Unranked Virginia Tech entered Ohio Stadium last September as 11-12 point underdogs to the eighth ranked Buckeyes. This spread seemed rational, but probably would have been much wider if two time Big Ten player of the year, Braxton Miller, had not been sidelined just weeks before. Ohio State was coming off a confusing Week 1 win in Baltimore, while the Hokies were fresh off of an FCS scrimmage against The College of William & Mary.
The Virginia Tech visit was Ohio State's ‘premier' primetime game last fall, but this label was solely due to the brand names of these two historic programs. In fact, when this home-and-home series was scheduled in 2002, the Hokies were actually a feared FBS squad -- but darker times had fallen over Beamerball and Blacksburg in those 12 years since.
The hype surrounding Sept. 6, 2014's matchup was not because anyone actually thought Virginia Tech was a legitimate football team or because they smelled a close game brewing. Instead, the hype was about the electricity of night games in The Horseshoe, the euphoria in the air at home openers -- of any quality -- and the ability to tailgate for close to twelve hours prior to kickoff.
I watched TBDBITL perform Script Ohio with little doubt that Ohio State would strike early and often against a Virginia Tech program that in my mind was still riding off of prior successes in the previous decade. Little did I know that over the next two and a half hours I would witness what famed scholar and author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to as a Black Swan event.
Black Swan theory was developed by Taleb and according to him, Black Swan theory "can be used as a metaphor to characterize a highly improbable event that is a surprise to many, has a major effect, and is inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight."
The idea behind the name of the theory is that before man discovered Australia, swans were only known to be white, and therefore a black swan existing was seemingly impossible. When explorers did however find black swans in Australia, the term ‘Black Swan' was used to describe supposed impossibilities that are later found to be false.
Ohio State was not supposed to lose to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, 2014, and when this unthinkable event happened, it left the college football community in a state of common surprise. This game, and its outcome had a remarkable effect on the Ohio State football team, its fans, and on the holistic college football landscape. And anyone and everyone inappropriately rationalized this game's outcome after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
For Virginia Tech to beat the spread at Ohio Stadium by roughly twenty-five points was fairly remarkable. Some outlying analysts had predicted an Ohio State loss beforehand, but not by two touchdowns. So, when Ohio State did end up losing by 14, to an unranked opponent at home for the first time since 1982, the fans in Ohio Stadium, and members of the college football world alike were rightfully shocked. I remember thinking that the loss was surely a precursor for an 8-4 season, and my mind immediately embarked on a slippery slope. Wasn't the whole point of having Urban Meyer? That anomalies like this wouldn't happen?
The impact on college football was enormous. The next day the sports media, and social media were both littered with snippets about how the Big Ten was historically bad. You see, that Saturday wasn't just bad for Ohio State: the rest of the conference played its role, too. Michigan State had gone out to Eugene and gotten beaten badly, two Big Ten teams lost to MAC teams at home, and Michigan had been shut out 31-0 against Notre Dame.
Sept. 6, 2014's outcomes catalyzed the creation of a narrative that dictated Big Ten football until early 2015. This narrative characterized the Big Ten's members as glorified MAC schools which were mere minions to the all powerful SEC and Pac-12 powerhouses. It led to the extremely delayed-acceptance of Ohio State's late season resurgence as legitimate, and it helped the Big 12 school's cases as they lobbied to be allotted in the four-team playoff above Big Ten champion, Ohio State.
The last piece of Black Swan theory was the most rampant following the Ohio State loss to Virginia Tech last September:the inappropriate rationalization for the loss after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight. This extreme Big Ten and Ohio State narrative was a human response to the unthinkable. No one expected Ohio State to lose to a seemingly inferior opponent, therefore when it happened, there must have been a reason for it.
The thought that this loss to Virginia Tech could, and should have been expected, was common, but rather silly. This belief that all the information and signs were there but everyone in the college football world just happened to look the other way was common as well. What followed was overcompensation by fans and the media in response to having ‘missed the signs' that led to the surprising outcome in Ohio Stadium.
This overcompensation was a two-way street. After that horrible weekend last September, everything the Big Ten (and Ohio State) did was taken with a grain of salt. The media refused to be victims to the Big Ten's cunning ways yet again. This meant that as Ohio State improved drastically throughout the year, won the Big Ten, made the inaugural College Football Playoff, and then went on to win the playoff, no one could understand how.
This also meant that immediately following their big win, Virginia Tech was propped up as being the victims of oversight and preseason bias. The media wasted no time moving the Hokies from unranked to No. 17, and the coaches followed suit boosting Beamer's boys up from unranked to No. 19. Unfortunately for the Hokies their time in the polls lasted exactly six days as they then went on to lose that very next week at home to Eastern Carolina, finish the season 7-6, and 3-5 in the ACC. Virginia Tech's post Ohio State season can best be exemplified with their Week 11 double overtime loss at Wake Forest by the score of 6-3 (0-0 at end of regulation).
Therefore just as the media overcompensated for Ohio State's loss, they overcompensated for Virginia Tech's win.
The explanation to the oddity which was Ohio State's season following their week two loss to the Hokies, can be found in Taleb's Black Swan theory. Ohio State encountered a perfectly destructive storm of events against Virginia Tech and these culminated into an improbable and surprising loss. This did not mean Ohio State was bad, or didn't have the potential to be dominant sometime in the future. It simply meant that Virginia Tech played a better game that night, which helped compensate for their inferiorities, and resulted in a surprising win.
However, the impact of Ohio State's loss was felt far and wide in the college football world, and talking heads couldn't take Ohio State's loss to Frank Beamer at face value -- they had to find the means to rationalize it, using retrospect as their magical lens.
Ohio State's 2014 loss to Virginia Tech was a ‘Black Swan' event, football teams are organic. And as my old man likes to say, ‘the transitive properties of college football are about as illusory as the benefits of trickle down economics.'