Did That Cloud Of Humidity Have A Silver Lining?
On a Saturday one month ago, writing sunburned, beer-addled and depressed in northern VA, I requested that we never speak of the Maryland debacle again. But a month removed, facing our second bye week of the season, I find myself wondering what the world of Cal football would be like if we had somehow won that game. If, for example, we had prevented that last Terp touchdown, and then perhaps won in OT, where would we be now? The bigger question is this: would we really be better off?
Certainly if we’d squeaked by Maryland, we’d now be ranked in the top 15 in both polls. Prior to that game, we were ranked #23/25, behind #22/22 Utah (with hapless Clemson and West Virginia between us in the Coaches Poll). Utah, having done nothing more spectacular since then than avoid the Beavers’ thrilling comeback bid, has risen to #14/13 in the polls. So, at a minimum, Cal would be #15/14. However, I think it’s actually more likely that we’d now be ranked in the top 10, ahead of at least one or two of the four former national-title contenders with one loss each (U$C, Georgia, Florida and Ohio State). That also doesn’t take into account whatever carnage will emerge from the Red River, LSU-Florida and elsewhere while we’re idle this week. Indeed, the only undefeated BCS conference schools presently not ranked in the top 10 are teams that were unranked a month ago.
So think about that for a moment. In my counterfactual, Cal would have performed roughly the same in all five games as we did in reality, but rather than bearly cracking the rankings, would now be undefeated at 5-0, ranked in the top 10 nationally, and would be perceived to have the inside track to win the conference. With U$C’s loss to OSU, the atmosphere would be very similar to last year at this point. The pressure would be high. And after smashing ASU in the mouth, the team would be starting to buy into its own hype. We all know the madness that resides down that road.
Instead, back in the real world, we as fans are healthfully apprehensive and pessimistic. Our Bears are focused and driven. They know their own mortality. They will not take any foe for granted.
During the duration of my Cal fandom, Cal has (surprisingly) had three 5-0 starts — 1996, 2005 and 2007. All three of those seasons ended in late-season collapses. By contrast, the two most successful seasons during that same period, 2004 and 2006, are notable for the presence of an early-season setback. The losses to U$C and Tennessee in those respective years were both emotionally devastating. But I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that those seasons turned out better than the others. The losses grounded the team. Perhaps more than that, when you lose early in the season, the only options are to either turn things around or to simply write the season off. When you lose later in the season, on the other hand, you have the option to rest on your laurels and ride out the rest of the season in mediocrity. That’s definitely what we saw last year, and probably in ’96 and ’05 too.
To state the obvious, I’d of course rather be undefeated right now. But I have to admit I get excited seeing Cal at the top of those early Pac-10 standings, with only Arizona standing between us and a lonely perch at the top. And I find it odd to ponder that part of my excitement is knowing the team has already looked defeat in the eye and, rather than sleepwalk through the next two games, instead took the loss out on its opponents in a physical fashion. Perhaps we owe Maryland a small debt of gratitude… in addition to the 2009 bloodletting they have awaiting them in Berkeley. Seriously, they should just go ahead and adopt “Rocky Top” as their fight song right now.
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