Hitting a baseball.
Winning 70 NBA games.
16-0 in the NFL.
Winning the Grand Slam in golf or tennis — ask Serena Williams.
These are some of the hardest things to do in sports. We know this intellectually, on a “head level,” but do we really appreciate the enormity of the task and what it requires?
The athletes do. The coaches do. The people in Teddy Roosevelt’s arena do.
We — I’m referring to myself and the other “keyboard warriors” in the crowd — do not.
This brings us to an annual reflection on another college football season, which rests near its endpoint and is gearing up for a few final furious forays in the fall, which is about to give way to winter.
Every year, it merits saying, but the repetitive nature of the refrain doesn’t make it less powerful. Amazing Grace — sung by a masterful soloist or belted out on bagpipes — is always hauntingly beautiful when done well. Similarly, an important lesson from a college football season always merits a rebroadcast at this time of year. That you know the lesson doesn’t mean it should be withheld from your eyes or ears this year (or in any other year).
Therefore, once more and with feeling, let’s sound the trumpet and echo the verse in 2015:
Going 13-0 is one of the most difficult feats to achieve in American sports.
We see it every year, and the truth keeps boomeranging back to us. The smaller details are always different, but the broader patterns and dynamics are always the same.
BUT THEY PLAYED A CAKE SCHEDULE!
BUT THAT TEAM HAD AN EASY CONFERENCE!
BUT THAT TEAM’S SEASON BOILED DOWN TO ONLY TWO GAMES!
These are the reasons given by those who are quick to diminish 13-0 records in college football (12-0 for the Big 12 or Notre Dame, since there’s no 13th game in those hypothetical cases).
Sure, Iowa has enjoyed — let’s not deny it — a rather favorable schedule, and it appears that the Hawkeyes will get to avoid Ohio State while also catching Michigan State at a point in time where Connor Cook will not be healthy. Iowa has received a lot of breaks this season. No one, not even the residents of Iowa City, can or should deny as much.
Here’s one big-picture reminder, though: Virtually every college football champion (1995 Nebraska being the exception which proves the rule) has needed a large dose of luck at some point. “Being lucky” is not a demerit; it’s a default reality in this sport. The instructive revealer is whether you take advantage of luck or not.
If Iowa fends off Nebraska and Michigan State (assuming Sparty beats Penn State, which — given James Franklin’s job performance this season — seems likely), it will carry 13-0 into the College Football Playoff and deserve to be there. No one will have beaten the Hawkeyes over the course of three grueling months. No one will have proven that it is better than Kirk Ferentz’s team.
Did the slate unfold perfectly for Iowa? Sure. Did the Hawkeyes maximize their situation (if we can view 13-0 in the past tense on Dec. 6)? Yes.
Are all 13-0 records created equal? Of course not. Toledo going 13-0 (a real possibility had the Rockets not lost to Northern Illinois) is different from Iowa going 13-0, which is different from Oklahoma or Alabama or Clemson going 13-0. Yet, the power and finality of 13-0 represents something very different from the glossiest, most gleaming 12-1 or 11-1 resume:
Not one team beat you. Not one blemish exists.
This leads us to the more central reminder of this piece, something more than just “winning every game is hard.”
Last year, the CFB Playoff Selection Committee seeded Florida State third, even though the Seminoles did not lose a game. The top two seeds, Alabama (1) and Oregon (2), did lose a game, and Oregon certainly benefited from being able to play the Seminoles in Pasadena, not New Orleans.
Given the thorough nature of the thrashing Oregon delivered to Florida State, one could say that seeding and location were irrelevant. Yet, if any team knows the value of home field over a longer period of time, Florida State would rate near the top of the list. The Seminoles played many great Steve Spurrier-coached Florida teams in the 1990s (and the year 2000), but never lost. While the Superdome is not Doak Campbell, it surely would have afforded the Seminoles the ability to prepare for and shape the game on their terms — certainly much more than what happened in the Rose Bowl.
Florida State’s unbeaten record was not treated fairly by the committee. In the attempt to look at a body of work, the committee placed too much value on granular comparisons (which ought to be conducted, but in proportion) and not enough value on this simple fact: Florida State never lost in the 2014 regular season. The Seminoles did everything they could do to earn a No. 1 seed. Oregon and Alabama did not.
It is such a simple point, but it can’t be said enough at this time of year, every year: If you go unbeaten in major college football, you have not failed a single time. Any resume with a loss is a resume with a failure. Naturally, if you play in the Sun Belt Conference and grab your non-conference wins against Conference USA or the middle third of the MAC, you shouldn’t get a playoff spot, but if we’re assuming a reasonable degree of difficulty in a 13-game FBS schedule, 13-0 should trump all.
It has to be said (again): If a resume comparison involves two one-loss teams, or a one-loss team versus a two-loss team, the shared existence of at least one failure on the resume means that both teams have put their standing in doubt. They have both given evaluators (the committee, or you and I as we make our appraisals at home) reason to devalue or downgrade them.
The unbeaten team has not.
Therefore, while a two-loss team can vault past a one-loss team — think of 2011 Oregon over 2011 Stanford, a classic example of a two-loss resume being better than a one-loss resume — the same one-loss difference (and its accompanying rationale) cannot and should not apply to unbeaten teams and one-loss teams. The unbeaten team has no blemishes. This places the 13-0 team in an entirely different realm from the one-loss team.
0 + 1 = 1
1 +1 = 2
A simple one-number differential in losses can offer the appearance of reasonableness for anyone who claims that one-loss resumes can be elevated over unbeaten resumes. However, the larger contextual reality of going unbeaten should consistently be held in higher regard, as long as the whole of the schedule is worthy of a power-conference team or a playoff aspirant.
Iowa and Clemson have not yet run the race — not all 13 games.
However, if the Hawkeyes and Tigers do finish the job, they would do something that no other teams (out of 128) have achieved in major college football this year… and which is rarely attained by more than one team over the course of time.
Last season, only one team (Florida State) went 13-0. In 2013, only Florida State went 13-0 as well. In 2012, Notre Dame and Ohio State reached 12-0, neither team playing a 13th game in the regular season. The 2004 regular season — with USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State all going unbeaten — is rather exceptional in this case.
Intellectually, we know that 13-0 (or 12-0) is remarkably difficult.
Yet, it’s still harder than I tell myself it is. The primacy of this feat remains difficult to fully capture. The “0” in the loss column captures it best…
… just ask Ohio State, Houston, and Oklahoma State after a late-November Saturday, near the end of another season in which only two unbeatens remain, and both face significant tests in the coming days.