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Revenge of the Nerds

Maybe it's just a syzygy, but smart schools are winning like never before

Every so often aproblem comes along that vexes even the brilliant among us. How can Fermat'slast theorem be proved? Is cold fusion possible? What happened to RoanokeColony? Why does dropped toast always land butter-side down? The most recentconundrum to vex thinkers on campuses (and sports talk radio shows) is perhapsthe toughest to answer: What in the name of Stephen Hawking is going on withall these nerds winning football games?

It all started inlate August, when Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, Wake Forest andVanderbilt all won on the same week, something that last happened whenArchimedes was in short pants. (O.K., it happened in September 1950.) It cameto a head last Saturday when Duke came to Vanderbilt and played a game thatactually meant something. To both teams. The Blue Devils, 4-42 in the past fourseasons, arrived with a 3-3 record and postseason dreams. The Commodores were5-2, a win away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time in a quartercentury. Two days earlier Vanderbilt linebacker John Stokes, who is pre-med andhas a 3.73 GPA, called it "the biggest football game of any of ourlives." Fittingly, the game--won by the Blue Devils, 10-7--was played twodays after the American Football Coaches Association released its AcademicAchievement Awards, based on graduation rates of players; Vandy and Duke weretwo of just six schools to score above 90%.

Intelligence usedto be an excuse for losing. Seeking solace after beatdowns by football- factoryschools, fans and coaches at academically elite institutions would say that,yes, they were handicapped by stricter admissions policies, but in the longrun, brains win out over brawn. Witness the sign a Vanderbilt fan held up whenESPN's Gameday was at the school last month for the Commodores' biggest SECgame 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 overAuburn since that glorious nerdfest of a day back in September of '50. Thegeeks are, as another Gameday sign proclaimed, inheriting the turf.

Sometimes it'stough to tell if the Top 25 list was put out by the AP or US News and WorldReport. Besides Duke (No. 8 on the US News list of top nationaluniversities) 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 3.8wins, and not one had a winning record.

These institutionsof 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 themmight be decent in any given year. (Remember how Northwestern won 10 games in1995 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 becausing this? There's no obvious answer. Asked about the phenomenon, Vanderbiltcoach Bobby Johnson shrugged, then noted that the emphasis in college footballhas shifted away from size to speed, which is a bit easier to find. Indeed, oneof the first things David Cutcliffe did when he took over as Duke's coach lastDecember 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 agroup and now are quicker and more durable.

But can this wholetrend come down to healthy living? At the site of last Saturday's Duke-Vandysmackdown, even the great minds there weren't sure. "It's only in the last100 years or so that we're beginning to understand that nothing is universaland nothing is necessary," said John Lachs, Centennial Professor ofPhilosophy. "We've surrendered ourselves to contingency, to thehappenstance. Nobody can explain it, but there it is: It happens to be a yearwhen the dorks are doing well at football."

In the physics andastronomy department, Keivan Stassun suggested we're in the midst of a syzygy,a rare and portentous alignment of things in the universe. "One of thebiggest mysteries in astronomical research is dark energy," he said."In the last couple years we have clear evidence that there's some kind offorce at work that is causing all of the matter of the universe to fly apart inan accelerating way. It seems more than a coincidence that at the same timewe've discovered this mysterious force, Commodore football is on a roll. Youhear all the time about somebody opening a can of whoop ass on someone. Thatwhoop ass has to come from somewhere. Maybe what we're seeing is agravitational warping of space-time focusing all that energy onfootball."

Could be.Solutions that didn't involve the breaching of the space-time continuum wereharder to come by. Are these kids winning because they have more heart? Themed-school profs would say no. And suggesting that players are winning becausethey're giving 110% draws cross-eyed looks from professors of both creativewriting (it's a cliché) and physics (it violates the law of conservation ofenergy.) Equally difficult to figure is what this success might mean."There are a couple of things in the Book of Revelation about the end timethat pop up again and again," says Susan Hylen, Mellon Assistant Professorof Religious Studies. "One is that the order of the universe isdisrupted--the sun is dark, and the moon turns to blood. And the other is thatthe great and powerful are brought low. When Vanderbilt plays Duke and anyoneis noticing, you could certainly take that as evidence that the ways of theuniverse have been disrupted."

Assuming that aslate of bowl games dominated by eggheads doesn't bring about the end of theworld, Lachs, the philosophy prof, thinks we should stop trying to explainwhat's happening. "Just enjoy it while you can," he says. "Becausesoon enough, like all of life, it'll be over."

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Intelligence was an excuse for losing, but now GEEKS ARE INHERITING THE TURF.