Jaffe: Be wary of the letdown

Nov. 11, 2010, 1:30 a.m.

Woo! We just won a big game over a top-X team. Everyone’s talking about us, and we’re all the way up to No. Y in the polls! If we win out and ABC happens, we’ll go to the Z Bowl. Go us! After last week, how could we possibly be challenged by a team like Q? They’re nowhere near as good as the team we just beat!

Ever heard something to that effect (with the possible replacement of actual numbers and words for the letters)? The number of different teams every year that fit this mold is astounding, and the reason so many different teams have these moments is that they are often followed by massive letdowns.

Take South Carolina, for example. The Gamecocks hosted what nearly everyone believed to be the best team in the country, then-No. 1 Alabama, in early October with College GameDay on hand and the nation watching. The “other” USC came up with a huge two-touchdown win, catapulting it from No. 19 to No. 10 in the polls and bringing thoughts of an SEC title to Columbia, S.C. A road trip to Lexington the following week to take on Kentucky, losers of three straight , appeared to be just the next step in one of the Gamecocks’ best seasons.

Until they lost.

All the momentum from that big win, all the plans for glory, all the hype and media attention were gone in the blink of an eye. South Carolina is back to having a pretty good season, currently sitting at No. 23 with a chance to win the pathetic SEC East on Saturday at Florida. But the Gamecocks could never match the euphoria from that big win, nor could they match the agony of the following defeat.

This is the way of college football. Missouri beat then-No. 1 Oklahoma at home and jumped up to No. 6 in the BCS and No. 4 in the computers with a chance to go undefeated–the Tigers then followed up their high with two lows, dropping their next two games on the road, falling to No. 21. Arizona had to escape Cal at home with a fourth-quarter bomb the week after beating then-No. 9 Iowa. Those same Hawkeyes nearly lost to lowly Indiana this past weekend after blowing out previously unbeaten Michigan State.

The list goes on and on. The fact is, it’s hard to come back from a big victory and win again the next week, particularly on the road.

Why do I bring this up? Well, as you might have heard, Stanford blew out then-No. 15 Arizona on Saturday in a primetime game on national television. You might have heard that Stanford is all the way up to No. 6 in the BCS standings and has a very legitimate claim as the best one-loss team in the country. And chances are, you’ve heard the scenarios that could lead to Stanford playing in the Rose Bowl if it wins out.

What you likely have not heard or cared as much about is that the Cardinal has a game this weekend. And just like every other game in college football, it’s not a gimme (if you don’t believe me, watch the highlights of James Madison-Virginia Tech, and look at where both teams are now).

Stanford is playing Arizona State this Saturday, and the timing seems to favor the Cardinal. While Stanford is riding the wave of momentum from the Arizona win, the Sun Devils are trying to recuperate from a heartbreaking one-point loss at USC.

Arizona State is 4-5, with half its wins coming against FCS opponents. Its only Pac-10 victories are against the Washington schools, and it is among the worst teams in the country in turnover margin. The Sun Devils rank fifth or worse in the Pac-10 in 12 of the 17 major statistical categories.

On the other hand, Stanford has one of the best offenses in the country. The Cardinal is fifth nationally in scoring, seventh in passing efficiency and tied for second in fewest sacks allowed. Stanford has the best third-down conversion rate, the highest time of possession and the most red zone opportunities and conversions in the country. And it has a better defense in yards allowed and points allowed than ASU.

So Stanford has this one in the bag, right? In a word, no. Oddsmakers set the betting line for this game at only seven, and it has since gone down to five. That’s right, the sixth-best team in the country is supposed to win by less than a touchdown against a sub-.500 team that hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2007.

The Cardinal will have to play in Sun Devil Stadium, and as South Carolina and Missouri can attest, road games are not always kind to the new kids on the block. Stanford has not won in Tempe since 1999, and the Sun Devils will be entirely motivated to keep that streak alive. Arizona State needs to win out in order to assure itself of a bowl game, and it figures to be eager to erase last week’s loss.

Winning out should not be on Stanford’s mind. True, every media outlet that mentions the Cardinal is talking about the chances it could be left out of a BCS bowl. But the decision will be moot if Stanford can’t win this week, and history shows that’s no guarantee. “Taking it one game at a time” might be the most overused cliché in history, but it gets said so often for a reason.

Of course, the Cardinal could announce itself to the rest of the country as a legitimate contender and blast the Sun Devils as the stats say it should on its way to an 11- or 12-win season. But this one still has “trap game” written all over it.

Jacob Jaffe plans to write next week’s column entirely as a cryptogram. Send him cipher suggestions at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu.

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