It's the flashes that cause the flashbacks. Like so many others, I'm scarred and guarded enough to know not to completely believe in a win until the game is over. No matter what the score, no matter how much time is left, I don't completely let go of the fear until the clock hits 0:00.
But sometimes instinct takes over. Sometimes your reflexes abandon you. In a tight, heartbreaking loss like what my team, Missouri, suffered on Saturday, it's the reflexes that I've been reliving.
Missouri was up 17-0 heading into the fourth quarter against Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks, but the lead didn't feel completely safe. First of all, Connor Shaw, 20-for-21 against Mizzou last year, had entered the game and started to work South Carolina down the field. For another … well, the game wasn't over. It was a three-possession game, and Carolina would probably get at least three possessions in the fourth quarter.
As South Carolina worked back to tie the game, first with an improbable, difficult touchdown catch by Bruce Ellington and finally with a two-yard touchdown by Nick Jones with under a minute remaining, it never felt like the wheels were coming off. It just felt that there was time left on the clock, and Carolina had found something, and Missouri needed just one more play that never came. In overtime, with Missouri up a touchdown and forcing a fourth-and-goal from the 15, it still never felt safe. Carolina still had one more shot. (Ellington scored again.)
As the game worked its way into the second overtime, I was strangely relaxed. Or at least, I wasn't a quivering mess on the floor of my section. Losses happen, and this one never quite felt like it was in the bag. Missouri forced a 40-yard field goal, and even though Carolina's Elliott Fry made it, it still meant Missouri had a chance to close the game. And on the first play of Mizzou's possession, Marcus Murphy broke off left tackle for 17 yards…
…and, from my perch in the 61st row, there was a single instant, a split second in time, in which it looked like Murphy was going to stay upright after a defender tried to bring him down by the ankles. I didn't see that there was another defender there to secure the tackle. I just saw daylight and touchdown and victory and holy shit, we survived.
That was the moment I was still reliving on the car ride home and into Sunday morning. Not the missed field goal that ensued. Not the fourth-and-15 conversion. Nothing else. Just that single flash in which I instinctively allowed myself to believe Missouri had won. "YYYYYYYEAAAAHH--AWWWWWWWWW."
Those are just the worst. The most painful losses are the ones that not only taunt you with what-ifs, but also convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, even for just a tenth of a second, that your team won the game.
One of the pluses to having a renowned journalism school is that its influence spreads like a branch of a tree, like a pulse from a nerve. Missouri is everywhere you look among print and television journalists. It's pretty fun randomly seeing ESPN's John Anderson, for instance, dropping in a homerific line during SportsCenter. But the school of journalism has also produced a swath of writers who enjoy nothing more than telling you just how their school is cursed. It happened before Saturday's game, and of course it happened after. Mizzou's cursed, they'll tell you. Our pain is deeper than yours, but it's okay because we know the pain's coming, and that makes it better. Something like that.
I'm over curses. I wrote about it on Friday at Rock M Nation, and I still believed it after Saturday's test of faith.
Being a sports fan, especially a college sports fan, is basically agreeing to be hurt. Not a lot of us get to root for teams that win the national title or even get to the title game. Those of us who do, probably don't get to do so more than once or, if blessed, twice. Some of us were born into winning fanbases at just the right time. But most of us aren't Alabama fans in the '00s, or Nebraska fans in the '90s, or Oklahoma or Miami fans in the '80s. Most of us are Missouri fans, or Michigan State fans, or Oregon State fans, or South Carolina fans, or Iowa State fans, or Virginia fans.
We all have lists of terrible defeats. The more I get exposed to other fanbases and program histories because of my job, the more I realize that Missouri just isn't as unique as we want to think in the pain department.
Granted, Mizzou will always have a place in history because of the Fifth Down and the Flea Kicker. And granted, Andrew Baggett could have just missed the field goal in the second overtime; bonking it off the uprights was especially jarring. But losing a big game because you lost a lead and missed a field goal in overtime? Pretending that doesn't happen to anybody else is selfish.
I doubt Texas Tech fans were overly sympathetic to Missouri after both their team and its undefeated record fell a touchdown short in Norman. I doubt Virginia Tech fans paused to think, "Wow, Missouri really has it tough," after the Hokies lost by three at home to Duke. I doubt Louisville fans, still reeling a bit from last Friday night's last-minute home loss to UCF, thought, "Maybe our own pain isn't as bad as I thought!" Hell, South Carolina itself blew chances and lost a game via a last-second field goal just last weekend. And the team that beat South Carolina last weekend, Tennessee, suffered a loss to Missouri almost identical to this one (granted, with minimal stakes) last November, right down to the double-digit road comeback, long fourth-down touchdowns, and game-ending field goal by Baggett (he made that one).
If anything, fans of those schools just thought, "I feel your pain."
We show off our scars to each other as a form of brotherhood. Pain unites us. Pain is all that is guaranteed when we become fans. Hell, even Alabama fans can regale you with stories of pain, and they've collectively suffered less than any fanbase. We've all been there. And if you don't feel enough pain after a loss, that might be a sign that your team is losing too much. That this Missouri loss felt so bad is a morbid sign of progress, confirmation that the Tigers are back on the right track after last year's trip-ups. If the loss had moved Missouri to 3-5 instead of 7-1, the feeling would have been one more of anger or resignation. This was pure, soul-crushing heart break. The best kind.
Late last season, I wrote one of my favorite pieces, "The circle of pain."
You want to flee the scene, but you cannot. You stomped to your car, with a faster pace than normal, fueled by a combination of anxiety, hours-old tailgate alcohol and "What just happened?" rage, only to find yourself in an endless line of traffic.
Maybe you then weave through the lot and cut in line and anger other already-angry drivers. Maybe you just sit in your car, resigned to defeat, for a good hour. But you cannot escape your brain, and you cannot escape the fact that your team just lost a game you didn't think it would lose, and at home, no less.
A week ago, you were an Alabama fan, facing an interminable drive back to Birmingham, or Mobile, or Atlanta, or wherever you live when Tuscaloosa isn't once again serving as your temporary home. This past Saturday night, you were an Oregon fan, facing the same drive, only to Portland. Maybe Seattle. Your suffering, almost identical to that of your Alabama cohort, is a rite of passage, passed along in its entirety like evil in a comic book, transferred via handshake. That you took on this pain, that your team lost to Stanford, freed Alabama fans. Their team is right back where they were until last Saturday, when their team unexpectedly lost to Texas A&M.
Welcome to college football, where the only thing as fleeting as life is death.
Missouri was involved in that piece, but only marginally so. This time around, the Tigers are the headliner. Hurts so good. Next week, it'll be someone else's turn. At least, it better be someone else's turn.
Five other thoughts from Saturday
1. More of that, please, Ohio State
Six hundred eighty-six yards? A 408-120 rushing yardage advantage? A 42-7 halftime lead over a not-terrible Penn State squad?
You can count on one hand the number of times Ohio State has actually looked the part of a top 5 team since Urban Meyer took over last season; the Buckeyes are now 20-0 under Meyer, which is impressive even considering the competition, but they've mastered the art of looking just good enough.
For one Saturday, however, Ohio State may have been the best team in the country (or at least, the best one not residing in Tuscaloosa). It won't make a difference with the BCS' awful, neutered computer rankings (in which a one-point win looks just like a 49-pointer), but it could make the title race that much more interesting, especially if one of the top three teams loses in the coming weeks.
(You know who also looked pretty ridiculously good? Michigan State. Yes, Illinois, whatever. But in a 42-3 win over the Illini, the Spartans gained 477 yards and allowed 128. Illinois gained 63 yards on a field goal drive to open the game, then gained 65 yards the rest of the day. We could yet end up with a pretty intriguing, watchable Big Ten title game. Just saying.)
2. Alabama at its best is just hypnotic
Bubble screen to Amari Cooper on the second play of the game, touchdown. Force a three-and-out. Two more passes (including one by a hurdling Kevin Norwood), five rushes by T.J. Yeldon, touchdown. One big Tennessee gain and a turnover on downs. Twelve plays, 66 yards, touchdown. Ballgame. In its last two games, Tennessee nearly beat Georgia, then did beat South Carolina. The Vols are still a work in progress but have proven that if you give them some chances, they'll take advantage of them. Alabama gave them nothing.
Kenyan Drake's fumble with 2:36 remaining in the second quarter was almost the first Alabama mistake. To that point, the Tide had given Tennessee two first downs, scored four touchdowns on four possessions, and picked off Justin Worley at midfield. And when Tennessee actually put a solid drive together after Drake's fumble, Landon Collins picked Worley off along the sideline and scored on an 89-yard return.
This was ALABAMA Alabama right here, a refined, polished version of the Tide we've been seeing a lot more of lately. Life with a vulnerable Alabama was pretty fun, but we'll find out on November 9 against LSU if there's actually any vulnerability left. It didn't look like it on Saturday.
3. The BCS underbelly is fascinating
When you think back to preseason expectations, the current BCS top five really has minimal surprises at this point. Alabama was No. 1 in August and is No. 1 now. Oregon was No. 3 and is No. 2. Ohio State was No. 2 and is No. 4. Stanford was No. 4 and is No. 5. Florida State was inexplicably No. 11, and they're the surprise of the group at No. 3.
But then look at the next five teams. No. 6 Baylor was (also inexplicably) 27th in the preseason, No. 7 Miami was 29th, No. 9 Missouri and No. 11 Auburn were not receiving any votes, and No. 10 Oklahoma was basically ranked 16th out of respect. Unless there are some upsets among the top tier, these surprises will fly under the radar and be happy with a Orange or Sugar Bowl bid. But if November is particularly crazy, there are still some unexpected teams ready to crash the BCS party.
At halftime of the Baylor-Kansas game, Baylor was up, 38-0. Total yardage: Baylor 505, Kansas 91. Couldn't save that one until tomorrow's Numerical. Yes, Kansas is still terrible. But that would be impressive even against Pittsburg State.
5. Tulane and Duke are 6-2, by the way
And Boise State and USC are 5-3. Just wanted that in print.