Coach Nick Saban with his football team
The 2010 season is not even 50% completed, and already many highly-ranked teams have taken a tumble in the rankings, or, even worse, fallen so badly we realize the original ranking was a sham. Some coaches are masters of hype and propaganda, inflating their rankings, while others prefer to fly under the radar, allowing their teams to play without distraction.
In the 2010 College Football season, we have seen Texas (5th AP Poll), Virginia Tech (10th AP Poll) and USC (14th AP Poll) all fall completely out of the rankings. We can largely conclude that their initial high rankings were gifts based on past performance and national stature, while well-coached teams like South Carolina (the other USC, ranked 10th AP Poll) and Michigan State (13th AP Poll) rose from being unranked.
More importantly, we have seen good teams lose games. Specifically, we've seen bad teams lose that we thought were good, but we've also seen good teams lose. Teams like Alabama losing at South Carolina, and Stanford losing at Oregon. Alabama's recent defeat by South Carolina prompted me to list all the things that can (and do) go wrong for good teams.
So what makes a good team lose?
Hostile Stadium: Many good teams succumb on the road when they don't have a roaring crowd to push their adrenaline to the maximum. Not only does a team have to deal with a hostile crowd, their opponent is usually receiving encouragement, increasing the disparity and exhorting their opponents to greater effort and intensity.
Emotionally drained: This is a term usually reserved for people going through relationship struggles or the illness of a loved one. But ask any football player who has played meaningful games, and the constant effort, anxiety, fear, and physical exertion take a toll on the body and brain.
After an important game or a back-and-forth victory, a team of youngsters can find itself numb and immune to the coach's motivational ploys until they can recuperate.
Alabama had already come from behind to beat #10 Arkansas, and then turned around to host #7 Florida the week after. Think the Tide was feeling tired?
Veteran Opponents: When a team is beaten badly in a game, they may wait the entire year for a chance at revenge. While the opponent is off achieving conference championships and winning bowl games, the beaten team heals their wounds and prepares for the rematch.
South Carolina lost 20-6 at Alabama last year, and doubtless thought about what could have been.
Experienced Coach: A good coach should be able to watch film and detect the weaknesses and tendencies of players. A great coach goes to the next level, and analyzes play-calling tendencies and habits, and studies not just the players but opposing coaches to understand their thinking.
Steve Spurrier won his first SEC championship as a coach in 1991, and his first National Championship in 1996. He has played and coached at the collegiate and professional level. He is a "lifer," and doubtlessly capable of drawing up a gameplan that attacks weaknesses of the opponent.
Physical Opponents: No league has more physical players than the SEC, and the result is that that top teams have fewer physical advantages over lesser conference foes, and have to rely on discipline, team work and coaching to win games.
Every opponent is dangerous when they have strong physical abilities, and playing with a supportive crowd only builds a player's emotions up higher.
Lack of Motivation: It is easier to be the underdog with a firm goal in mind than to sit on the top of the mountain, waiting for challengers to come to you. There is a reason no team in recent memory has had two consecutive undefeated seasons. It is simply too difficult physically and mentally.
It is possible here that Alabama had less drive than they did a year ago, as they pushed themselves to prepare for juggernaut Tim Tebow and Florida in the SEC Championship game.
Those are the main factors that can make a good team lose. It is tough to see a good team be faced with foe after foe that is highly ranked and well-coached, but that is part of what makes college football so intriguing.