As great of a coach as John Wooden was, one of his most astute observations about sports is largely overlooked by most sports fans. Wooden is one of the few sports figures who publicly said that a loss can be a good thing for a team in the proper context. Specifically, the context is losses when teams are on a long winning streak. Now winning streaks were something that John Wooden was very familiar with. His UCLA basketball team from the early 1970s once won 88 games in a row, still the longest winning streak in men's college basketball history and one of the longest streaks of any kind in sports. Yet, Wooden said that for a team on a long winning streak, a loss can be beneficial. Wooden's explanation was that keeping a winning streak alive creates a pressure to continue a streak, which is a distraction from a team's being able to to play at its best level of performance. Consequently, losing a game having relatively less meaning will refresh a team, enabling it to win when it really counts. In contrast, going into an important game riding a long winning streak increases your chances of losing that game.
Now the comment that a loss can be a good thing is heresy to most observers and participants. Who doesn't want their team to go undefeated all the time? Yet, the fact is that many of the most stunning upset losses in sports involves teams on a winning streak, sometimes losing to a clearly inferior team. For example, a few years ago I predicted that the unbeaten New England Patriots would lose in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants on the basis that their 17 game winning streak was unsustainable. Similarly, I think that because the Green Bay Packers lost their undefeated season when they surprisingly lost to the Chiefs (a good example of the winning streak rule itself), their chances of winning the NFL championship this season are greater than had they gone undefeated into the Super Bowl.
Indeed, this college football season provided a number of examples of Wooden's rule of teams on a winning streak being ripe for an unexpected loss. Obviously we have the decisive 21-0 loss last night by 13-0 LSU to one loss Alabama in the BCS Championship game. This was a game which many observers thought LSU would win, as they appeared to be the clearly superior team based on their earlier season win over Alabama on Alabama's home field. We also have the Conference USA championship game where unbeaten Houston was thrashed by two touchdown underdog Southern Mississippi. Then there was the talk in late October about how the BCS championship could be a mess with so many unbeaten teams having a reasonably clear path to an undefeated season. Well guess what--all these teams, except LSU, had their unbeaten strings broken. Note particularly the loss by Oklahoma State to Iowa State. Another recent example would be Ohio State's lopsided loss to Florida in the BCS game from a few years ago. Of course unexpected losses by teams on a winning streak could also just be a matter of the law of averages, i.e., the longer the winner streak, the more likely the team will have a bad game, but that's a minor influence.
Now this does not mean that a team will never have an unbeaten season or that an unbeaten team will always lose to a one loss team in a championship game. The Miami Dolphins did win the Super Bowl with a 17-0 record, unbeaten Tennessee did beat one loss Florida State for the BCS championship, UCLA's basketball team did win 88 straight games and Oklahoma did win 47 straight football games. However, there are corollary rules to the basic winning streak rule which explain these happenings.
The first corollary is that the application of the winning streak rule is a function of how good the team in question is, and how long its winning streak is. When you get a team like UCLA's 1972 basketball team which beat its opponents by an average of 30 points per game, you can see that clear superiority over your opposition may more than offset any reduction in performance that may be attributed to sustaining a winning streak. But this level of superiority is quite rare. Also you see teams on winning streaks struggling to keep the streak going--they're good enough to keep winning, but as the streak goes on the performance has clearly dropped off.
On the other hand, not only is a "shaky" team with a winning streak likely to be beaten, it may be quite decisively. Perhaps the classic example of this occurred in the 1990s when somehow the South Carolina football team managed to start off the season with nine or ten wins, including a number of unimpressive wins over teams of questionable quality. With two easy projected wins left on the schedule, everybody was penciling them in for an undefeated season. But then a very average Navy team ran South Carolina out of the stadium, ending South Carolina's winning streak. An example that hits closer to home involved my 2005 UCLA football Bruins. That year the Bruins started off 8-0, with a number of close, last minute wins, over mediocre teams. Now pulling out these wins, particularly on the road, indicated that the Bruins were a pretty good team. But playing close games against less than average teams like Washington, Stanford, and Washington State, showed the Bruins weren't that good. Consequently, even though they went favored in their next game at Arizona, the 52-14 thrashing they took wasn't that surprising under Wooden's rule, though most observers were shocked, if not disgusted by that game.
The other corollary is that the winning streak rule only applies to wins within the current season, and that carryover wins from prior seasons are not relevant. This is because the prior season may have involved different players, coaches, and dynamics. However an exception to this corollary appears to exist for notoriously long winning streaks. This would explain Miami's loss to Ohio State in the BCS championship where Miami had a 34 game winning streak, compared to Ohio State at 13, and perhaps the loss by Connecticut women's basketball team's 90 game streak.
Perhaps the amazing thing about the winning streak rule is that it has gone so unrecognized by fans and players alike. John Wooden's observation is that the winning streak negatively impacts the performance of the team on the streak, yet I'm sure this is something that none of the players on a team that is on a winning streak is even aware of. Just as amazing is how often the underdog comes through to beat the team on a winning streak. All teams have a range of performance, so for the underdog to upset the better team, it will have to play at the high end of its range. Again, nobody on the underdog team is thinking that their opponent might be a little more vulnerable because of its winning streak, yet the underdog team does come through and pull off the upset. So nobody thinks about this--it just happens!