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Every so often a problem comes along that vexes even the brilliant among us. How can Fermat's last theorem be proved? Is cold fusion possible? What happened to Roanoke Colony? Why does dropped toast always land butter-side down? The most recent conundrum to vex thinkers on campuses (and sports talk radio shows) is perhaps the toughest to answer: What in the name of Stephen Hawking is going on with all these nerds winning football games?
It all started in late August, when Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt all won on the same week, something that last happened when Archimedes was in short pants. (O.K., it happened in September 1950.) It came to a head last Saturday when Duke came to Vanderbilt and played a game that actually meant something. To both teams. The Blue Devils, 4-42 in the past four seasons, arrived with a 3-3 record and postseason dreams. The Commodores were 5-2, a win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in a quarter century. Two days earlier Vanderbilt linebacker John Stokes, who is pre-med and has a 3.73 GPA, called it "the biggest football game of any of our lives." Fittingly, the game--won by the Blue Devils, 10-7--was played two days after the American Football Coaches Association released its Academic Achievement Awards, based on graduation rates of players; Vandy and Duke were two of just six schools to score above 90%.
Intelligence used to be an excuse for losing. Seeking solace after beatdowns by football- factory schools, fans and coaches at academically elite institutions would say that, yes, they were handicapped by stricter admissions policies, but in the long run, brains win out over brawn. Witness the sign a Vanderbilt fan held up when ESPN's Gameday was at the school last month for the Commodores' biggest SEC game ever: my butler went to auburn. But a funny thing happened that Saturday: The Commodores beat the Tigers 14-13, their first regular-season win over Auburn since that glorious nerdfest of a day back in September of '50. The geeks are, as another Gameday sign proclaimed, inheriting the turf.
Sometimes it's tough to tell if the Top 25 list was put out by the AP or US News and World Report. Besides Duke (No. 8 on the US News list of top national universities) and Vanderbilt (No. 18), Stanford (No. 4) is 4-4, Northwestern (No. 12) is 6-2 and Rice (No. 17) is 5-3. Last year those schools averaged 3.8 wins, and not one had a winning record.
These institutions of higher learning and heretofore lower footballing have this in common: They're all private schools with lofty academic standards that, until recently, were coveted as opponents by schools in need of a walkover. One or two of them might be decent in any given year. (Remember how Northwestern won 10 games in 1995 and went to the Rose Bowl?) But all of them? (Remember how Vandy, Duke, Wake and Rice combined to win eight games in '95?) Come on.
What could be causing this? There's no obvious answer. Asked about the phenomenon, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson shrugged, then noted that the emphasis in college football has shifted away from size to speed, which is a bit easier to find. Indeed, one of the first things David Cutcliffe did when he took over as Duke's coach last December was to put his squad, which he says was "bar none, the fattest, softest team" he'd ever seen, on a diet. They dropped over 500 pounds as a group and now are quicker and more durable.
But can this whole trend come down to healthy living? At the site of last Saturday's Duke-Vandy smackdown, even the great minds there weren't sure. "It's only in the last 100 years or so that we're beginning to understand that nothing is universal and nothing is necessary," said John Lachs, Centennial Professor of Philosophy. "We've surrendered ourselves to contingency, to the happenstance. Nobody can explain it, but there it is: It happens to be a year when the dorks are doing well at football."
In the physics and astronomy department, Keivan Stassun suggested we're in the midst of a syzygy, a rare and portentous alignment of things in the universe. "One of the biggest mysteries in astronomical research is dark energy," he said. "In the last couple years we have clear evidence that there's some kind of force at work that is causing all of the matter of the universe to fly apart in an accelerating way. It seems more than a coincidence that at the same time we've discovered this mysterious force, Commodore football is on a roll. You hear all the time about somebody opening a can of whoop ass on someone. That whoop ass has to come from somewhere. Maybe what we're seeing is a gravitational warping of space-time focusing all that energy on football."
Could be. Solutions that didn't involve the breaching of the space-time continuum were harder to come by. Are these kids winning because they have more heart? The med-school profs would say no. And suggesting that players are winning because they're giving 110% draws cross-eyed looks from professors of both creative writing (it's a cliché) and physics (it violates the law of conservation of energy.) Equally difficult to figure is what this success might mean. "There are a couple of things in the Book of Revelation about the end time that pop up again and again," says Susan Hylen, Mellon Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. "One is that the order of the universe is disrupted--the sun is dark, and the moon turns to blood. And the other is that the great and powerful are brought low. When Vanderbilt plays Duke and anyone is noticing, you could certainly take that as evidence that the ways of the universe have been disrupted."
Assuming that a slate of bowl games dominated by eggheads doesn't bring about the end of the world, Lachs, the philosophy prof, thinks we should stop trying to explain what's happening. "Just enjoy it while you can," he says. "Because soon enough, like all of life, it'll be over."