Seattle Post-Intelligencer – Oct 9, 2007 – Ted Miller – Tyrone Willingham so liked the question he slammed his hand onto the table in order to emphasize his point. This is not a demonstrative man, at least not when talking to reporters, but the topic is one that fascinates anyone who has ever tried to coach a team sport.

In advance of a game, how accurately can the Huskies coach predict how his team will perform?

“I have quit trying to predict it,” Willingham said. “When you are a young coach, you try to see everything before it happens. But I think, with experience, you learn to adjust as you go because you just never know (beforehand). There are times when they’re jumping off the walls and you think, ‘This is it!’ — and then you come out and are (insert table pound) flatter than this table.”

Slam! That’s a perfect sound for the 2007 college football season.

Few imagined that anything could top Appalachian State’s pillaging of Michigan at the Big House. But, lo and behold, 41-point favorite USC fell at the Coliseum to woeful Stanford last weekend, ending a 35-game home winning streak and further scrambling the national title and the Pac-10 races.

Try to find a single season that has produced two upsets of that magnitude. Here’s a hint: You won’t. Individually, each is practically unprecedented. Taken together, we’re talking a millennial occurrence.

Nonetheless, such stunning games are often written off with a shrug and a reflexive, “On any given Saturday.” Or coaches will explain that the 85-scholarship limit as well as blanketing media coverage have narrowed the gap between the haves and have-nots. In the 21st century, every team has good players and is capable of winning against anyone else under the right circumstances.

Doesn’t that seem like a bit of a cop-out, though? As in: the planets align in a certain way and John David Booty suddenly becomes the worst quarterback in Division I-A football, while Tavita Prichard, with zero career starts, casually throws a perfect pass to convert on fourth-and-20 during a desperation drive.

Coaches and some pundits lean too hard on the “parity” cliché. It tells only part of the story.

Often left out is how college athletes have changed — not athletically, but in terms of how they see the world.

Young athletes no longer completely buy into the rah-rah, team-first routine. They look at big-time college sports with a skeptical eye — not without justification, by the way — and see a lot of money changing hands over their unpaid services, and wonder what’s in it for them.

Some use college football to get to the NFL. Others, to get a college degree. Whatever the priority is, it’s more about personal business than waking the echoes.

Make no mistake: There are plenty of bitter smirks when players desperately search under their sofa cushions for change in order to buy a late-night pizza after spending 60 hours the previous week sandwiching meetings, practices and workouts around a full class schedule.

With all the distractions young people face today, combined with the demands of Division I-A sports, how can complete commitment and focus be expected every week? How can anyone expect every Trojans starter, who agreed to play for USC in order to improve their eventual NFL draft position, to take their preparation for Stanford seriously when they remember effortlessly whipping the Cardinal 42-0 a year ago?

Parity? Consider Stanford’s and USC’s rosters. The only Cardinal who would break the Trojans’ starting lineup on either side of the ball is probably receiver Mark Bradford, who scored the winning touchdown on a leaping, fourth-down reception.

Sure, the talent gap in general has closed, but a more demanding, complicated, high-pressure game has made focus and thorough preparation more important than ever. That is the critical and unpredictable variable every week that can overcome pronounced talent disparities.

Still, in an athletic contest, with a margin for error spread out over 60 minutes, it would seem like, eventually, the clearly superior team would prevail. But team sports aren’t dictated by an accounting ledger, where values are absolute.

Ever seen a bully get punched in the nose by someone smaller than him? Doubt creeps into his head, he presses, starts throwing wild punches and gets smacked again.

“The most dangerous situation to be in is when you’ve got everything to lose and the other team has nothing to lose,” sports psychologist John Murray said. “Every game has a momentum and life of its own. If you start getting a few breaks the wrong way …”

Things can start to go wrong, and it’s hard to stop the bleeding.

Just as Oklahoma couldn’t wake up while it blew a 24-7 second-half lead to outmanned but tenacious Colorado, so, too, couldn’t the Trojans reach back and grab some extra mojo when the Cardinal refused to go away.

“That’s why you always hear coaches say, ‘It’s not like turning on a light switch,’ ” Willingham said. “It’s hard to reverse that.”

Imagine a zero-to-100-point performance scale, ranging from execrable to perfect. Stanford’s range of performance might be between 10 and 50. USC’s 49 to 99. And last weekend, for myriad reasons, Stanford peaked at 50 and USC slumped to 49.

It was like winning the lottery. It was impossible to predict. It probably won’t happen again for some time.

And it’s a big reason we keep watching.


Matchup Line
Washington (2-3, 0-2) at ASU (6-0, 3-0)

Sun Devils should be on upset alert.
ASU by 11 1/2

Pick: UW, 33-28
WSU (2-4, 0-3) at No. 9 Oregon (4-1, 1-1)

Oregon spread includes Cougar sashimi.
Oregon by 18

Pick: UO, 48-21
Arizona (2-4, 1-2) at No. 10 USC (4-1, 2-1)

Is the Trojan Colossus starting to crack?
USC by 21

Pick: USC, 38-14
OSU (3-3, 1-2) at No. 2 Cal (5-0, 2-0)

Cal full of Wonder and Thunder and Pappy.
Cal by 14

Pick: Cal, 33-17
TCU (3-3) at Stanford (2-3)

That sound is the Cardinal coming back to earth.
TCU by 6 1/2

Pick: TCU 20-13

Last week: 1-3 overall, 1-3 vs. spread.

Season: 31-10 overall; 18-20 vs. spread

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.