I do not believe in momentum in sports in the traditional sense.
For starters, that sense — which seems to me to reduce a bunch of complex factors to the idea that things going in one direction continue going in that direction unless acted on by an outside force — seems more properly described as inertia. And as the theme song to Bill Nye the Science Guy and my two trips through AP Physics — shout out to Coach Skip! — and taught me, inertia is a) a property of matter b) by which (matter) continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.
But momentum — which is mass times velocity if we’re talking about the vector quantities of linear or angular momentum — is related to inertia, and you’re calculating similar concepts with similar units if you’re doing this scientifically.
Saying, on the other hand, that Team or Player X “has all the momentum” or “snatched back momentum” or something else? It isn’t scientific, and if it were, there would be ways we could quantify it or find some value for it.
What I do believe in is, well, belief. And I think the Florida Gators have that right now.
For me, what many call “momentum” in sports is more like a combination of belief, confidence, focus, and maybe some esprit de corps; it is an animating force, maybe, and one that can — perhaps by increasing a team’s inertia! — overwhelm an insufficient amount of belief in a foe.
Arguably, this is how Florida beat Utah last week: Florida had the necessary verve to score its game-winning touchdown and persevere after a first dropped interception on the game’s climactic possession, and Utah — which hammered Florida’s defense with runs in the second half — did not have the necessary belief or confidence in that running game to try it on the set of downs that decided the game, with Cameron Rising instead throwing an interception in the end zone.
If you’re invested in the idea of momentum, you can explain that as momentum, of course: Florida remained in motion on offense and was never stopped by Utah when it mattered, and Florida provided the sufficient force (in the form of a pick) to stymie Utah’s momentum. But it seems more useful to me to be able to pick out specific parts of what we collectively term momentum than to toss out the term as a catch-all.
After all, what do we want to say about Florida when we say the Gators carry momentum into their Saturday night SEC opener with Kentucky? The Gators are brimming with confidence, clearly, after that win over Utah, and have the benefit of what seems like Billy Napier bringing focus and confidence to bear in his game-planning, playcalls, and program architecture — but are they too confident? Will they “play down” to their opponent, or simply fail to get their engines running as smoothly against a team after a single week of recovery and preparation instead of months and months of it? Can Anthony Richardson be as magical against SEC-sized and -fleet defenders?
Okay, that last one feels rhetorical.
But: How on earth could we precisely measure what any of this “momentum” stuff means? Or precisely measure my idea of inertia, for that matter? Is Florida jumping out to a 10-0 lead or falling into a 14-3 hole going to “prove” anything? What if there’s something we declare a fluke somewhere in there? What variables are we using — points, yards per play, penalties per drive?
I know that the result of this game is going to be used as a referendum on Florida — and Napier. If the Gators move to 2-0, they suddenly have maybe college football’s best pair of wins in their young coach’s first year; if they faceplant after their sensational win over Kentucky, maybe they need to grow up and learn how to handle success — i.e. maintain their momentum, instead of letting an outside force act upon them.
But the beauty of all this is that we can’t measure this, and that college football’s primary relationships to physics are in the velocity and force of the players on the field and the presence of entropy in a chaotic sport played mostly by teenagers. Momentum should explain some share of how things go; being left slack-jawed and bewildered by things going any other way is a huge part of the fun.
If Florida plays like I think it is capable of at its best, I think it might beat Kentucky by multiple touchdowns tonight. If Florida doesn’t do that, it might still beat Kentucky — and, gasp, have squandered some momentum.
I’m going to care a lot more about how often I can cheer. I encourage you to do the same.