For four months, ESPN The Magazine will follow the march to the Vizio BCS National Championship, moment by moment, culminating in our Story of the Season double issue Dec. 27. Every Tuesday, Mag senior writer Ryan McGee will pick the previous week’s biggest moments and tell you why they’ll have the most impact on potential BCS title matchups. If you disagree, send a tweet to @ESPNMag and tell us why your moment matters more, using the hashtag #StoryoftheSeason. Who knows? Your moment (and tweet) might just end up in our issue.
COACHES HATE a “statement loss.” So do fans, players and anyone else whose lives are built around a team’s record. (Well, OK, that’s everyone.) As former Clemson coach Danny Ford once said, “Moral victories only feel good if you don’t know how good an actual victory feels.”
Week 6 of the season was packed with moral victories, from TCU’s 20-17 near-miss in Norman to Northwestern’s closer-than-the-score, 40-30 loss to Ohio State. None of those games felt good for the losers, but they may have all signified something larger over the horizon. Sure, there’s the far-flung notion of program-building, but Saturday’s efforts might also have a much-larger-than-expected impact on the not-so-distant future, ultimately altering the BCS title march. That could either happen by way of an actual win over the next would-be BCS bowler, or simply damaging the image of the team that won on the scoreboard but could now be vulnerable for its next top-shelf opponent.
“We won and we’ll take it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt admitted after defeating Tennessee 34-31 in overtime, the Bulldogs’ second consecutive three-point, nail-biting W. “But this is the kind of win that you are likely to feel some effect from for a while down the road. The LSU game had some effect this week. Now you hope this doesn’t add on to that.”
Those words sounded a little like what was coming out of the mouths of Tennessee faithful after the heartbreaking defeat: We didn’t win, but we made them earn it! That’s the message that was being rained down upon the Vols as they left the field on Saturday night. They were still reeling from the emotional about-face of thinking receiver Pig Howard’s corner dive toward the pylon had been perhaps the game-winning score to learning that, via the replay booth, it was actually a fingertip fumble and touchback. Moments later, they lost.
As Neyland Stadium emptied, a group of orange-clad fans crowded their way into the first rows that overlook the entrance to the north end zone tunnel, where their gray-clad team was beginning to file through en route to the locker room. They shouted encouragement to the players, but were waiting on the coach.
Butch Jones doesn’t typically walk off the field. He runs. He jogs. He at the very least speed-walks. But as the Vols first-year coach turned toward the tunnel at Neyland Stadium, he was walking. Exhausted, covered in sweat, and with only a wisp of his perpetually hoarse voice remaining. The famously exuberant coach had been fearless during the game, going for it on fourth down three times in the fourth quarter, twice in his own territory and converting all three with perfect play-calling. But he looked beaten down. Moments earlier, his undermanned Vols had Georgia on the ropes. Now as he strode toward the tunnel, the scoreboard on the giant video screen behind him read “34-31 F OT.”
“They knew we were here, coach!” the fans shouted down, drawing a halfhearted thumbs up. “Brick by brick! Brick by brick!”
On paper, it will look like just another big-game loss for Tennessee, which still hasn’t defeated a top-10 team since 2006 and extended its winless streak against ranked opponents to 19. The Vols will face at least two more ranked teams (Alabama, South Carolina) and possibly a third (Missouri) this season. But the reality is that the Vols were in the game until -- actually during -- the last minute. They also hit hard, inflicting injuries to four key Georgia players and adding the likes of Keith Marshall, Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley to an already too-long list of wounded stars.
That might make this week’s game in Athens against undefeated largely unknown Missouri much more of a contest than previously expected.
“I’m not really in the celebrating mood so much,” Richt said. His finger was bleeding, having just been cut on his postgame news conference chair. During the game he’d been knocked to the turf when a play ran over the sideline. “I’m just thankful to escape here with a victory, considering what happened.”
— ESPN The Magazine (@ESPNMag) October 6, 2013
Nearly 2,500 miles west of Neyland Stadium’s tunnel, Stanford Stadium’s walkways were also filled with dejection.
“There’s no awards for losing.”
Those were the words of Steve Sarkisian, coach of the then-No. 15 Washington Huskies, whose chances of knocking off the fifth-ranked Cardinal came down to one final fourth-down play. That’s when electrifying quarterback Keith Price scrambled ... and then scrambled again ... to fire an on-the-run pass that was so close to being a first down catch that it was ruled a catch by the on-field officials, but was overturned by the instant replay booth, which ruled that it was an incomplete pass, having squirted out and touched the turf. Washington turned the ball over on downs and lost 31-28.
“It's unfortunate the game had to come down to a judgment call like that,” Sarkisian said. “That part was unfortunate, because it was two good football teams battling and competing with one another, and I wish the game would have gotten won on the field and not in the booth upstairs with some guy that didn't get to feel the emotion and the hard-fought football game that that game was.”
Stanford coach David Shaw (who admitted he also believed it was a catch until his press box coaches convinced him otherwise) was asked to address the same concerns expressed by Richt earlier in the evening. What would be the mental and physical cost of a win like Saturday night's, especially with the Cardinal’s brutal upcoming Pac-12 schedule, starting with a trip to Utah? But instead of worrying about damage, he turned the conversation back toward toughness.
“This is what we’re built for. All we talk about is the fourth quarter. About being finishers. Every day we have a finisher at the end of the day. Every week we have a finisher at the end of the week. We train ourselves to be at our best in the fourth quarter.”
Coach Sark’s rant about the replay booth, a job that he also compared to playing a video game, is threatening to become a shared chorus. Most of the weekend’s biggest games, including Washington-Stanford and Georgia-Tennessee, hinged on replay rulings.
The contentious tone surrounding game-deciding calls, on the field and in the booth, has built throughout the season, from the bizarre finish of Wisconsin-Arizona State to the in-or-out sideline ruling at Clemson-NC State. But the decidedly testier feelings on replay that were shown throughout Week 6 were put into motion by Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who after Thursday night’s 31-30 loss to Texas unleashed one of the coolest postgame coaching rants of all time. It ranked alongside Tommy West’s 2009 post-firing directive on how to rebuild the Memphis football program. (“Give the next guy a fighting chance.”)
Texas running back Johnathan Gray had the football ripped away just short of the goal line, and it appeared Iowa State had possession before the whistle blew. Game over. But the officials ruled Gray down by contact. The booth upheld the call.
— Randy Moore (@OfficiallyRandy) October 4, 2013
Keep in mind, Rhoads’ speech is not a CTRL+C of Sarkisian’s comments, which came 48 hours later: “What you saw tonight were a couple of teams playing their hearts out. You could argue both deserve to win the football game.” Then, his voice rising: “And to make a play ... on the 1-yard line ... with their backs against the wall ... clear to everybody ... and have it taken away from them! That’s hard to express. You don’t just put your arm around a guy and tell him that’s OK ... if that’s just happened to him!”
It’ll be even harder to do that if one of those calls ends up determining who does or doesn’t get to play for the BCS championship in January.
That’s nearly happened already, at least three times -- and it’s not even the second weekend of October.