Against All Odds 

A vastly upsetting weekend

A vastly upsetting weekend

If life really did imitate sports—as so many of our philosopher/kings in the media keep insisting it does—God only knows what our republic would look like, given the events of last week. Ross Perot might be quacking away as president-elect. Houston Gordon, after campaigning all over Tennessee in a pink Volvo with an “I (Heart) ACLU” bumper sticker, might have swept the rural vote to unseat Fred Thompson. North Carolinians might have voted to outlaw cigarettes, guns, and booger-flinging.

It was that kind of weekend. David Brinkley certainly could not have complained about being bored.

In case you somehow missed it, last Saturday was filled with so many inexplicable, odds-defying sports phenomena that some thunderstruck pundits began inquiring into the alignment of the planets. Early in the afternoon, Vanderbilt—a 43-point underdog—came within a few stolen breaths of stunning the No. 1 college football team in America.

As darkness fell, Mighty Tennessee, favored by a mere 26, was dope-slapped by Memphis, a team that had never beaten them in 15 previous tries.

Then, Saturday night, the baddest, baddest Leroy Brownest man in America was pummeled into a mumbling stupor by a supposed has-been who days earlier had been a 14-to-1 longshot.

As the attitude-copping fellas on NYPD Blue like to say, “Wuts up wit all DAT?”

And as the head-scratching, addled-looking oracles of the pressbox might reply this week (if only in private), “Beats the fool out of us.”

The truth is, few people could predict even individual upsets, much less an entire Saturday of them. Sports prognostication is the ultimate inexact science. There are times when forecasting college football comes uncomfortably close to handicapping a mule race. At least it’s uncomfortable for the media geniuses who, for all their analyses, projections, breakdown segments, pregame shows, and fountains of expended ink, often fare no better in forecasting than the meteorologists who match guesses with old country ladies and their woolly worms.

The national TV media greet “Upset Saturdays,” as days like this most recent one are dubbed, with mixed sentiments at best. For every compelling tale about an overachieving underdog, the studio hosts tut about the havoc that surprising losses will wreak in the polls and in the bowl scenarios to which they’ve devoted so many hours of blather. At times, it’s as if the plucky upstarts were being blamed for refusing to yield to their betters. Besides, they make all of the truly scientific predictions (like those in this column) look bad.

Nevertheless, upsets and near-misses are tonic to almost everyone. Just as Thomas Jefferson maintained that it wasn’t a bad idea to have revolutions every so often, just to keep folks honest, subverting the established order in sports keeps fans happy and interested. And the sheer inexplicableness of upsets adds to their appeal.

Consider Vanderbilt, which entered Saturday’s game against Florida with roughly the same odds for success as Daniel took into the lions’ den. Had Vandy won, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in Gatlinburg would have had to add a whole new room.

Here was a Commodore team that hadn’t come within hollering distance of the end zone in its last three conference games—and they were attempting to stay even with a Gator offense that seemed to be able to score merely by the power of suggestion. Every Florida opponent this year had trailed by at least 35 points; the Gators hadn’t trailed even once.

So confident beforehand was Florida coach Steve Spurrier—“Steve Superior,” as some around the SEC unaffectionately call him—that he announced his team might really crank up the score if Vandy fans didn’t hold their tongues. (Spurrier’s brain, for all its renowned ability to conjure the right play for every situation, apparently lacks an edit function.)

And so, of course, things wound up just as you might have predicted, had you been tripping on PCP. Florida 28, Vanderbilt 21.

How weird did things get? Well, besides holding the Gators to their lowest point total all year, and only seven after halftime, Vandy frightened Spurrier into grounding Florida’s Red Baron aerial show in the final period. At one point, Vandy CB Corey Chavous joined a sideline huddle between Spurrier and his Mr. Heisman QB, Danny Wuerffel.

As if drawing energy from the defense, Vanderbilt’s offense actually began marching the field. In the end, the ’Dores actually had chances to tie or lead. And, in the most X-Files-y moment of all, Spurrier spoke in respectful tones after his team escaped with its No. 1 ranking.

Tennessee’s loss was perhaps easier to foresee, although it was still surprising. In truth, disaster was bound to befall them eventually.

Only once all year, in the second half against Alabama—the mildly threatening surge against Florida doesn’t count—have the Vols displayed the form that led many wizards to anoint them No. 1 in the preseason. Since September began, Tennessee has all too often allowed weaker teams like South Carolina and Georgia to linger around.

Sooner or later, the inability to put games safely beyond opponents’ reach returns to bite you in the butt, as Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer elegantly put it. On Saturday, the chomping began in earnest when the Vols took a 14-7 lead, kicked off, then momentarily relaxed when Memphis’ return man, Kevin Cobb, seemed to be going down.

Instead, Cobb spun low to the ground like a break dancer—you had to watch the replay twice to be certain that his knee never touched— shot up, and raced to the endzone faster than the gaping Vols could say, “Shaz-zang!” Nothing, not even fumbles, not even NCAA regs, drives coaches to foot-stomping conniption fits faster than allowing a kick to be returned for a score.

The Vols dominated the clock and the statistics, yet they deserved to lose. Still, losing to Memphis? Wuts up wit dat?

But if few could have foreseen Tennessee’s thud and Florida’s narrow escape, virtually nobody (except Muhammad Ali’s old cornerman, Angelo Dundee) weighed in against Mike Tyson before Saturday. You remember Iron Mike, the MAN with the HAND no one could withSTAND?

Apparently, no one remembered to tell Mike he might also need a PLAN. Why should he, with his indomitable fists? After all, Evander Holyfield appeared to be a tired old man, a loser in three of his last seven bouts. The Nevada authorities, skeptical of Holyfield’s fitness, demanded extra permission slips from the doctor. For the sake of pay-per-view revenues, promoter Don King prayed the fight would go at least three rounds.

Who knew—unless you believe that King blessed the event with a magic touch—that Holyfield not only would stand for 11 rounds but reduce Tyson to an incoherent (well, more incoherent) mash of pulp? Rising to the occasion, and even surpassing their own bad selves with hindsight, the media geniuses made Tyson’s defeat sound almost inevitable, in retrospect. All the signs had been there.

But no one really knew, except for Holyfield, who had guaranteed a win, and God, to whom the new champion gave credit. Regardless of what you read later, no one ever knows. That’s what makes upsets so much fun.

How it looks from the La-Z-Boy

Vanderbilt 17, Kentucky 12

Tennessee 34, Arkansas 14

Alabama 35, Mississippi State 7

Auburn 27, Georgia 17

Florida 58, South Carolina 17

LSU 24, Mississippi 13

Penn State 27, Michigan 20

Florida State 27, Southern Miss 21

Colorado 24, Kansas State 17

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