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"What just happened": Why Northwestern's 2015 season has been so remarkable and so fun

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Photo: Henry Bushnell

A muffled silence fell over a once-raucous Camp Randall Stadium. It settled just above the snow-splattered field, which all of a sudden looked barren. As Wisconsin players and coaches sunk their heads and trudged towards their locker room, Northwestern's jubilant players leapt and bounded towards their fans in the southeast corner of the stadium. Fists pumping, smiles were irrepressible, and although the words to "Go U, Northwestern" were muffled by the cold and the snow flying in the direction of the Wildcats, those words were the only meaningful sound in a stunned stadium.

All around, frozen fans lifted their hands to the tops of their heads. The ones in red did so in disgust, refusing to believe what had just occurred. "Not again," they thought, ruing every small detail that went awry, everything that, had it gone just slightly differently, could have given Wisconsin a win.

Fans in purple stood there with hands on heads too, but their eyes were wide with amazement. They couldn't have been happier to believe what had just occurred. That's not to say they believed it, but they didn't resist that belief. They just stood there, infatuated with what their eyes were telling them.

As the Northwestern contingent winded down, packed up and prepared to exit Madison, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson pulled out his phone. As Badger fans walked south, streaming into the student union and back to their dorms or apartments, attempting to drive thoughts of the game from their minds, Jackson was still in disbelief. So he opened up Twitter, and put into words exactly what those hands on heads had wanted to express, but simply couldn't:

Looking back at Saturday, even now, it's tough not to have a similar reaction. Heck, looking back at the past five weeks, it's tough to suppress Jackson's sentiment. The fight-song-singing, the fist-pumping, the locker room dancing, the celebrating... How? How has it been such a common occurrence?

Northwestern's 2015 season has been remarkable. It's not the dominance of 1995. It's not tainted by perceived missed opportunities like 2012. This one has been unique in that it has been so improbable. So many unlikely things have had to happen for the Wildcats to win nine of their first 11 games. And they have. By the same token, so many things could have happened to prevent them from winning seven of those nine. And they haven't. It's been the perfect storm.

The improbability began in Week 1. Northwestern outmuscled a Stanford team renowned for its physicality and strength. In Week 3, Northwestern beat one of the best special teams units in the country with... well, special teams, and Dean Lowry, Godwin Igwebuike and Solomon Vault made three of the most opportune plays of the season in the same game. Fast forward to Week 8, and it's the very unit that has held Northwestern back all year long, the passing offense, that leads a come-from-behind victory. Then it's a backup quarterback. Then it's the starting quarterback after being replaced and then re-replacing the backup quarterback. Then it's... well, whatever you want to call this past Saturday.

If it all sounds confusing and convoluted, that's kind of the point. Nothing about this season makes sense.

But that's what has made it so great. As I wrote last week, Northwestern is not one of the 20 best teams in the country, despite being ranked as such. What people fail to understand is that it's this very fact that makes this season so amazing, and should make it so enjoyable. Winning when you're not supposed to is exponentially more fun than winning when you are supposed to.

The reason why is the very reason that we enjoy winning in the first place. As sociologist Francesco Duina wrote in his book "Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession":

"Victory in and of itself is not necessarily what brings us satisfaction... What gives it special flavor is close competition... Close competition increases the risk of loss. The resulting uncertainty gives victory part of its flavor."

Duina goes on to explain how the thrill of victory is a byproduct of the fear of defeat:

"Victory is a sensation of pleasure based, in part, on something that has not taken place: we stand by the abyss that we previously saw and delight in the idea that we have not fallen into it. Without the abyss, the delight would not be there. In terms of uncertainty, victory is then the elimination of that doubt. Note, therefore, that the pleasure comes not from the mere absence of that doubt but, rather, from its acknowledged presence and, in a later moment, its deletion. It is the sequence—doubt and then no doubt—that causes pleasure."

Northwestern's season has been so thrilling because Wildcat fans have consistently felt so close to that abyss, maybe because so many of these games the past two years would have had the purple and white n the losing end. The closer you feel, the more enjoyable the avoidance of it is.

It's this phenomenon that made Northwestern's win over Notre Dame last year so thrilling. Northwestern had played poorly for much of the season. The Wildcats were an inferior team to Notre Dame, and nobody expected them to win. Then, as the game went on, doubt only increased, as the Fighting Irish took a 40-29 lead in the fourth quarter, and still held it with under five minutes to play. The slim probability of victory at that point, and the long odds before the game even kicked off, are what made the final five minutes, overtime, and the end result so exhilarating.

Aside from the actual logistics of the game — namely, Northwestern's offense moving the ball — this 2015 season has been the Notre Dame game borne out over 11 games. It's been a seemingly never-ending sequence of unlikely, and probably unrepeatable, events that have conspired to make a broader, more important unlikely event possible.

In his book, Duina also describes an experiment that perfectly illustrates another dynamic:

"Students at Ohio State University were put before a computer and allowed to gamble money. Outcomes were fixed, so that all participants neither lost nor made money. Yet the paths to those outcomes were different. One group of students was in positive territory until the end. The other was in negative territory until the end. Which group reported the most overall pleasure from the experiment? The one that was losing throughout and then saw the losses go away. (Herman et al. 2004)."

That's why this season has been so fun. A 9-2 season isn't fun in and of itself. Heck, look at Florida State. The Seminoles are 9-2, just like Northwestern. But unlike Northwestern, they're one of the 10 best teams in the country according to S&P+. They're better than Northwestern. They've got a second order wins total of 9.6, meaning their play suggests they perhaps should have more wins than those nine.

But are Florida State fans happier because they are a "stronger" or "more legitimate" 9-2? Hell no. They're dejected. Their coach might be leaving. The perception of their season couldn't be any more different than that of Northwestern's. Because the Wildcats are worse by basically every measure except wins, and because expectations were lower, their record-- the same as the Seminoles'-- is viewed in a more positive light.

Florida State fans have experienced the exact opposite emotions. Whereas Northwestern fans, as discussed, have experienced intense doubt that has subsequently been wiped away by fulfillment, Florida State fans have come so close to even greater success, only to have it snatched away from them.

In essence, winning isn't as fun when you know your team is good. As sociologist Roger Caillois wrote in his book "Man, Play, and Games," "the game is no longer pleasing to one who, because he is too well trained or skillful, wins effortlessly and infallibly."

The corollary to that is that winning is incredibly fun if you're not that good. That's the story of Northwestern's season.

So how? How is Northwestern 9-2? "What just happened?" Nobody's quite sure, and that's the very reason that the 9-2 record and the past month of excruciating close games-- close wins-- has been so great.