I don’t know why she does it. But she does it. As I randomly blurt out frustrations about the Notre Dame loss to Texas throughout the week, my wife reminds me of our plight. I am sitting at a nice dinner with our children, and I can’t help it. It just pops out like a rude belch between bites at the table, “50 points?!” And there is my wife, on cue, “it’s over. the season is over.” Over? Another agonizing day passes, and as I am brushing my teeth, the urge strikes again through a mouthful of foam, “it was targeling! why diln’t they ruview it?!” She’s right there in bed on her phone, “they blew it, honey. it’s over.” Over?
She doesn’t mean the season is truly over after one game, of course. This isn’t 2007. THAT season was over after one game. Georgia Tech 33-3. Over. No, what my chirping smoke detector battery of a spouse is reminding me is that the title shot is gone. The playoff disappeared in a Sunday night burnt orange blur. We built a protective fence around our playoff hopes for the year and Tyrone Swoopes dove right over it into our vegetable garden like some sort of evil Dennis the Menace.
Granted, this didn’t exactly feel like THE year going in. So many questions on defense. So many new faces at wide receiver. Still, many of us experience the same annual act of self-flagellation when the first loss comes. Week 1, week 3, week 8. It doesn’t matter. Santa Claus isn’t real anymore after the first loss. The season is no longer an exciting thrill ride, it’s work. After a loss, it’s hard work and paranoia from here on out. It’s the difference between the amazing view from the top of a skyscraper, and the nauseating feeling when you look down and realize your precarious position. There is no back up chute after one loss.
So is she right? Is my wife, who actually roots for Notre Dame, but has the nice luxury of not bleeding for Notre Dame, and thus gets to bail after the first loss, correct in her assessment that this thing is over? Allow me to confess that I don’t see a playoff for this team. I didn’t predict it this year. Texas hurt me, but I wouldn’t say it shocked me. Still, part of college football for me has been and always will be the hope that as long as you win, the sky is the limit and you have a chance. Part of me will always be the nine year old on the living room floor holding a NERF ball who just believes despite any amount of contrary evidence.
My older self tends to desire more concrete and rational barriers. Data. Examples. Precedents. So this is for any of you out there who are nine years old, or even if you’re a grown man who covertly grabs a NERF during the game. Yes, there is yet a Santa Claus for Notre Dame in 2016. And here is the data.
Since 2002, 32 teams have reached either the still-new Playoff semi-finals, or the National Championship Game, BCS or otherwise. Here is the breakdown, organized by some of the more common misconceptions out there.
My team lost a game, it’s over! (The Wife rule)
Not so fast, my friends. Of the 32 teams reaching the playoff or championship, 16 of them had a loss going in (actually one had 2 losses, LSU in 2007). Granted, this makes the road tougher, but it’s possible.
My team lost to an unranked team, surely we’re doomed! (Charlie Strong rule)
Of those 16 instances where a team made a playoff or title game with a loss, seven of those losses were to unranked teams. The road is getting even tougher now, but there is still a path.
Well, it’s better that we lost early, right? (Ba-de-ya, losin’ in September rule)
Data does not suggest that the loss has to come early, although this is a common thought. In reality, no team that made the final game or playoff lost its actual opener. Seven teams lost a game in weeks 2 through 5, six lost a game in weeks 6 through 9, two lost a game in weeks 10 through 12, and one lost a conference championship game.
Well, it’s definitely better that we only lost by 3 points, plus overtime! (Moral Victory rule)
This is partially right. Of those teams getting a title shot or playoff with a loss, the majority of the losses, ten of them, were by seven points or less. However, five teams had loss margins between 7 and 14, and one had a loss over 14 points (In 2003, Oklahoma was drubbed 35-7 by KSU, one game before a title game berth).
So yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Although after one loss he is pretty much laying low somewhere in Arizona with his actual whereabouts unknown. You can surely find him, but it’s a heck of a lot harder than hanging a stocking by your fireplace. You are going to have to pay some private investigators to track him down, suffer some close calls, and remain persistent. It’s not going to be a magical thrill ride, it’s going to be hard work and paranoia from here on out.