Wednesday, November 3, 2010


As a topic of discussion it bounces around the message boards every so often this year, and I haven't chimed in because I don't know the answer. Or didn't. It's probably one of the better questions people ask, although most anything would be a welcome change from "should Verica be the starting quarterback?" (The magic Miami-game 8-ball says "shit yes.") But now is a perfect time to bring it up, with the three easiest ACC games in front of us: Are there any must-win games on the schedule?

Admittedly, I answered that once already in an ACC Roundtable, and I answered in the affirmative. Better beat the crappy teams like EMU and Duke, was the answer, or people will see regression, not progress. But what about now that there's a big, signature win on the resume? And is it really even fair to slap a "must" label on any game in the first year of a coach's tenure?

"Must-win," of course, implies a no-exchange policy. If you don't win this game, it's a big problem. The label is really for season-ending situations, or at least that's how it started out. Game 7s are must-wins, obviously. Beat this team or lose your driver's seat for the championship, that sort of thing. And when it comes time to determine whether or not London's really improved this team, it already has more than it did last year; will it really matter who those wins came against? 4-8 is 4-8, 5-7 is 5-7, all of which is better than 3-9. The rest is just gravy, isn't it?

Besides, the talent London has to work with (because this really is about London) is patchy, inexperienced, and learning a new scheme. Most - including me - would say you can't hold the bad times against him. I mean, the O-line has at least two players in danger of losing their starting jobs and one more who temporarily did for classroom reasons. The potentially most electric wide receiver is on the shelf and the NFL talent in the defensive backfield has barely gotten off the sideline too. The quarterback is a flawed senior and the backups are even more flawed freshmen. The linebackers used to be safeties, the defensive ends used to be linebackers, and the tackles used to be defensive ends. The best running back is also the biggest reclamation project.

So there's a lot of......challenges. That said, you should know what else I've always advocated: There is no such thing as a throwaway season. "Grace period" is the reason most often given for wanting to see someone not named Verica under center: London won't be blamed for what happens this season, so he should give someone else the needed experience. Think of the future. Think of the children. How stupid. Any coach that would go along with that line of reasoning should turn in his playbook and whistle. Fortunately, none would. Every season is important, every game matters. Besides the fact that it's a slap in the face to your seniors to throw the season, there's a whole host of practical reasons to try and put your best foot forward, every time. Recruiting. Fan interest. Recruiting. Money. Recruiting.

And now that Miami is in the win column, becoming b-word eligible isn't so hard to envision. There are a ton of good reasons to go to a bowl, some listed above. (And no good reason to not want to go. I feel silly saying this but it's a rebuilding era.) I did another Sagarin projection (for explanation look here). Assuming we need to win out these next three weeks in order to be b-word eligible (because the chances of beating VT are now 1 in 60 which still = 0) the chances of it are 17%. Not good, but still substantial. So, you want to accomplish something this season? "Must-win" is for season-ending situations, remember? Lose to Duke -> no bowl, so Duke is a must-win, yes? And if we beat Duke, Maryland is a must-win, yes? And so on?

Well......yes and no. Look, ultimately, I get pissed off when fans act spoiled and turn on a coach too soon. And the best way to get to that point is to heap expectations on him. But - and this is the main point that Master Yoda wishes to impart to you, grasshopper, so pay close attention - hopes are not the same thing as expectations, no matter how frequently fans mix up the two. And they do, believe me, they do. The Duke game is not a must-win. Neither is Maryland, except to the extent that Maryland must be destroyed because they're Maryland. Neither is Boston College if we beat the other two, even though that hopes/expectations thing is going to come into play mightily.

But it shouldn't be too much to ask to act like the team faces a must-win, should it? Separate hopes and expectations, and you'll find yourself simultaneously able to convince yourself that it matters like hell that the team goes to a bowl, and that it doesn't matter one bit if they don't. Duke is the next step to a very worthy goal - a goal that, should it not be achieved, nothing is lost. Playing with house money - how enviable. But it doesn't mean you hit on nineteen. You're still trying to win. So is Mike London, which means the grace period talk needs to go on ice until we know how badly we need it.


Dave said...

I have issues with the whole "must-win" term as well, though slightly different ones. They are these:

- The term makes no sense unless there is an express or implied "if" or "or else" attached to it. "Duke is a must-win if we want to go bowling this year" means something; "Duke is a must-win" is far too ambiguous to mean anything, and thus leads to unproductive arguments.
- The term typically makes no sense unless we agree upon certain implied assumptions. Earlier, many thought UNC was a must-win if we were to become bowl-eligible. The implicit assumption was that we would lose to both Miami and VT. (A fair implicit assumption, but if not made explicit, it leads to more unproductive arguments.)

Anyway. What I'm saying is that people act like "must-win" is a term that can be used without context, when in fact everyone has different contexts in their head and we end up talking past each other.

Dave said...

One other comment, about the idea of "throwing" a season to plan for the future: Practice is to Game as Rebuilding Year is to Competitive Year. If you want to win next year, you better instill the right attitude this year. That's part of what Rebuilding is.

Brendan said...

Excellent points. The message to the team is something I've occasionally hammered myself. How do you look the team in the eye when you tell them to go out there with a winner's attitude if you do things like sitting the clearly superior quarterback with the excuse that it's for "the future"?