Luck and skill converge in SEC championship game

Which side will be kissed full on the lips by Lady Luck? If the Auburn Tigers have proved nothing else this season it is that there are forces at work beyond the physics of huge bodies in motion that can determine football games.
Dec 7, 2013

ATLANTA _ The two teams in Saturday's SEC Championship game have been thoroughly weighed and measured, like diamonds at market.

Every tangible facet inspected at great magnification: From Auburn's fast-paced rushing attack to Missouri's ravenous defensive line; from Gus Malzahn raising his program from the dead to Gary Pinkel turning a Midwestern team into a Southeastern shining light.

Yet, there remains one aspect to the game _ a potentially huge, decisive factor _ that both Auburn and Missouri people have tended to dismiss.

Which side will be kissed full on the lips by Lady Luck? If the Auburn Tigers have proved nothing else this season it is that there are forces at work beyond the physics of huge bodies in motion that can determine football games. Call these external, ethereal influences what you will _ fate, fortune, chance, luck. This Auburn team, of course, is the beneficiary of two of the most fortuitous last-gasp occurrences on record: Ricardo Louis pulling in a tipped pass behind two Georgia defenders for a 73-yard game-winning touchdown; Chris Davis' 109-yard return of a missed field-goal attempt to beat Alabama on Saturday.

One the Immaculate Deflection, the other the Return to Glory. Either jaw-distending play by itself would be enough to store away for posterity as a rare keepsake. But stack one atop the other within a three-week span, and Auburn officially crossed over into the realm of the ridiculous.

There is another way to cast a scouting report on the two teams playing for a conference title _ and perhaps more, depending upon what happens in Saturday evening's Big Ten Championship game. One that marks the difference in the tenor of their seasons, requiring two words apiece.

Missouri: Show me.

Auburn: Shock me.

In many pursuits, we are not wired to completely accept the role that luck plays in an event's ultimate outcome. Our minds naturally seek a tangible reason for the result.

"Especially if you see a good outcome, if it's your own thing, you want to say, 'I did a good job,'" Michael Mauboussin said. He works in a result-based world of numbers as the Head of Global Financial Strategy for Credit Suisse, but is fascinated by the unseen currents of pure luck. Mauboussin even authored a book on the topic, "The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing." Luck is an inescapable factor in any competitive environment, he asserts.

In business: "Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, if they are introspective at all, they get it that luck played a huge role. When you see outliers like them, there is no other way to get there. Luck is a huge component in most success stories." Or in sports: "It's very, very difficult to get to a national championship game or conference final unless you've had some luck along the way. Whenever you see very good performances it's almost invariably a combination of great skill and great luck together." If the human mind in general does not take luck into great account, then the football mind really doesn't recognize it. Those who play it have all have been raised on the aphorisms of work and sacrifice and commitment.

"Luck is when preparation meets opportunity," and "The harder I work, the luckier I get," and so forth.

When the "L" word was brought up to Malzahn, he answered, "I think any time you win 11 games in this league, the best league in college football, you got to be a pretty good team. Teams that find a way to win, that's rare. Our team has found different ways to win, and I'm very proud of them to do that." "I wouldn't say it's luck," fullback Jay Prosch said. "We have done the work to be where we're at. It's not luck. I do think there are some crazy things happening. But I don't think it's luck." Even Missouri receiver L'Damian Washington, after acknowledging he was stunned watching the ending of the Auburn-Georgia game, after pointing out that it was obvious Auburn is experiencing something magical could not bring himself to embrace kismet.

"I'm not a firm believer in luck. I feel like anything that you work for you can achieve. Whenever you have guys that believe, there just seems to be something special that comes from it," he said.

Yet, the key element to Mauboussin's definition of luck _ "It's reasonable to expect a different outcome could have occurred" _ so perfectly fits Auburn's past two victories. How many times out of 100 would that ball be tipped perfectly into Louis' waiting arms? How often would Alabama's Nick Saban win back one last second on the clock to attempt an almost impossibly long field goal that would be returned the length of the field? The odds are elephantine against either scenario (the play against Georgia probably being the luckier of the two if you were to try to measure the immeasurable).

And fortune may be a very pronounced factor Saturday, for in instances in which the difference in skill level is minimal _ such as certain SEC Championship games _ the luck component likely will be even more evident, Mauboussin said.

Don't run from the notion of good luck, celebrate it, he advises. There is no insult implied.

"I would say it was luck in the sense of having all those low-probability things occur in two games. But that's not to dismiss the effort or the preparation of the players," he said.

Besides, he added, it's luck, "both good and bad that makes sports so thrilling. That's what makes it so much fun." So, then, let the randomness run riot inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday.

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