You can't win the Tour de France in the first week. But you can lose it in the first week.
The same probably applies to the Pac-12 Championship.
The Tour de France is probably my favorite pro sporting event - good enough at least for me to set my alarm for 5m or earlier every day for 3 weeks in the summer to get up and watch scrawny guys in spandex pedal bicycles around France. Never mind the level of physical fitness and talent need to compete in the race. The Grand Tour format is just so fascinating in the sense that every day presents its own individual competition for that day's stage win which, by itself, can be the pinnacle of almost any racer's career. At the same time, each of those days is also a crucial part of a bigger and more dramatic puzzle of team tactics and overall strategy to determine who ends up in Paris at the end of those 3 weeks with the green jersey for the points competition or the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains competition or the hallowed yellow jersey for the overall general classification.
But to wear that yellow jersey across the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, pretty much everything has to go just right every day for all 3 weeks. The opening week typically races along the northern coast of France or Belgium where the seemingly benign flat roads are tortured by the harrowing crosswinds from the north that force riders to line up across the road in diagonal echelons to seek shelter from the wind. The width of the road determines who gets protected, and who falls back to the next diagonal behind. In the three week long Tour, one bad day in the crosswinds on those pancake flat roads in the first week can drop you several minutes behind the GC contenders. Then no matter how well you race in the mountains, the contenders will too, and so there is no way to make up that amount of time over that many riders ahead. The Tour is over for some riders before they ever glimpse the mountains on the horizon.
It's akin to saying that you can't just jog a few miles at the start of a marathon and hope to catch Meb Keflezighi (Bruin) at the tape. Or you can't triple bogey a couple holes on the front 9 at Augusta and beat Patrick Cantlay (Bruin) on 18. And you can't lose too many key players in your non conference games in college football, not if you want to be in the playoff (Bruins?) at the end, anyway.
When U.C.L.A. kicked off the 2015 season in San Bernardino, the one looming question mark about this team's potential was the quarterback spot and whether that position could be productive enough - and nondestrucive enough - to let the incredible talent and experience across this team reach its peak. And I think Game 1 against Virginia answered that question to the great relief of Bruin fans. We didn't think that the QB had to carry the team, but the QB certainly looked good enough to play at least a solid role. So while Game 1 didn't promise the Bruins a clear course for the College Football Final Four, it certainly didn't eliminate them from the conversation, either. We were still in the race.
But then word came that we lost one of our crucial pieces on the defensive line, and I saw us turning 90 degrees and getting hit by the crosswinds. How was our depth? Could the backups fill enough of the void? Was the next man up ready for the responsibility? As the echelons began to form across the road, were we close enough to the front of the peloton to make the split and stay with the lead group, or would we get caught in the second or third groups back and be doomed to drop a couple minutes to the leaders right off the bat? Did we lose our shot at Paris on stage one?
Injuries happen in football. I wish like crazy they didn't. I wish all college athletes were immune from injuries. These are college kids and they shouldn't have to deal with something as stark and real as a season ending injury. In an ideal sense, the really are still amateur athletes. Now, I'll leave the debate for whether they should be compensated in some way for their likeness or their revenue production for their University to another thread. But the vast majority of college athletes aren't going pro in their sport and have no delusion of doing so. So college is often the finale of an ambitious amateur sports career. And for those few who do go pro, college is their last chance to really play for the love of the game. As a pro, they are playing for their employment and livelihood, so the motivations and realizations of the situation have to change.
But back to injuries...in the great majority of the time, you can't know when the injury bug will jump up and bite you. Witness the Notre Dame QB yesterday who got rolled in a routine pile and broke an ankle. Witness the BYU QB last week who got innocuously dragged down from the side and broke his foot. Witness the UNLV QB last night who was pleasantly running all by himself when an invisible force jammed a knife in the back of his right hamstring.
That kind of stuff happens in football and there's not always much you can do about it - "always" being the key word.
Because there are some things you can do - or can't do - to help your odds and give yourself the best chance, whether it's surviving that first week in the crosswinds to set up a showdown in the mountains, or whether it's earning a spot in the conference title game.
There was a lot of debate in the threads last night about whether the Bruins should have been running plays at the end of the game, or whether they should have taken a knee three times in the last couple minutes and gone home. Setting aside the question of sportsmanship for now, you can ask if there value to the team by playing tempo offense in the last minute and running plays?
The answer to that is, "Of course!" The 3rd and 4th string players on the team don't get many snaps, and are less likely to in the future as the games get tighter. And I'm certain the Bruins in the game at the end wanted to run real plays and not line up in victory formation and take a knee. The reps they got last night will make them and their team better in the long run if/when they are needed to play meaningful plays early in a game that is far from decided.
At the same time, was there risk from running live plays instead of taking a knee and jogging off the field? And the answer is the same, "Of course!" It's a terrible shame that one of our true freshman OL got rolled up on and is presumably out for the season, but he doesn't get hurt if we start taking a knee with a minute and a half left and he's available in the coming weeks.
So if the answers are the same, where do you draw the line when to play and when to pack it in?
I also think you have to consider that the decision line is probably different given the situation. Ask whether the Bruins should bring in 3 key defensive players on goal line and short yardage situations. Of course they are effective in that situation, but how would a second or third string DL do as the blocking back in the jumbo package instead of your all-conference DL? What if our star defensive lineman really did blow out his knee celebrating a touchdown? Would that change where you draw the line?
Or what about if the coach asks you whether your freak athlete inside linebacker should be back to return the second half kickoff. You know, the play the NFL almost banned because of the higher than average number of injuries that occur when very large fast men get big running starts before crashing into each other? Would that change how you draw the line?
I don't have the answers to these questions (well, I'm pretty sure I have the answer to the linebacker-returning-kicks question), and I don't have to. I'm sitting at a computer in Colorado and Coach Mora is in Westwood and is getting paid very handsomely to make those decisions.
But whichever way the Coach goes on these questions, those decisions need to take the end game into account, too. I'm sure the linebacker wants to return kicks. The question is whether that is the best and smartest use of that player? Is his production as a returner worth the potential loss of our starting ILB for the season? I'm sure our defensive linemen love to go in on those goal line situations, but is that in the best interest of a defense who needs those guys all season to have a shot at the title game? I'm sure the second and 3rd and 4th stringers want to run real plays and real tempo when they get that rare chance to play, but is running those plays in the final minute worth the risk of creating another hole in the depth chart? I don't think last night's decision to play some backups in the last minute will have much effect on the season. But the decision to play the defense in the jumbo package sure might. And if a linebacker returning kickoffs gets injured, then that could be the end of our Tour right there. Before we ever get to the mountainous terrain that will be the Pac-12 South this year.
Flats and crashes happen in bike races and you can't control those things, but you definitely can control where you and your team ride within the peloton and you can control your awareness of when the crosswinds will hit and tear the peloton apart.
I hope our staff is appropriately controlling things where they can. Letting the subs play at the end is ok with me. Playing our key defense in short yardage might be ok if the situation is critical, otherwise there is a roster full of players who can do that. But putting a linebacker in to return kickoffs seems needlessly reckless. It's soft-pedaling at the back of the field knowing the crosswinds are just ahead. We got lucky last night. Who knows what happens next time?
We need Coach Mora and his crew to make decisions that won't cost us our Tour in the first week.