A tale of two teams:
Nine weeks into the season, things are looking up for CSU football. The Rams are 7-2. They won big non-conference matchups in the preseason and have a knack for winning close games. They are 3-0 in conference, in the driver’s seat for a championship, and are already bowl-eligible.
Nine weeks into their season, the Utah Utes are doing nothing but looking up … at the rest of the conference. The Utes are 2-6. They lost big non-conference matchups in the preseason and have a knack for losing close games. They are 0-4 in conference, their coach’s seat is well past hot, and are the only MWC team to have been eliminated from bowl contention.
Two teams, worlds apart, right?
Count your blessings, CSU fans. Though the Rams and Utes are an oxymoron in the conference standings, as Dr. Evil said to Austin Powers, “We’re not so different, you and me.”
CSU and Utah were picked to finish 1-2, respectively, in the Mountain West, even though Utah received more first place votes.
Both teams have veteran coaches. Ron McBride is in his 13th year in Salt Lake, Sonny Lubick his 10th year in Fort Collins.
Both teams had brutal non-conference schedules (CSU’s slightly more so) that would either make or break their chances at a national ranking.
The Rams won two close games away from Hughes Stadium against big-conference teams. They narrowly defeated Virginia, sealing the win after recovering a fumble on the goal line. They squeaked past Colorado, again in the waning moments of the game, 19-14.
The Utes lost two close games away from Rice-Eccles Stadium against big-conference teams. They narrowly lost at Arizona, 23-17, on a controversial overturned touchdown. They scared the bejesus out of No. 14 Michigan in Ann Arbor before falling 10-7.
Of its seven wins, CSU has only dominated in one, a 27-point romp over BYU last Thursday. Of its six losses, Utah has only been dominated in one, a 19-point loss at San Diego State.
In CSU’s six other wins besides the BYU game, the average margin of victory was 5.67 points. In Utah’s five other losses besides SDSU, the average margin of defeat was 5.60 points.
Both teams have had nearly every game come down to the wire. Both teams have been in every game until the end. Both have played gritty, hard-nosed football and poured blood, sweat and tears into every play. The similarities are eerie, but the difference in results is astounding.
The kicker? If literally three or four plays for each team had gone the other way, CSU is sitting ugly at 3-6, while Utah is loving life at 6-2.
If Virginia quarterback Marques Hagans doesn’t fumble inside the CSU 5-yard line, maybe the Cavaliers are able to punch in a score and win, 36-35 and maybe CSU is 0-1.
If CU quarterback Craig Ochs is able to complete his pass to John Donahoe on fourth and goal, maybe CSU is 0-2.
If Lance Rice’s pass to Josh Lyman is ruled a touchdown instead of being ruled incomplete, maybe Utah goes on to defeat Arizona.
If kicker Bryan Borreson doesn’t miss a 20-yard field goal, maybe Utah’s game with New Mexico last weekend doesn’t reach overtime and maybe skeptics aren’t calling for coach Ron McBride’s head.
Obviously, it’s easy to play the “what if…” game in any life scenario. What if I had been hit by a car in fifth grade instead of my classmate? What if you get struck by lightning tomorrow? The difference between greatness and failure, between life and death, can be millimeters.
In football, maybe skill has carried CSU through close games. Maybe bad luck has made Utah stumble time and again in narrow contests. Maybe this, maybe that.
What’s important is that we realize the difference between 7-2 and 2-6 — between celebrating the life of one season and shoveling dirt on the coffin of another – is frighteningly narrow.