Saturday, May 6, 2017

Butterfly Effect Games: Win the Battle, Lose the War

As I wrap up this set of Butterfly Effect games for this off-season, I'm going to do something different. Here is a look at a few different games that gave a program a short-term boost, but may have hindered things in the long term.

Case No. 1 - 2008 Fiesta Bowl (Oklahoma vs West Virginia)

Coming off the so-called "crazy season" of 2007, we found a Top 10 matchup between 2 two-loss conference champs, on opposite ends of the last-weekend chaos.

  • West Virginia was in position to play for it all, had it not been for a last-weekend upset to a bitter rival (4-7 Pitt, in a "Butterfly Effect" game I highlighted previously). 
  • Oklahoma happened to take down #1 Missouri in its conference title game.
West Virginia was a decided underdog, perhaps for both of the above reasons. Another key point to consider was that Mountaineer coach Rich Rodriguez had already left his alma mater to become the Head Coach for Michigan, a huge shocker in Morgantown.

But, as it turned out, the Fiesta Bowl would be a thing of beauty for West Virginia and interim coach Bill Stewart. A 48-28 triumph would be enough to get the interim tag pulled from Stewart and a sense of hope for the Mountaineer faithful.

Unfortunately, WVU never really made it big under Stewart. 2008 and 2009 would see Stewart and co. finish barely ranked and behind Cincinnati in the conference standings, while 2010 saw a tie for the Big East crown but no BCS bowl due to its loss to UConn. By 2011, after some internal strife, it was time for new life - courtesy of Dana Holgerson.

So, did West Virginia win the battle in that Fiesta Bowl, but lose the war?
  • Had Oklahoma won this game as expected, who becomes Rich Rod's successor? Does that person do a better job guiding West Virginia into the early 2010's?
  • Does a stronger West Virginia get the attention of the ACC or SEC during conference realignment, as opposed to the farther-away Big 12?
  • Assuming WVU is still Big 12-bound, do they have any success against Oklahoma between 2012 and 2016, as opposed to going 0-5?

Case No. 2 - 2009 Georgia at Georgia Tech

Thanksgiving Weekend allows for some great rivalries, and Clean Old Fashioned Hate ranks right up there for the thrills. In 2009, the Yellow Jackets were staring a Top 10 season in the face, with 10 wins already going into this game. Georgia was 6-5, less than 2 years removed from a preseason #1 ranking. How the mighty have fallen! After years of dominance by Mark Richt's Bulldogs, it looked like the tide was turning.

Naturally, Paul Johnson and company had high hopes and expectations for claiming its second straight win - after upsetting UGA the previous year. It seemed as though the Triple Option was a machine, with only Miami being able to stop it in 2009. And how could the ACC Coastal champs think of losing to a team that might not finish with a winning record?

Georgia was able to get its revenge. A close game, albeit one led by Georgia for just about the whole way, it ultimately came down to a dropped pass on a Georgia Tech 4th down. This dropped GT to 10-2, and it assured UGA of a winning season at 7-5. This big upset over a Top 10 foe, coupled with a big bowl win over Texas A&M, restored some faith in Mark Richt - for a time at least.

While UGA would continue to have the upper hand against Georgia Tech into the 2010's, only once - 2012 - did the Bulldogs actually get close (very close, admittedly) to competing for a National Title. Eventually, in 2015, Georgia said "enough's enough" and let go of Richt, paving the way for Kirby Smart.

So, did Georgia win the battle that night in Atlanta, but lose the war in the long run?
  • Had Georgia lost this game, is the administration quicker to move on from Richt? Especially if they lose the bowl game to finish 6-7? Or better yet, after 2010 when they did go 6-7?
  • Conversely, is the 2010 team hungrier and more motivated - possibly getting closer to 2012 form sooner?
  • Under different leadership, does Georgia avoid losing the 2014 and 2016 games to GT? Is Paul Johnson also no longer coaching in this rivalry?

Case No. 3 - 2012 Texas A&M at Alabama

By the time of this mid-November game, Alabama was firmly entrenched in its "clear-cut #1" role. The Tide just escaped a tenacious LSU defense the week prior in Baton Rouge to remain undefeated, and they were now back at home ready to halt Johnny Manziel and his high-flying offense. In Alabama's favor, two other defensive-minded teams (Florida and the aforementioned LSU) were able to defeat Texas A&M; surely big, bad Bama could as well.

But nope! After racing out to a 20-0 lead, Texas A&M was able to keep Alabama at bay just long enough to pull off a huge 29-24 upset. Many speculate that this game was what ultimately led to Johnny Manziel becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman. Head Coach Kevin Sumlin also won the SEC Coach of the year, and found himself with a huge extension after eventually finishing 11-2. With Alabama hammering Notre Dame in that season's BCS Title Game, A&M also had the distinction of being the team that beat the national champs.

But the years that followed weren't nearly as kind to Texas A&M or to Manziel. 2013 was decent, with a ranked finish and an epic Johnny Manziel comeback in his finale, but it did see 4 losses. Even worse, that year began with an autograph signing controversy and led many to believe Sumlin couldn't control his high-profile QB. 

After Johnny left, the same story seemed to play out: start out hot through September, lose to Alabama, and then suffer a few more losses for good measure. With Sumlin's super-high buyout, though, it seems like the success of 2012 has handcuffed the program from moving on if it wanted to.

And the bad doesn't stop with Sumlin and Texas A&M. After being drafted in the NFL, Johnny has had a series of personal issues (drugs, alcohol, alleged assault) and has proven to be a big bust. While many certainly hope for a personal discovery and recovery, it's hard to argue that his special treatment may have contributed to some of these further negative life choices.

With Alabama winning a national title that very season (and in 2015, and almost in 2016), the Tide clearly didn't lose the war. Therefore, did the Aggies?
  • Had Alabama pulled off the win here, does Johnny Manziel still win the Heisman with a 9-3 Texas A&M (RGIII had just done it the prior year with 9-3 Baylor)? Or does the trophy go to a defensive player with a fake girlfriend?
  • With more room to grow, is Sumlin better able to reign in his players and become a little more focused in 2013? How about in the post-Manziel era; is he better able to maintain stability at the QB position?
  • Again, with more room to grow and not quite as strong a finish, does Manziel remain a little more grounded going into 2013? Do some better choices here help curb some bad decisions once in the NFL?

Closing Thoughts
  • As these three (and surely other) cases show, sometimes losing a game can actually be dodging a bullet - even if the other side isn't particularly impacted.
  • As in life, the best decisions are those made with a body of information - not just a single reference point.
  • Wins should indeed be cherished, but the victors should remain cognizant and prepare for future adversity.
  • I may do the reverse of this post at some point in the future. In case I don't, here are a few examples where a loss was able to positively shape a program.
    • 2012 Orange Bowl (West Virginia - Clemson) - WVU's big win here led to Clemson getting serious about defense, building to a national title for Dabo and the Tigers.
    • 2013 Kick Six - Alabama losing this game (and the ensuing Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma) led Saban to seek more offensive creativity, allowing the Tide dynasty to live on.
    • 2015 Miami at Clemson - a huge shutout Clemson win led to Al Golden's firing, leading to better times (so far) for the Hurricanes and, interestingly enough, Mark Richt.

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