Deus ex machina

If you’re not familiar with one of my favorite literary expressions, this article is going to be as educational for you, hopefully, as it is interesting. ‘Deus ex machina’ – translated to ‘God from the machine’ refers to that moment, usually in a detective/mystery story in which all looks bleak for our protagonists: they’ll never find the murderer, the case will go unsolved, and the bad guys will prevail….

And then suddenly…

From absolutely nowhere…

….A CLUE APPEARS that *magicially* provides our heroes with the insight needed to solve the case!

A great example of this *slight spoiler alert* is at the end of Season 1 (the only season, really) of True Detective, after episodes of minimal progress with respect to actually solving the crime, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey come across an obscure clue that leads them directly to the monster.

Simply put, ‘Deus ex machina’ is frowned upon in the literary world, is largely viewed as a ‘cop out’, and is not something that an author would usually knowingly incorporate into a story.

In the world of college football, however, that’s not always the case – especially in the winding tales that are often quarterback competitions. Coaches do not always play the guy that gives them the best chance to win, but rather choose to go with the one that follows instructions better, “shows a deeper knowledge of the playbook,” or “has more experience in the system.” Why would a coach consciously make a decision like this and how can they get away with it? Two reasons:

  • Coaches, like CEOs at many companies, look to put employees in important roles that they believe they can trust, that they won’t have to worry about disobeying their orders, and that they can count on to be predictable.
  • It’s always easier to make these types of decisions initially when practices are closed to the public, interaction with the media is minimal and unregulated, and the spotlight that comes with actual game action has yet to be turned on.

So – what happens when the “Coach’s Pick” falls flat and the more talented, but possibly immature underclassman – that fans have been clamoring for since the first of multiple losses started piling up – finally gets into a game? Well, it looks like – to us seated on our couches – as if the answer that we had been searching for since the start of our story magically appeared out of thin air, that the unforeseeable, unimaginable solution suddenly presented itself – that God was extracted from the machine.

Just so we’re clear, the college football season is not the world of Slaughterhouse Five. If we step back though, and really think about the two dimensional, left to right moving story that is the college football season, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect a coach to be able to make an educated assumption regarding which of his quarterbacks should give him the best chance to win.


After switching quarterbacks midway through the season, you’ll hear coaches talk about how The Hero wasn’t ready to start at the outset of the season, that he matured as the weeks wore on, and that the timing was just now right for a change. This, of course, often times isn’t true. The coach’s hand was forced by the poor performance of the veteran quarterback, but that doesn’t mean that the initial decision was the correct one. After all, CEOs get paid the big money that they do to make correct decisions for the organization, not easy decisions.

As we get ready for the 2016 season, it’s easy to spot a number of quarterback competitions that are likely to unfold unfortunately for the inevitable hero. Depth charts have not been finalized in many instances, but sometimes you don’t need a crew member to leak next week’s episode in order to know what’s about to happen. Let’s look into a few scenarios that are likely to play out in line with the Deus ex machina storyline.

Texas: Tyrone Swoopes vs. Shane Buechele

It seemed inevitable for much of the Summer that Buechele would draw the nod from day one of the 2016 season, but all of the recent news is pointing in the direction of Charlie Strong selecting Tyrone Swoopes to be the man who takes the first snap on Sunday against Notre Dame. Assuming that is the case, the script should flip fairly quickly. Even though Notre Dame’s QB situation is undecided as well, that battle at least is the result of both quarterbacks showing historically that they are potentially transcendent players. Swoopes, however, has never showed anything to inspire confidence in his ability to be a quarterback at a top program. A loss against Notre Dame is all but guaranteed, and early season matchups against California, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma will have the Longhorns desperately searching for an answer following a 1-4 start – assuming Buechele is still tagged with the ‘Shane Backup’ moniker, following the team’s first five games. At that point, Strong won’t be able to defend his Senior quarterback any longer, and with a soft matchup against Iowa State on deck, this story will reach it’s turning point.

Alabama: Cooper Bateman vs. Jalen Hurts

It feels strange being legitimately interested in the outcome of an Alabama quarterback battle, simply because the most important task of whoever wins the job most years is to hand it off to whichever five star running back is standing behind him. That’s why for most of the Summer, I did not pay the least bit of attention to this competition. However, in recent weeks, it’s become impossible to ignore the hype surrounding Jalen Hurts. Everyone’s favorite term ‘dual threat’ in conjunction with the numerous other positive adjectives being attributed to him legitimately piqued my interest. It’s also worth noting that The National Championship Game against Clemson showed how creative and exciting this offense can be when pressed to not exclusively rely on the running game, which, is somewhat in question this year given the lack of experience in the Alabama backfield. Still, considering all of this, as excited as I am that Hurts is getting very real consideration for playing time as a true freshman, this is a Nick Saban Alabama team. The expectations that come with that generally lead to decisions being made that minimize the risk of a loss, as opposed to maximizing the chance to win. Going with Cooper Bateman at quarterback would be the embodiment of that ethos. Hurts should see the field initially, but in limited running packages. However, it will become abundantly clear after a loss for the second consecutive season to Ole Miss, in week three, that only one man on Alabama’s roster can write a story for the 2016 season that reaches its climax in early January. It’s a shame that it might take Saint Nick a few chapters to figure that out.

USC: Max Browne vs. Sam Darnold

It seems pretty clear that at least part of why Browne won the job is that the coaching staff knew that if he lost, he would go the graduate transfer route. If a competition is very close, like this one presumably was, why not go with the option that nets two quarterbacks for the upcoming season, instead of one? Simple math. Unfortunately for Browne, expectations for the 2016 season do not align with the team’s play in 2015 – particularly after Steve Sarkisian was fired. The offense stalled as Sarkisian was clearly integral to the team’s success on that side of the ball. A new regime of course brings new hope, but Browne is very likely to struggle mightily during an impossible early season stretch against Alabama, Utah State, and Stanford. A 1-2 record and potential benching feels very likely. USC coaches will surely come to realize one of the golden rules of fantasy sports: quantity should not be prioritized over quality.

These are three high profile programs that I expect to be confronted with the stark truth that the man tabbed to lead their team prior to the 2016 season, was in fact never the right man for the job. My hope is that as these tales, and similar ones, unfold across the country that you won’t let the authors off so easy, that you won’t believe the rhetoric that is fed to the media. That final clue that led to the case being solved didn’t just appear at the story’s conclusion, but was there the whole time.

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