Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Keeping your expectations in check.
I've mentioned it before, but for those of you who have missed it, I have been a fan of Michigan Wolverines football since I was six years old. It has been a bittersweet journey, to put it mildly. Some staggering highs, some calamitous lows.
But I think it's safe to say that the past decade has been mostly the latter: a series of body blows and a long descent into near-irrelevance as a national program. Oh, sure--there have been moments: beating the Gators in Lloyd Carr's last game, improbably winning the Sugar Bowl in 2011, and a variety of Denard Robinson highlight reel moments that will be shown for as long as there is Michigan football.
Still, the trajectory is obvious: from losing to Appalachian State, to Rich Rodriguez's amazing offenses and non-existent defenses (the GERG! era, we call it) to Brady Hoke's false spring in 2011 followed by the bottom dropping out...it's been ugly.
I think the ugliest moment occurred last year, when QB Shane Morris was left in a game after taking a hit that left him disoriented and barely functional. And then-AD David Brandon tried to spin away what millions of eyes had already seen to be the obvious truth--that Morris had suffered a head injury.
In the meantime, the program in East Lansing has become a consistent contender, fueled by superb recruiting and even more superb coaching. Mark Dantonio is a brilliant, brilliant coach. Sure, he conveys the impression of a man who starts out every morning being served an unvarying diet of All Bran garnished with Realemon...and rage.
But it's working--and on all cylinders. Sure, the Spartans have looked sloppy this year, but they're winning games they used to gag away. The pollsters might sniff, but undefeated is undefeated. It works.
And the Buckeyes? They just reload, year after year. Coaches and players.
So, here we are, left in second place in our home state, and drifting into permanent mediocrity.
Until the brain [sic] trust running the San Francisco 49ers decided that Jim Harbaugh, their intense but very successful young head coach had worn out his welcome.
The NFL reporting circle smirked at the idea of an interim AD (Brandon being rightfully fired after last season) luring a proven NFL coach back to college ball.
Sure--whatever. Chuckle chuckle, head pat. The Dolphins will land him, or the Raiders. He's not going back to Michigan, even though, yes, he was the starting QB there and literally grew up around Bo Schembechler. Dream your little dreams, M fans.
Well, we dreamt them--and for once, they came true. And we weren't completely psycho about it, or anything.
Things began to change pretty quickly.
No, there was no boasting nor were there any guarantees. Just the promise of lots of hard work. The change was in the focus and individual accountability. Being Michigan had no magic--at least not any more. Earn. It.
Still, we cautioned ourselves not to expect too much right away, despite the fact he managed to salvage a respectable recruiting class on the fly. Hoke had recruited well himself, but the players never developed as well as hoped.
Ultimately, the pieces didn't seem to be there. The defense was less than, and the offense barely functioned, despite the heroic (and criminally-underappreciated) efforts of Devin Gardner.
Harbaugh is a great coach, but let's be reasonable.
7-5 sounds right--a return to a late December bowl game would be a good start.
And things started off about as expected: Utah is a solid team and we have a new QB who at his best earns the accolade "efficient." And so, Michigan went on the road and lost, 24-17. Competitive to the end, but what can you expect?
Well, then the wins started piling up.
At first, it was whoop-de-do: the usual early season cupcakes. The Beavers at Corvallis were short a few thousand pikemen, and UNLV isn't even good at basketball these days. But BYU? Sure, they'd won squeakers at the end, but they were beating good teams.
Welcome to your curbstomping, Cougars. At that point, we did a collective double-take: 31-0?
Whoa. Was not expecting that. Maybe we have a feisty defense this year--that would be nice. And then the Terrapins of Maryland: goose egg No. 2, 28-0. That defense is looking pretty sharp! But here come the Wildcats, a well-coached crew who are undefeated and have an even better defense statistically.
The goose eggs became an omelette: 38-0. Michigan fandom arose as one and shouted:
5-1, six games in. And the Utah loss looks more and more respectable every week as the Utes have soared into the top 10.
This is UM-MSU Week. Dantonio is probably adding past-date headcheese to his morning bowl of antagonism.
This will require all of Harbaugh's coaching alchemy to keep his team from reading the paper, getting swelled heads and thinking We Have Arrived. The Spartans will be more than ready. The Wolverines better be. Veterans of the game say it is the hardest hitting--even, yes, dirtiest--one of the year. Both teams have something to prove--and in Michigan's case, avenge.
So, no predictions. But I'll close with this indisputable point: the game Has Implications this year, beyond the usual Bruising Rights. Implications of a wider scope.
And I haven't been able to say that in a while.