AUBURN, Ala. -- Some believe the national championship game might come down to superstitions being observed or neglected.
Sounds a bit farfetched, but several players and coaches from Auburn and Oregon would rather not chance it. So one will have to win two hands of Solitaire on the bus ride to the game, another will eat the same game-day breakfast -- there’s even a pants-swapping ritual.
Auburn left tackle Lee Ziemba and Ducks linebacker Spencer Paysinger have long lists they follow. Ziemba’s includes placing his helmet on the ground in a certain way; Paysinger wears the same socks.
No, whimsical rituals won’t determine who wins on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., but Ziemba plans to observe them anyway -- just in case.
He admits his many ritualistic habits are “crazy” and he’s close to being in a realm of his own: The Ziemba Zone.
The 6-foot-8, 318-pound senior was panicking before the Southeastern Conference championship game even kicked off. He couldn’t find his headband.
“My whole mindset was just way off -- oh, man,” Ziemba said. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs for a headband.”
Ziemba likes everything just so before games. And during them.
If he doesn’t win two games of Solitaire on the bus to the game? Trouble.
Drink water on the sideline without throwing some of it to the right? Uh oh.
Lose a headband? Disaster. A knee pad? Well, that’s a must because that’s a superstition in its own right.
The shaggy-haired Ziemba did eventually find a headband, and the top-ranked Tigers managed to beat South Carolina despite that harrowing pre-game incident.
Paysinger, an oustanding 6-foot-3, 231-pound senior linebacker for second-ranked Oregon, can relate. He’s probably the most superstitious Duck. Like Ziemba, Paysinger needs things to be the same way each week.
“I wear the same socks, after I wash them, and I like to eat the same meal the morning before a game,” Paysinger said. “I did that first three years ago before (the season opener with Washington). I’m a simple man, I like to stick to what I know.”
His breakfast menu is a bagel and egg sandwich with fruit and cranberry juice. He had his stressful break with ritual before last season’s game against rival Oregon State.
“Last year against Oregon State we stayed at a different hotel the night before and it really bugged him,” teammate Casey Matthews said
The Ducks still managed a 37-33 victory and went on to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1995.
“I think (superstitions) are pretty funny, but if works for you, keep doing them,” Matthews said.
Auburn receivers coach Trooper Taylor said the Tigers have “quite a few superstitions,” mostly little things.
“There’s some guys that will sit in the same chair,” Taylor said. “When we get on the bus, there’s some guys who refuse to not sit in the exact same spot, listen to the exact same music that they listened to for the first 13 ball games.
“With switching socks or switching wristbands, there’s so many. It’s really ridiculous. At the same time, we’re not going to buck the system. If it’s been working, keep doing what you’ve been doing.”
There’s no doubt Ziemba will, with plenty of help. He even enlists team physical therapist David Walsh during games.
“It’s not his job to pass out water, but me and him have a system,” Ziemba said. “It’s kind of a superstition. Every time we come off the field, he’s sitting right behind my seat. He has a cup of Gatorade and a cup of water. I always take the water cup first. I drink half of it, and I throw the rest of it on the right side of my seat. Every time.”
He always puts everything in the same spot in his locker. When he’s stretching, “I flip my helmet with my fingers in the earholes, set it down, put my left glove and my right glove on top of the helmet. And if I accidentally knock my gloves over, it throws me all off. It’s crazy. I’m telling you, it’s crazy. It’s bad.”
Auburn guard Mike Berry is a partner in one ritual, the knee pad thing. That one started last year when Berry began swiping that piece of Ziemba’s gear before games
“He’d take them and wear them,” Ziemba said. “I caught him one day and he put them back. He made me turn around to where I couldn’t see him do it and then he snatched ‘em. I read where he said he’s not superstitious. He’s superstitious, too. It’s bad for him, too. Don’t let him fool you.”
Berry tells it differently. Once that tradition started, he said, Ziemba “made sure I got them at the beginning of each game.”
The coaches aren’t immune to the comfort of faithfully observing a superstition. Before the Tigers’ opener, running backs coach Curtis Luper couldn’t find his pants. Turns out, Taylor was wearing them. And a new tradition was born.
“The next week, coach (Jay) Boulware said, ‘Troop, you’ve got to put Loop’s pants on again,”’ Luper said. “I reluctantly gave him my pants. That’s been for 13 consecutive (games). It’ll be 14 on Jan. 10. I’ve got to give my pants to Troop. He parades around in them and then I put them on.”
Now, he said, “14-0 is the goal.”
-- AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson in Eugene, Ore., contributed to this report.