" It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Thus does Dickens' famous opening line capture the mind-blowing confusion of bewildered fans of the burnt orange charges of Austin and the cleated darlings of LA.
The best of times: Rose Bowl 2006, Texas vs. USC. No matter which team won, this arguably greatest championship game in history featured some of the best college players ever to churn the turf and crowned two (for UT) and three (for USC) seasons of accumulation of talent, coaching, leadership and comraderie. With top 5 recruiting efforts from both schools in the years leading up to the game, the future seemed bright, a rivalry born...
The worst of times. Fast forward to the falling leaves of October 2007. Texas loses its fourth straight conference game, hanging on in the top 25 by its fingernails. The Trojans finish trudging to the short end of the biggest upset in college football history, their second conference loss in the last three games, third in the last seven. Both teams have lost to inferior opponents AT HOME.
As a pithy BONer would say, "WTF is going on?
The answer at the center of this Greek epic is bound up in (deep voice, please)"The Year of the Upset" that is exploding around the heads of college football fans everywhere, sending hope to the Missouri's, Illinois', Boston College's and yes, South Florida's everywhere, and trundling despair on the heads of our two fallen Athenian gods mentioned above, along with fellow demi-gods Michigan, Florida, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
To answer that question, let's remember what college football really is - a collection of mostly below-drinking age men with frightening athletic skills, tossed into an environment of parent-less decision-making, mind-altering chemicals, and women. Out of this temptational cauldron, these "boys" are asked to behave "like professionals," perform mighty feats on the field, and survive college classes. They do all this while scrutinized by blogging fans (who always seem to know the friend of their sister) looking for an emotional "fix" and jaded sportswriters looking for the tension and conflict of a paying story.
The resulting froth of human activity on the field is what makes college football great. Fumbles. Interceptions. Explosive plays. Five-star recruits riding the pine. Walk-ons with winning field goals. Hostile stadiums. 6'4" 300 lb. eighteen year-olds trying to figure out where the next linebacker is coming from playing next to 6'4" 300 lb. redshirt seniors thinking about their place in the next NFL draft. Writers dealing out coaching obituaries. Millionaire coaches shouting at impertinent sportswriters. Talking heads on TV. That's why fans love it and ergo why colleges have 100 million dollar athletic programs.
But with all that greatness comes the baggage of unpredictability. In football, that teamiest of team sports, the thought of getting 90 players to follow the same script and having the same attitude would frighten Stephen Spielberg. The result is the "box of chocolates;" players, coaches, and fans never know what they are going to get.
That said, one can look at the "malaise" of the Longhorns and "crisis" of the Trojans as part of the "quantum foam" of college football. Occasionally, the planets align and a group of incredibly talented players, led by some superlative talents (Vince Young, Reggie Bush) plays together well enough and long enough that they can solve every problem on the football field and win all or almost all of their games and a national championship. Other times, a group of incredibly talented players get together and, because of injuries (McCoy vs KState 2006, USC went through 6 RB's last year), bad attitudes, social immaturity (8 arrests in one summer?, Booty was off to party after the Stanford loss) coaching screw-ups (where was UT's Greg Davis' head for KState 2007), transfers (JaMarcus Webb for UT, Emmanuel Moody for USC?) and or just plain bad luck (OU's Murray's fumble goes out of bounds before Texas can recover), they lose games they shouldn't. This can especially happen when the talented players haven't played many games together and are on the offensive line, as is the case for both Texas and USC in 2007.
So what to do if you are a fan? Revel in your agony of disappointment and, if you are so inclined, drink your gallons of cheap beer responsibly. To complete the famous quote from Dickens' Tale of Two Cities, embrace the schizophrenia:
"...it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."
Recognize that there are still incredibly talented players on the team, and the lessons learned from the unheroic failures and humiliation will build strength for the climb back up. As fans, it's likely that we're not watching a Greek tragedy, with our team descending into the mouth of Charybdis, but rather watching an epic, with the teams being a Phoenix at the incendiary moment. Wait a bit and you will see a new team, with new heroes, rise from the ashes. Practically speaking, with a microscopic set of exceptions, college teams simply can't be at the top of their game every year. The few cases I can think of, Florida State and Miami, played in incredibly weak conferences (ACC and Big East) during their decade of superiority, giving them lots of room for error and learning each season. Even the great run of Darrell Royal had its peaks in '63-'64 and '69-'71 mixed in with frustrating, more mediocre seasons.
So for us Texas fans, be happy that this struggling offensive line of mostly sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen will one day have played 24 games together and be one of the strongest units in the nation. Gangs of current underclassmen, who currently are making just enough mistakes to play only part-time, will eventually be smart players with power and speed. And be thankful our sophomore starting quarterback was in the film room on Sunday morning, unlike his counterpart at USC, who was asleep recovering from a night of partying. Wherein lies the greater hope? As fans, we look for the answer from another famous Dickens quote from Tale of Two Cities:
"Jerry, say that my answer was, 'RECALLED TO LIFE.'"