Loyal Cougars

Losses and The Relative Ways We Absorb Them

Evan Hall compares BYU basketball and football losses — especially to Utah — and how we handle them as fans.

Last Saturday, after BYU’s comparatively painful blow-out loss to Utah, there erupted on Twitter the kind of divisive arguments about day-to-day minutiae that always erupt on Twitter, and as with many of those arguments, there were valid emotional motivations driving both sides. On the one hand, people were ticked off BYU lost in such a humiliating way to a team that, at least before the game, was widely considered inferior. On the other hand, those angry people might have been overreacting to a December loss that didn’t count toward any conference race and that probably fell somewhere between “bad loss” and “resume win.”

I understood that it was a rivalry game, but the similar reaction to losses earlier in the season to Iowa State (a very good team), Wichita State (a legitimately great team), and UMass (another great team) revealed a sort of college football fan approach to these early games. Which is sad, because one of the most enjoyable parts of November and December college basketball (or any college basketball outside of a team’s conference, really) is how little it matters. You’re there to learn about teams and to learn about players, and especially for a team in the WCC, you’re there to maybe grab a couple quality wins that you can’t get in the vicissitudes of your conference schedule. BYU got those quality wins (against Texas and Stanford, and depending on the rest of their season, maybe even Utah State), so the rest was gravy.

But what all this really speaks to is the assortment of ways we approach judging a season successful. In college basketball, for better or for more manic, we judge teams according to their success in doing one of three things.

  1. Winning their conference regular season title.
  2. Winning their conference tournament.
  3. Qualifying for and then winning games in the NCAA tournament.

Because of things like Twitter, when we watch a November or December non-conference game, we end up reacting to it the same way we would react to a slight change in scenery on a long drive. Because it’s a long season and because we like talking at every point during the ride, we react to games like the Utah loss.

Emotionally, I absolutely understand. Watching that game was like having your roommate hurl pointed and cuttingly accurate insults at you until you either cussed at him and stormed out or broke down in tears. (If you’re friends with a Utah fan, that might not have even been a metaphor.) Rationally though, a game like the one against Utah did virtually nothing toward achieving any of the three accepted goals of a college basketball season. That’s just not the way college basketball works. Sure, rivalry games are still rivalry games, but they also happen outside the paradigm of a season’s evolution. Ultimately, this season will be judged by BYU’s performance in the WCC and, should they qualify (and I believe they will), how many games in the NCAA tournament the team can win.

While all of this is true, it’s more than a little obvious. Deep down, we have basketball fan priorities straight. We want BYU to make the tournament more than we care about winning an away game against a team BYU has dominated in the Dave Rose era. But all of this is also why I can’t buy the assertion of this BYU football season as an unassailable success.

The most common argument I’ve heard in defense of this BYU football season is that if someone at the beginning of the season told you that BYU would go 8-4 this season, you’d have been ecstatic. I’m not sure if that’s true of you, but whether it is or it isn’t probably centers around your expectations for BYU as a football program. Though expectations can inform your experience as a fan in any sport, they’re particularly important in the way we consume college football. For college football teams, there is no end of season tournament against which we can judge our team’s success. For BYU, there isn’t even a conference title to be had. There are only the 12 games on the schedule, and a potential bowl win. The only way to judge the team’s success is by its performance in those 12 games.

I suppose someone could say that the bowl season is a postseason, and success in the college football season is qualifying for and then winning a bowl game. But you’d be hard pressed to find a fanbase that would be perfectly contented with 7-5 records and GoDaddy Bowl victories over Marshall season after season. For BYU, there is always a bowl waiting so long as they qualify, which means, the team could potentially go 6-6, win a bowl game, and under the lowest of expectations, have had a “successful season.” So excepting that unlikely scenario, how you enjoy BYU football seasons depends entirely on how many wins you want.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m no troll. 8-4 is not a football apocalypse, nor does it mean that heads have to roll. But there is a reasonable place where a fan can reside that allows him to be disappointed with an 8-4 season and not be called crazy. Consider that Utah loss in basketball. As bad as that was, it did not contribute to any of the season-long standards of judgment for the team. In football though, that one game meant the difference between 9-3 or, bowl game pending, 10-3 and a shot at the top 25. Now that’s something. Losing that game is a terrible, season-altering thing. The same could be said of the Virginia loss.

Even if you allow for losses to great teams on the road, like Wisconsin and Notre Dame, 10-2 was still a distinct possibility for this season, and I don’t think, looking back on the season, it’s a particularly outlandish one. Utah was not noticeably more talented than BYU, and to most observers, Virginia was noticeably less talented. Top 25 finishes are not outside the realm of realistic accomplishments, but to say that you’re depressed about the season, because, you know, you believe BYU is a talented enough team with an adequate recruiting base to have top 25-level seasons, somehow means you’re unreasonable.

I hated that Utah loss in basketball as much as anyone, I imagine, but in the moments following it, as I thought about it, I couldn’t shake the memory of the loss in football, and how much more it mattered in its context, and how much worse I felt about it. I have no desire to prematurely label this basketball season a success or a failure based on a trumped-up rivalry game, and I don’t imagine there’s a justifiable argument to be made for doing so. But if we can be honest about the relative worthlessness of that one loss because of the nature of the sport it happened in, we might feel a similar commitment to being real about the equivalent loss in football and its three other counterpart losses. If we can refrain from calling the basketball season something it isn’t, maybe we can call the football season what it was. Or, failing that, we could at least allow for the possibility that those who are disappointed with an 8-4 season, are acting just as rationally as those who aren’t.

One Comment

  1. dinkdong

    December 25, 2013 at 2:02 am

    I love ybu fans rationalizing…”Utah wasn’t more talented” gets thrown out like a nice big security blanket. Guess what, they own you on the field and the superior athletic talent is visibly noticeable In crystal clear HD! Oh, and Utah isn’t ybu’s roommate BTW.