Welcome to NCAA Fact or Fanatic, a column where we put fan chatter up against the numbers and the facts to see how they line up. On tap this week: curses and how they impact college football.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Sports is riddled with superstition and traditions based upon a deep-seated human belief in ritual – at every level. Coaches and players buy into the concept of a curse as readily as the fans do. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls trunks. The Curse of the Billy Goat is still at play in Chicago, enhanced by 2003’s derailing of a playoff run thanks to Steve Bartman’s ill-timed greed grab for a ball. And the Curse of the Bambino got plenty of air time until the 2004 Boston Red Sox finally won a World Series.
But the jinxes in college football are just as numerous, and that leads us to a fun topic this week: are curses in college football fact or fanatic?
Let’s see what the numbers say.
The Curse Of the Preseason #1 Ranked Teams
This one’s a whopper, and you can find reams of message-board threads, fan forums, and mainstream media outlets lending credence to the idea that if a team is ranked #1 in the preseason polls, it’s cursed. There seems to be some statistical foundation to back that up. According to Dalton Johnson’s outstanding sports blog Life’s A Ball, not a single #1-ranked team from 2004-2012 finished the season at the top. Since 2012’s USC team lost in spectacular fashion, the preseason #1 and its season outcome looks like this:
2013: Alabama finished 11-2, including the emotional loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl on the “Kick Six” and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, and finished number 8 on the AP Poll.
2014: Florida State finished 13-1, lost to Oregon in the CFP, and finished number 5 on the AP Poll.
2015: Ohio State finished 14-1, losing to Michigan State in the regular season, and finished number 5 on the AP Poll.
For 13 consecutive years, the preseason top-ranked team has not only lost games, but lost games in either bizarre or heart-rending fashion.
Being the stat hounds we are, we decided to go back a full 20 years. The preseason #1 and eventual national champions are:
2003: Oklahoma, USC
2002: Miami, Ohio State
2001: Florida, Miami
2000: Nebraska, Oklahoma
1999: Florida State, Florida State
1998: Ohio State, Tennessee
1997: Penn State, Michigan
1996: Nebraska, Florida
That’s right. Only once in 20 years – in 1999 when Florida State went wire to wire as the top team in college football – have the preseason polls picked the ultimate national champion. Maybe there’s something to this curse thing after all.
The Curse of the Heisman
Here’s another college football oddity: a curse laid upon the winner of the sport’s highest honor, the Heisman Trophy. This curse is well-known enough to garner a fairly extensive Wikipedia page, along with multiple articles and news accounts of its veracity. Basically, the Heisman curse has two parts. First, the team the Heisman trophy winner plays for will lose its subsequent bowl (or playoff) game; second, the Heisman winner will have a poor (or basically non-existent) professional football career.
The bowl game stats aren’t that compelling. In the past 20 years, 12 Heisman Trophy winners have been on teams that won their bowl games. But when you take a look at their subsequent professional careers, things get a little more interesting. The Heisman curse seems to be very applicable to the quarterbacks. Aside from Cam Newton and Carson Palmer, and accepting that it’s too soon to tell about Mariota and Winston, the other QBs – Wuerffel, Weinke, Crouch, White, Leinart, Tebow, Bradford, Griffin, and Manziel – haven’t been much to write home about.
And this isn’t something that we’re just now talking about either. A 2009 Forbes article does a retrospective of the biggest Heisman busts in 20 years that will literally make you wince. ESPN jumped in on the fun as well, with this festive little rant that still makes us giggle:
Who it has afflicted: O.J. Simpson, Vinny Testaverde, Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Desmond Howard, Charlie Ward, Rashaan Salaam, Danny Wuerffel, Ricky Williams, Ron Dayne, Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, Jason White, Troy Smith.
Members afflicted you may not have thought about: Paul Hornung (suspended by NFL for a year for gambling, racial comments, pants fell down at a Notre Dame pep rally), Earl Campbell (essentially unable to walk these days), Bo Jackson (artificial hip), Doug Flutie (discriminated against by NFL for years), Matt Leinart (drafted by Cardinals).
Heisman winners in national title games, some recent examples: Troy Smith, 2007 BCS Championship Game (4-for-14, 35 yards, 1 INT, -29 yards rushing, Ohio State loses 41-14 to Florida); Reggie Bush, 2006 Rose Bowl (committed brain-fart lateral turnover as USC was on way to 14-0 lead); Jason White, 2004 Sugar Bowl (13-for-37, 102 yards, 2 INTs, Oklahoma loses 21-14 to LSU); Eric Crouch, 2002 Rose Bowl (5-for-15, 62 yards, 1 INT, Nebraska loses 37-14 to Miami); Chris Weinke, 2001 Orange Bowl (25-for-51, 274 yards, 2 INTs, Florida State loses 13-2 to Oklahoma).
And in 2010, Bleacher Report compiled some data about past Heisman winners that made our statistics-loving heart flutter – and might just make you wonder:
Six of 45 Heisman Winners have gone to the NFL Hall of Fame
24 of 45 (53 Percent) HWs have never been to a Pro Bowl
10 of 45 (22 percent) have been chosen as No. 1 draft picks, only two of those draft picks went to the Hall of Fame
Caught in unusual circumstances other than enduring injuries
- 2008: Sam Bradford (Oklahoma)—two shoulder injuries in the 2009 NCAA season
- 1998: Ricky Williams (Texas)—Drug Problems
- 1993: Charlie Ward (Florida State)—Drafted by the NBA
- 1985: Bo Jackson (Auburn)—Career ending injury his fourth season
- 1979: Billy Sims (Oklahoma)—Career ending injury his fifth season
- 1972 : Johnny Rodgers (Nebraska)—Career ending injury (during practice) in second NFL season
- 1961: Ernie Davis (Syracuse)—Diagnosed with Leukemia before rookie season, died 1963.
And the Newest Jinx
Ever hear of Lil B and the Based God? If not, you might want to prick up your ears because Lil B wields a mean jinx. CBSSports.com wrote a fairly extensive article on this curse on Oct 5, 2015 that you might want to check out. This all started in May of 2011 when NBA player Kevin Durant made a derogatory comment about the rapper on social media.
Lil B’s reply is to the left.
You may have noticed Durant’s drawer is empty of championship rings. Coincidence?
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Since Lil B laid that jinx on Durant, Texas football had gone 34-25 from 2011 to 2015 – a highly unusual state of affairs in Austin. Last fall, the Longhorns looked – well, pretty awful early in the season. After a 55-7 massacre by TCU, University of Texas DE Bryce Cottrell Tweeted Lil B and begged that the rapper forgive Texas for whatever it had done to him – presumably meaning Durant, who is a Longhorn alumni.
The game after this Twitter exchange was the Red River Shootout, five days later – and Texas upset Final-Four bound and eventual Big 12 Champion Oklahoma. If you want to see a great example of “Are you kidding me?” go check out the box score.
After this shocking turn of events, a Florida player asked for Lil B’s blessing, and their next game saw the Gators blowing out Ole Miss.
The moral of this story is to never-never-never make a smart-aleck comment about Lil B if you want your favorite sports team to do well.
So…You’re Saying Sports Curses Are True? But…But…
It’s hard to deny that some of this is pretty freaking scary. It’s also difficult to deny that the stats seem alarmingly weighted in favor of the curse. That being said, let’s put down the voodoo dolls and approach the subject rationally.
The curse of the preseason #1 ranking is easily explained. We’ve already examined the accuracy of preseason polls in a previous column. Predicting the outcome of the season before one ball has been snapped is nothing more than a crapshoot. In reality there are 15-20 teams each year that could win the national championship if a few balls bounced the right way.
The Heisman curse highlights a key difference between the college and pro games. The Heisman Trophy is awarded to the “outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. Winners epitomize great ability combined with diligence, perseverance, and hard work.” Those are all great qualities, but they don’t necessarily equate to pro ball success, as several Heisman winners have discovered painfully the first time they were hit by an NFL linebacker. And others just imploded under the constant pressure, scrutiny, and temptation professional athletes face in this country.
But all of that common sense rationale flees in the face of the Lil B curse. To put it bluntly, we are gobsmacked. And we didn’t even get into the College Gameday Curse (best Reddit thread ever – a user crunched the numbers, complete with graphs), the Madden Curse (Digital Trends beaks this scary curse down), and the Sports Illustrated Cover curse (the New York Daily News makes something sad into something funny).
The fact of the matter is that sports at all levels are absolutely inundated with superstitions. Who hasn’t sat in front of their television set when your alma mater is up by one over your most hated rival, making deals with God if He’ll…just…let…your…team…WIN? Athletes and coaches are the same way. This isn’t because we’re not rational people. We have these rituals and jinxes and curses because somehow, some way we want to affect the outcome of the game. We want to participate in that win, even if it means leaving our left shoelace untied and wearing the same, never-washed, “lucky” sweatshirt every game for 20 years.
And if we don’t win, it’s a lot easier to blame some superstition or some external factor than it is the players or coaches. Trust us: up here in Ohio, people are still parroting long-ago former coach John Cooper’s whine that the reason for the Buckeyes’ loss to the Tennessee Volunteers in the 1996 Citrus Bowl was the length of the Vols’ cleats. Obviously, Peyton Manning, Joey Kent, and Al Wilson had nothing to do with it. But that’s human nature, always looking for something to blame for a loss besides yourself. And in sports, where luck does play a huge role in close games, that tendency toward superstition increases. And while that tendency is something a rationalist would call fanatic, its existence is, nonetheless, fact.
We don’t believe in curses. No one who loves statistics could. We don’t think Alabama is cursed to fail this season because they were chosen as the #1 team in preseason polls. We think that considering the fact the Tide has to replace its entire backfield as well as a star center, and the difficulty of their schedule, it’s improbable they’ll repeat as CFB champions.
We don’t believe that Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry are cursed to fail in the NFL because they won the Heisman. We believe that pairing a strong work ethic with athletic ability is the ultimate road to success as pro players, as long as the money and celebrity aren’t allowed to interfere.
What we do believe is that in a competitive situation where the psychological aspect of the game is as important as the physical, it’s easy for people to fall back on superstition to explain what to them is inexplicable. Any competent adult could have forecast Johnny Manziel’s quick demise in the NFL, or recognized that it’s almost impossible to go wire-to-wire as the top team in the country.
But if we were in your shoes, we absolutely would not say anything negative about Lil B. In our eyes, that curse is fact.
Mostly because we’re afraid to say it isn’t. We’re off to tweet Lil B for clemency now. But next week? Next week we’re taking a break from the stats and making some season picks. We want to test our accuracy against the majority of preseason polls, and at the end of the season we’ll take a look back and put ourselves up against the stats. This should be a lot of fun –
Lil B willing.