I've heard lately Utah has been winning because of luck. What exactly is luck and how much does it influence the outcome of a game?
That's a difficult question to answer because I don't think anyone can differentiate luck from reality. Is it lucky when a field goal in the waning minutes of a game sails wide right? It certainly isn't lucky for the opposing team. Of course, in that instance, it's not always something you do and rather something the opposing team does.
Is it not the fault of the kicker and the coaches that the kick was missed in the final seconds of a close game? You could make the case. But is it really the hand of luck pushing the football a bit to the side just so that it barely misses? I don't think so.
Which is why I'm bugged by the notion Utah's 7-1 record is largely due to luck. In my mind, luck is not entirely a real thing. It's just a word we use to describe something good that happens to us when there was nothing we did to really deserve it. Going to Vegas and winning a thousand dollars on the penny slots would fall under this category. A football game, though, where there are so many plays and so many developments that can alter the outcome? Hard to say it is luck unless it comes down to one uncontrollable moment and even that isn't about luck and rather out-coaching the opposing team.
Take Air Force. The Falcons played Utah well straight up. They shut down the Utes' offense and forced Utah to overtime. Was that lucky of Air Force? Of course not! It's not luck the Falcons pushed the Utes to overtime, so why should we suggest it was luck Utah actually won in the overtime? You can't. It's not a solid argument to suggest one team isn't lucky for making the game close and the other is for winning it.
It's that overtime game I think best describes the point I want to make. The Utes' defense held on a 4th and 2 on a possession where Air Force needed a touchdown to keep the game going. That isn't luck. Stepping up on one play - doing it yourself - is a complete 180 of what we generally consider luck.
You see, if Utah was winning these games on the final play without really doing anything (a missed FG, a dropped pass by a wide-open receiver on a Hail Mary as the clock hits zero that would've easily gone for the score had it been caught and some other dramatic event that unfolds without much of anything Utah did) I could concede that maybe it was a bit of luck. But even that is a stretch because it's about putting yourself in the position to gain from another team's mistake and that isn't luck.
It's not lucky making adjustments and stepping up when it counts the most. Utah wasn't lucky they beat Wyoming. They shut them out in the second half. 19-0. That isn't luck. Would anyone consider it lucky had Utah done the opposite and shutout Wyoming in the first half, while scoring 19 and then giving up three in the second? Of course not. But it's lucky because the Cowboys were in the game entering the final quarter? I don't get it.
And that's what it comes down to when I look at this argument. The luck you often see in sports is a creation. Teams put themselves in position for a lucky break here and there and that's what the Utes have done this season. In fact, I think they've done it better than any team in the nation.
They have a winning attitude. That isn't luck. That was created by winning eight of nine in 2007, thirteen in a row in 2008 and seven of eight in 2009. These Utes don't really know how to lose. It's that type of winning mindset that I believe is putting them in the position each week to win these games.
Look at 2005, which I believe is essentially the exact opposite of this year. Both had very similar circumstances entering the year, but the outcomes couldn't have been more different. Instead of Utah being on the winning end of each close game, they often were the losers. Was that a string of bad luck games? Probably not. It had a lot to do with the young coaching staff and players. It took time for them to grow as a team and you really didn't see that growth until 2007.
That isn't the case in 2009 because Whittingham is a seasoned coach. He knows what he's capable of doing and what he's not. He knows how to handle winning and losing. It's that latter point I think it's important to look at because the way Utah handled its first loss in two seasons really made the difference between this year and Whittingham's rookie campaign.
If you look back at that season, Utah took its long winning streak on the road and lost a tough contest in the final moments. It's a game they probably should have won. It devastated their season and set in motion a near-catastrophic losing first year for Coach Whittingham. As we know, he pulled them out of their tailspin late, handled adversity well and got a huge win over BYU and then Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. 7-5 never felt so sweet.
Fast forward four years and you've got a similar situation unfolding up in Eugene. Utah, at 2-0 (like they were in '05), enter a tough road venue with a long winning streak and lose in a close contest. What has happened, though, is not similar. The Utes bounced back and have won five straight. Which is interesting, because prior to their seven game winning streak in 2007, Utah hadn't won more than three games in a row under Whittingham. Now we've put together winning streaks of seven, sixteen and five in three years. Pretty amazing.
What we've seen is remarkable growth from this coaching staff. 7-1 isn't luck. It's good coaching. It's Whittingham doing his job by not letting the Utes lose to those teams with inferior talent and a worse record. That's not to say things have been pretty or perfect or that they can't be improved upon - but it does mean they're doing something right. And that's all that matters at this moment.
If it were about luck, sooner or later it'd run out and they'd lose. Maybe if they do - against say TCU - it will reinforce that claim. But we'll know. We'll know that this team has done what it needs to do to win. That's the difference between a program like Utah and say Colorado State. Are the Rams just unlucky? No. They're just not good. Well Utah is good and that has absolutely nothing to do with luck.
Anyone who says this just can't give Whittingham and the Coaches due credit for thus far putting together a pretty solid rebuilding year.