Lessons from Playoff Baseball for College Football
October is a glorious month for fans of major sports. In addition to college and pro football you get playoff baseball. College and pro basketball start warming up and in most years so would NHL hockey. This year we've seen all four five-game playoff series in baseball go the distance. Not only have these series provided great drama, but they remind us of some sport truisms worth bearing in mind as we go through the college football season.
Lesson 1: Home Field Isn't Everything
Nebraska is 4-0 at home this season and 0-2 on the road. That has to change quickly for NU to contend for a Rose Bowl. The schedule still includes games at Northwestern, at Michigan State, and at Iowa. The Huskers have given up fewer than 17 points a game at home and an average of nearly 50 on the road. The opponent probably matters more than the venue though. The Reds-Giants series saw the road team go 0-5. The Cardinals-Nationals is split 2-2 as is the Yankees-Orioles for the home team. After a home-heavy series with Oakland, Detroit won a decisive game 5 on the road. You might have taken the same lesson from Bo Pelini's first three seasons, when he lost more games on his own campus over that time period than he did on opposing campuses.
Lesson 2: A Bad Start Doesn't Mean a Bad Finish
The Giants saw themselves down 2-0 in their series before heading to Cincinnati. Oakland looked dead after two games as well. Both Baltimore and Washington found themselves trailing two games to one. All four teams managed to push their series to five games. The Giants won their series. St. Louis lost their first game before winning two straight to take a series lead. In 2008, Pelini's team sat at 3-3 with an 0-2 conference record. The team went 6-1 the rest of the way (5-1 in conference ) to salvage a winning season. In 2009, his team sat at 4-3 with a 1-2 conference record before going 6-1 to finish 14th in the country. As the investing line goes, past performance doesn't always predict future results.
Lesson 3: A Lopsided Loss is Still Just One Game
The Nationals lost games 2 and 3 in their series with the Cardinals by a combined 20-4. In Game 4, they hit a clutch home run in the bottom of the ninth to set up Game 5 at home. The Yankees won the series opener 7-2. The Orioles have taken 2 of 3 since and only lost game 3 by a run after some clutch pinch-hitting by the Yankees. The Reds won their first two games over the Giants by a 14-2 margin. They were outscored 16-8 in the three games that followed. Pelini's team responded to an embarrassing blowout loss at home to Missouri in 2008 by pushing seventh-ranked Texas Tech to overtime in Lubbock. They bounced back from a bad loss in Norman that year to win four straight that year. Last season, the Huskers responded to a blowout loss in Madison by winning three straight including a dominating win over ninth-ranked Michigan State at home. A bad loss in Ann Arbor was followed by a decisive win six days later against Iowa. We may not see another game like the one at Ohio State all year.
Lesson 4: It Aint Over Til Its Over
Late inning heroics aren't all that different from fourth-quarter heroics. The Yankees Game 3 rally, the Nats ninth inning homer in Game 4 and two-run eighth inning in Game 2, and the A's epic Game 4 comeback. Pelini has led three of the biggest comebacks in Husker history between last year's Ohio State game, the 2009 Gator Bowl and this year's faceoff with Wisconsin. There have been other dramatic ones too, like Colorado in 2008 and Missouri in 2009. There's always room for hope, even when things may look dire.
There are plenty of differences between college football and playoff baseball, but the drama of competition is often the same. Next week the Husker defense will get a good test at Northwestern and as these baseball playoffs have reminded us, in sports anything could happen.