There’s a reason they’re called growing pains.
Growth is not an easy or straightforward process. Sometimes things have to be broken down in order to get better. That means taking a step back in order to take two forward. We saw it when Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer of his age, opted to fall apart for a couple years while he reworked his swing — ultimately coming back better than ever. He’d peaked with his old form, but shifting his swing allowed him to move to new heights.
We can see these inflection points when it comes to football as well. Players don’t simply achieve perfection without a few kinks along the way. That’s why we expect rookie quarterbacks to throw picks (and why we’re okay with them warming the bench for a hot second, she says to all the Chicago Bears fans out there). We expect them to learn from their mistakes and use them to get better. And that, my friends, is how we ended up with the version of Tom Brady we saw in 2020.
The same types of adjustments can happen at the team level as well. Shifts in philosophy, such as through coaching changes, mean taking a temporary downward trajectory to achieve a higher peak. The last time Ohio State achieved this kind of growth was in the period between the 2010-12 seasons. If you recall, it was extreme. The Buckeyes got a new coach. New types of players. New offensive and defensive schema.
But there’s an obvious problem: Ohio State was forced into shifting their situation. Left to their own devices, the Buckeyes would likely have stuck with then-head coach Jim Tressel. Urban Meyer might never have come to Columbus. Ohio State might have never achieved a real passing game. The last near-decade of success might never have happened.
The evolution of the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy needed to evolve again. Imagine Tressel-era teams competing in today’s college football landscape (arguably, both Iowa and Georgia of today are trying to bring this style back in fashion). We got a taste of it in 2007 and 2008 with consecutive national title game losses to Florida and LSU.
The result of this shift, of course, is that Ohio State went 6-7 in 2011, something that would be unacceptable in the eyes of Ohio State fans, coaches, athletic administrators, boosters and about everyone else — even if it means being able to build the team back up to a point where it might even be able to regularly beat Alabama.
So what are we left with? Teams that year in and year out try to reach the peak of their own potential rather than breaking things down to achieve new heights. Other factors reinforce this behavior, like how the best recruits at their positions will opt for programs with histories of success at that position, thereby limiting overall growth.
But even during a given season, the college game does not allow opportunities for growth. The problem with the short season and limited playoffs (heck, we’ll throw the BCS under the bus here, too) is that it does not allow for the best team at the end of the season to compete. Sure, there is a scenario where week one’s best team is also the best team by the championship game, but that’s not always the case.
Let’s think back to the case with Ohio State in 2014. Obviously Ohio State barely made the Playoff field, much to the chagrin of Baylor and TCU. But there was little doubt that, especially after a 59-0 trouncing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, that the Buckeyes deserved a spot. The fact Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon in succession solidified their position.
Why? How did the team that lost to Virginia Tech in week two of the season end up beating Bama?
It’s because they grew. JT Barrett got better and smarter as a quarterback. The offensive line synced up. They changed the things that had cost them three of four consecutive games dating back to 2013. It was a loss, but it was also a wakeup call, and one which the current structure of college football barely allows for.
There’s a reason there have been so few undefeated seasons in the NFL (read: one. Two if you count that time the Patriots went 16-0 and lost the Super Bowl). The team that has the hot hand to start the season has no more of a claim over the Super Bowl than the team that gets hot at the last possible moment. The Pittsburgh Steelers were the last undefeated team in the 2020 NFL season. We all know how that turned out when the Cleveland Browns, who had improved immensely over the course of the season, met the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs.
Growth is a good thing. Yes, teams have to win games (we’re not giving participation awards for going 0-12), but when we’re evaluating perfection, we actually end up far from it, and far from an optimal scenario. When teams are under pressure to win at all costs, they will not try new things when they’re on top or even near the top. The trouble is, the same teams have been on top for years. We’ll end up with the same brand of football we’ve seen from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma, and every other team will work to refine its comparative advantage which does not always translate into a competitive one.