LSU 37 — Mississippi State 17
After last week’s loss to the Crimson Tide, LSU’s Tigers might have felt they had something to prove. If only to themselves, since a significant portion of the commentariat took the view that they had only been beaten if you took the final score as the most relevant criterion. If I was an Alabama fan, I’d be getting rigidly formalist on this point and using phrases like “At the end of the day…” and “Who decoupled the notion of discretionary effort from reward in American popular discourse whilst I wasn’t looking…” not to mention “Who here can count? Who can tell me what number is bigger than another number?” But with last week spoiling their run, the Tigers most likely felt as if a quantum of dominance needed asserting.
Mississippi State looked like an appropriate opponent for a team smarting from the right-arm stylings of A. J. McCarron. Ranked enough to be respectable, but far enough down to make the match attractive – especially for an LSU team who had the momentum, despite last week’s trip/ hiccup/ unfortunate technicality. Though ranking isn’t everything, as Alabama discovered this week in their 29-24 loss to #15 Texas A&M. But the weightings proved true, and Zach Mettenberger continued the impressive form which he demonstrated last week (making 298 yards for a career record), this time on the right side of the scoreboard. Throwing for 273 yards and two touchdowns has got to put some confidence in you, especially when that link between effort and outcome is resoldered into a twenty point win. There was a wobble on the very first down of the game, where it looked briefly as if Mettenberger had thrown a cheap interception, but he was lucky enough to get a second chance. Tempting to speculate what the narrative might have been if that ball had been picked off: overwrought QB tries too hard to re-establish his credentials, loses his cool and…but counter-factuals are probably best left to historians like Niall Ferguson and others who worry about the direction of “The West” from a well-cushioned circuit of speaking gigs.
On the other side of the argument, and of the game, Tyler Russell had a splendid night, racking up 295 yards himself. Though he did also throw an important interception and get sacked twice. Either way, no win. I keep harping on this question of reward because there’s something intriguing about the extent to which we accept contingency and outside factors as bearing on the result of a game. Firstly, we seem to distinguish between “result” and “score”, or at least do so implicitly when we can say that any team scored a “moral victory” or that the “game was closer than the score suggests”. My jibe at Niall Ferguson aside (and feel free to take over that duty whilst I’m cutting him some slack), the notion that a game was closer than the score seems to involve either evaluating the two sides’ play on an abstract level, and attributing the score to contingent aspects like wind, luck or the timing of successful drives; or it involves considering an alternative “history” of the game, in which the other side won, as just as plausible, despite it never having happened. And of course the probability of a win which can be scored is not the same as the gap by which that win occurs, as Nate Silver has had to painstakingly explain over the last week: saying Obama was 80% favourite is very different from predicting an Obama landslide.
Either way, the way we talk about scorelines and results comfortably accommodates the distinction which has troubled and fascinated people from Aristotle, through Sir Philip Sidney, onto Sherlock Holmes, between the probable, the possible and the actual. I’ve written before about how we overlay cultural, moral and social meanings on the technical events of a game, but we also insist on separating (at times) the actual events from an abstract and purified notion of the game. It’s easy to shrug this off under the label of “average” – arguing that when someone says LSU should have won last week they simply mean that if that LSU team played that Alabama team a hundred or a thousand times, the number of wins and losses would be much closer than the proportion between the scores. But baseball seasons involve playing a much larger number of games, giving the averages more time to work their supposedly field-levelling magic, and baseball fans don’t excise the language of “should” from their discussions. We may load moral terms like “lazy” and “cheap” onto athletes’ actions, but we also adjust at the other side by allowing for some abstract zone in which they were better rewarded than by the reality we happen to be stuck in.
There’s a fine intertheatricality about sporting crowds as well. That web of knowledge which everyone brings to a performance event (identified and named by Jacky Bratton), and which they use to understand this occasion in relation to others they’ve seen or heard about, exploded into cheers when Alabama’s loss to the Aggies was announced within the stadium. It would need Auburn to beat Alabama next week for this to have much of an effect (aside from schadenfraude) on LSU, but we suddenly got a close-up of how many other games are being played out in ghostly form alongside what’s taking place on the field. Not only are the other SEC teams dimly visible in the stadium, but whole ambushes of theoretical Tigers are battling packs of potential Bulldogs in pale skirmishes around the players. And in a sportscasting booth overlooking all these simultaneous games Aristotle and Sherlock Holmes have just started arguing about whether an Auburn win over Alabama is a possible improbable or merely a probable impossible…