About a thousand words on why LSU beat Arkansas

November 27, 2011

Look, I’d don’t begrudge anyone their irrational Razorback love. I don’t quite understand it, but then I am a LSU grad (like Randy Newman says, “went in dumb, come out dumb too”) who learned about disappointment at the knee of Charlie McClendon and Jerry Stovall. (I don’t know quite what to make of the Tigers’ success in recent years, and I’d just as soon keep my mouth shut about it. But now that that’s over: Geaux Tigers.)

Anyway, I was genuinely rooting for the Razorbacks Friday, in part because I have learned to like the team and especially its coach, Bobby Petrino, who seems to understand that a football coach ought to be a football coach, and not a moral scold. He doesn’t strike me as the type who’d make Jesus Christ get his haircut.

But the thing about football is that the better team nearly always wins. It’s not like baseball, where maybe the worst team in the major leagues would win 40 percent of its games against the best team in the league, or basketball, where any team with a hot shooter has a puncher’s chance. If those LSU and Arkansas teams played 100 times — maybe Arkansas would win 15 of them. They’re just better, that’s all and in football being better counts for more than it does in any other team sport.

I realize I’ve always known this on an intuitive level, and I think it’s because football is the most elemental of our major team sports. In other words, in football, physical advantages mean more — the bigger, stronger, faster player has more of an edge than he might in a game that requires more finesse. (Spread offenses and the like are basically ways to introduce more finesse and give less talented teams a chance to outscore more talented teams. Sometimes they work for a while, but eventually the more talented teams find an answer.)

I’m not saying football doesn’t require skill — only that it requires less skill than, say, throwing or hitting a curve ball. Another way of looking at it, is that one can learn to be a better baseball player, and given a modicum of athletic talent, one might even be able to will and work their way to the major leagues. Any minor league baseball player who makes it as far as AA could play in the majors, they could be a credible major leaguer if given the chance.

But football is a different story. There are lots of competent college football players who’d be destroyed at the next level. Just as there are lots of high school players who have absolutely no chance to play college ball. Yet the Yankees can play exhibition games against Ivy League college teams — and once in a great while, even lose to Rutgers.

And while its possible for people to overachieve — and people can point to the Wes Welkers, Danny Woodheads and from my era, the Pat Tilleys of the world to make the point — nowhere is the adage that a good big man beats a good little man more true than football. People go on about heart and courage and inspiration, but other things being equal, give me the obviously better athlete. Because in football, the obviously better athlete nearly always wins. Football is reductive that way.

And that’s why I don’t find football as interesting as I do other sports. Football is too straightforward, too determined by physical factors than other games.

In baseball, the better athlete is not necessarily the better player. That is not as true in football — a lot of the game comes down to who’s stronger, faster, quicker and more agile. It’s easier to predict the winner of a given football game than it is a given baseball game in part because it’s easier to say which football player is better than the other. In baseball, there’s still an ongoing debate about how to evaluate players — a football-style combine can be useful in evaluating talent, but its a lot harder to predict the future success of a baseball player versus a football player. (That’s not counting quarterbacks — it’s incredibly hard to predict how a quarterback will perform at the next level. They’re almost as hard to project as pitchers.)

And I don’t think anyone thought the Hogs had better athletes going into Friday’s game. Maybe they had a lot to play for — though there was something disgusting in the suggestion that the tragic death of a teammate could provide inspiration to elevate them above an obviously superior opponent — but so did LSU. And the question that I kept coming back to in the week before the game was “who had Arkansas beaten?”

Their best win was probably South Carolina — or maybe Texas A&M. And those were good wins. But there was nothing in their, uh, “body of work” to suggest they were as good as LSU or Alabama. (I would suggest that these two teams have separated themselves from the rest of this year’s field. Arkansas might not have really been the third-best team in the country on Thanksgiving Day, but I think they’d have given Standford or USC or Oklahoma State or whoever else a very good game. I would have liked to see one of those match-ups. Maybe we will.)

So while I hoped — I really did — that the Razorbacks would beat LSU (in part because of the chaos it would cause in the polls) I never expected it to happen. And while I admit I was thrilled when Arkansas went up 14-0; the final score was just about what I thought it would be. Because even I — and I don’t pretend to have any particular skill at evaluating players — could see that LSU had better players.

They won’t have better players every year — maybe they didn’t have better players last year — but they probably will have better players most years. And I can live with that, even if most Hog fans gnash their teeth and wail. But it’s not a moral failure, it’s not that there’s something wrong with Arkansas (though our priorities are probably as screwed-up as any other SEC program), it’s just that — for reasons that have been cited many times by others more “qualified” than myself — they probably will usually have better athletes in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa than they’ll have in Fayetteville.

1 Comment

  • Comment by evindemirel — Dec 21,2011 at 10:19 pm

    Bear with me for a minute as I loop this sucker back to your point about athletes:

    As states go, Mississippi produces maybe the highest per-capita D1 football players in the nation.
    A lot of people fear ASU’s rise could weaken UA’s monopoly on this state’s athletic talent. And that Red Wolves program has never appeared better poised to rise now that Malzahn likely on board for at least two seasons.

    Already I have seen ASU football share headlines with UA football at a historic level. Do you think ASU and Malzahn could draw enough of who would have been UA-bound local players to evoke a situation similar to Mississippi, where none of the major schools (Ole Miss, Miss State and to a lesser extent Southern Miss) can develop into national championship contenders?


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