Every college football season I laugh when a month before the end of the regular season there are still several undefeated teams and pundits worry about what will happen if three or more teams remain undefeated at the end of the year. Yet, time after time, there is typically only one undefeated team left by season's end, which lends to its own controversy about which one of several one loss teams deserves the berth in the BCS championship game. Because what happens is that in the final weeks of the season, most of the undefeated teams fall victim to upset, quite often in a stunning manner, such as last night's loss by Kansas State to unranked Baylor, Oregon's shocking home loss to Stanford, and Alabama's previous week's loss to Texas A & M. Or back in 2007, when a whole parade of unbeaten teams suffered stupefying losses while on an apparently clear path to the BCS title game.
These stunning year end losses occur every year, and as I pointed out before, are easily explained by John Wooden's simple, yet not widely recognized observation, that being on a winning streak creates pressures that lead to the streak's demise. It is not clear why such is a case. Is is conscious or subconscious in nature? Do teams start playing not to lose instead of to win? I don't know, but it happens pretty much like clockwork all the time, in all sports. Now there are refinements that have to be made to the rule. A team that is vastly superior to all of its opposition can continue to win for an extended period of time, like the classic UCLA basketball and Oklahoma football teams. In contrast, a team that is not clearly superior, particularly when marked by a series of close wins, and particularly against mediocre oppostion, is much more susceptible to an unexpected winning streak ending loss.
However, there is one element to this rule which befuddles me. A lot of these streak breaking losses are inflicted by teams that on paper are quite inferior to the teams that they beat. Why do these teams rise to the occasion at the right time? Even if the streaking team concededly doesn't play its best game, the other team needs to play near its peak performance How does an average Baylor team rise up and dominate the #1 rated Kansas State team? Or do the same thing to Oklahoma State last year? How did a Miami team that had been stomped the week before come back in the last game of 1998 and knock UCLA out of the BCS championship game? Why did so many underdogs bite back at the end of the 2007season to derail teams headed to the BCS championship? It happens too often to be a coincidence, but I really have no good explanation why.