other (Florida State) a team that will likely make the playoff solely for being undefeated, despite struggling against many conference foes in college football’s weakest power conference. Their marquee win was by four points over a Notre Dame team that required a questionable call to pull off, the same Notre Dame, the second-best team in the Pac-12 just filleted in front of a national audience on Saturday afternoon. The absence of great teams means the four good teams with the best luck will likely be the playoff participants.
I wrote a few weeks back that this season reminded me of what would have happened if Dennis Dixon hadn’t been lost for the end of the 2007 season. Of course, that year Dixon did get injured, the last in a rash of injuries that afflicted the Ducks that season; injuries which Oregon repeatedly seemed to overcome until they couldn’t any further. With the injuries Oregon experienced last night, I’ll knock on an entire redwood forest to hope that this year won’t mimic 2007 any further.
Yet for all the ways this year has been like 2007, every season — even one as bizarre as 2014 — is its own year. Unlike 2007, Oregon has its Heisman front runner going into the season’s final home game. That may be a big part of why unlike 2007, the Ducks will play for the conference championship on the season’s final weekend. The mounting hopes for the season may cause Oregon fans to hold their collective breath every time there’s a tackle for the rest of the season. But in a year this crazy, the likely outcome isn’t the one you fear, it is the one you least expect.
Top image from video.