Thursday, August 2, 2012


With a month to go until the start of Team 133's season--and fall camp starting soon--this is probably the last chance to sit and reflect on last year's team and this offseason as a whole before things start to pick up again. This is a time for the consumption of formulaic positional rankings posts, W/L predictions, and any other number of pre-season drudgery, sure, but it's also a time for thoughtful consideration of the things that have happened in the world of college football in the last year or so, Michigan-related or not.

Michigan finished last season at 11-2, its best record since the 2006 season. Needless to say, Michigan exceeded the hopes of even the most optimistic sort; personally, I had Michigan going 8-4, with losses to Notre Dame, Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska. Like many Michigan fans, I was uncertain about Brady Hoke's ability to return Michigan to respectability and/or greatness...that is, until his opening press conference. After that, it became fairly obvious that he was the proverbial "good fit", and that many of the problems that plagued the RR regime would not be an issue under Hoke. I think I've mostly done away with the inescapable shame stemming from my brief and UNACCEPTABLE period of pre-press conference questioning of the hiring/The Process. But, as our old friend Rich Rodriguez once said: it's in the past.

The season began and it was immediately obvious that things were different. After Western Michigan had some early success moving the ball, Mattison's defense hunkered down and looked altogether like a unit that was receiving actual attention and coaching as opposed to being the ancillary complement to the offense that it was under RR (and I say that as a former RR uber-fan).

The Notre Dame game was...something. Almost a year later, I still don't know how to describe it. The title of the Monday game recap I did for that game just about sums up my ongoing state of mindless WOOOO-ing regarding that game. It has become a dream-like substance that requires revisiting because of its exciting nature and yet in some paradoxical way loses some of its merit in the process. Watching last yea's Notre Dame game during one of the BTN's numerous offseason airings is kind of like explaining a joke to someone. Some things, when picked apart too much, lose their mysticism.

With that said, it was an unforgettable experience to be in the stadium that night. An midsummer autumn night's dream, it was.

Despite it all, there was still the creeping underlying notion that not only was Michigan very lucky to win, there was still the possibility that, like the previous two seasons featuring heart-stopping victories over the Irish, Michigan might not be all that good for all its theatrics. However, those concerns were allayed as the season went on, partly due to a relatively easy schedule but mostly due to a defensive renaissance and a strong running game.

As I stood in the Superdome terrace this past January, watching the confetti fall and listening to Junior Hemingway's voice quaver under the atmospheric weight and mountains of circumstance, I marveled at how little all of this meant to me. Let me explain. The fact that Michigan had gone 11-2 was unbelievable, made even more remarkable by the fact that it was probably a top 5 season in my career as a watcher of Michigan football (dating back to approximately 1996, the season holding my first real-time memories of watching) in a year which no one expected to be nearly that good. Michigan had won its first BCS game since the turn of the millennium, the Orange Bowl game on 1/1/2000 against Alabama. All of this was done with essentially the same roster that RR had the year before. Think about it: the odds of Michigan experiencing a similar statistical defensive turnaround again during your lifetimes is highly unlikely (which, I guess, is a good thing). The end product of Michigan's season was spectacular, but not nearly as impressive as the path Michigan took toward reaching that end.

Yet, none of that mattered to me. What did endure was the fact that players like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen and Junior Hemingway all stuck it out, despite having the misfortune of attending Michigan during its leanest stretch since the '60s. They improved year by year, incrementally but noticeably, and they were endearing and fun to watch. Michigan did not win a national title or a Big Ten championship last season, and yet I found it almost on the same plane of worship as the 1997 season. In past years, I would have been upset that Michigan had lost to Michigan State and Iowa the way that they did, that Michigan had simply bungled yet another opportunity to win a national title (not that that was a realistic outcome), but last year I really wasn't.
Many other changes in my fandom have come to pass in the past year or so. As anybody who reads this humble blog with any sort of regularity would know, I've become decreasingly passive-aggressive in  my distaste with the business of recruiting, a distaste which has become more and more unconcealed by the day. I'm not sure exactly when this transformation took place, but maybe this is the natural result of getting older and become slightly more mature (only slightly).

I generally think that the mania surrounding Terrelle Pryor's recruitment was the beginning of the end for me with respect to the hyper-obsessive following of recruitment. I, like most other Michigan fans, had an almost nonsensical obsession with the tracking of Michigan's recruiting efforts. I spent time reading recruiting round ups on MGoBlog and elsewhere, mindlessly storing names of various recruits in my brain--mental storage space that could have been occupied by something useful, and yes, brains do work exactly like pay-for-storage businesses--that often had no realistic chance of landing in Ann Arbor: a wideout from California, a tailback from Georgia, a defensive end from Florida.

Maybe it was graduating from college--and consequently finding myself older than even Michigan's senior players--that did it, but eventually I realized that this recruiting hobby was all mostly an incredible waste of time. The fact that I was no longer worried about what this would mean for the precious vitality of my Michigan fandom/Mandom was a harbinger of other wholesale shifts in my philosophy as a college football fan.

Like others, the Penn State scandal, among many other more consequential things, allowed me an opportunity to reassess what I find important about Michigan and all the connotations that go along with being affiliated with Michigan, as a fan of its athletics and a recent alumnus.  This is in no way meant as some sort of haughty reaction to the Penn State fan base's response to the scandal (generalization is a bad thing), but it has become very obvious to me, in the year and a few months after graduation, that what makes me miss Michigan does not begin and end with football, or basketball, or hockey.

At the same time, with the PSU scandal, the NCAA issues at Ohio State, Oregon, Miami, UNC, and elsewhere, the NCAA's seemingly arbitrary timetables and rationale for the levying of punishments, in addition to the insanity of realignment and the playoff debate, this offseason was also one that fostered a burgeoning nihilism regarding the game that I have held above all others. Other than Michigan football, I follow Michigan football, four pro teams, and Michigan hockey to a lesser extent, but there has never been any question which sports reigns supreme in my eyes. However, all of these things started to make me question my admittedly very, very naive perspective of college football as this inviolable concept.

Unfortunately, college football at a macro level is becoming increasingly unappealing, like looking at anybody under those doctor's office fluorescent lights: everything looks a little bit worse. It's not that I dislike change, it's just that being older and thus more capable of understanding the minutiae of the business--and oh is it a business--of college football makes for a significantly more conflicted experience. In fact, it makes for an infinitely more conflicted experience, because without said knowledge, the only conflict is the ultimately Knowing the pettiness of these proceedings and the frivolous nature of most discussion about college football (and sports in general, really), have forced me to think twice about this obsession. Ignorance truly is bliss.

After a while, as I did with recruiting, I stopped paying attention to the daily bits of innuendo in the world of realignment and the playoff debate, and I was much better off for it. Both of these targeted downsizings of my fandom allowed me to retreat to a more local, Michigan-centric level. However, it also gave me an opportunity to devote more time to understanding the rich tapestry of variegated tradition that is college football, one which I think is unsurpassed in the world of sports.

I've written ridiculously long posts about each Alabama positional group, previews of the SEC East and West, the ACC Coastal and Atlantic, and, in the coming weeks, posts on the Pac 12, Big 12, and Big East. When I first started this blog two years ago, there was literally no way I would have even considered doing any of these things, let alone writing at length about any of them with some level of comfort.

Reading Pre-Snap Read and various team-specific websites--whether independent ones or teams' respective SB Nation sites--has allowed me to increase my knowledge about college football exponentially. Never before would I have considered reading a lengthy offseason post about, say, Northwestern, but I have done so this offseason. As a result, I will enter this college football season with a body of knowledge dwarfing what I had going into any other season.

Speaking of Northwestern and following along with the theme of a more macroscopic, non-Michigan-centric view of the college football landscape, I will be attending Northwestern this fall for grad school. As a result, I have taken to reading blogs like Sippin' on Purple and Lake The Posts with regularity, almost as regularly as I read MGoBlog and EDSBS, which is saying something. This would explain the seemingly frequent Northwestern references here throughout the last three or four months. The point is, my appreciation for the game as a whole has driven me to do things like, gasp, maybe care a little bit about teams other than Michigan. This doesn't even have to do with some absolute value of fandom, which is not the zero sum game that many so called superfans make it out to be (i.e. that supporting another team in any way somehow subtracts from your love of your first team). Rather, it's an expression of appreciation and curiosity, both of which are decidedly good things. I'm not saying that I'm going to miss Michigan games to go watch the Wildcats play, but I might end up DVRing and watching them later. At no point in the past have I ever thought about doing that for any team, let alone Northwestern.

I mean, in no other offseason would I have been as equipped to write a post like this about Iowa or one like this about Northwestern. It just would not have happened, and I think that's partly a testament to the writing practice that I get on here as well as my willingness to venture out into the great unknown of college football, also known as "teams other than Michigan."Believe it or not, there are a lot of great and interesting things going in the world of college sports outside of the University of Michigan; familiarizing yourself with these things, in my opinion, actually serves to make you a better Michigan fan and/or Michigan Man (if you're that sort of person).

But Fouad, why are you saying all this when you said before that this is all frivolous and basically a waste of time? Well, you're right. This is frivolous, and if there is anything that has changed the most in my outlook in the past year or so, it's that this is: a) supposed to be fun and b) that this is so laughably not life and death.* You would think that the latter would be obvious, but it's amazing and honestly somewhat frightening how much the actions of a squad of 18-22 year olds can affect the psyche of an otherwise well-adjusted adult human. Whereas games like the 2010 Penn State game and the 2009 Michigan State game (and many, many others) left me in a world of hurt, I found myself shrugging off Michigan's 2011 losses fairly easily. Progress!

*A phrase in the sports fan's lexicon that is almost matched in thoughtless by the analogies drawn between sporting events and things like war or other disasters.

I've said this about Denard approximately 372 times in the last couple of years, but if there is anything to take from college football, anything worth tethering yourself to, worth clinging to like it is the sole source of nutrition for your fandom, it is the memories of the players themselves and the component parts of your favorite triumphs. The latter is, of course, in contrast with the remembrance of the end result of the triumph itself--the fact that it yielded a win, the final score, yardage totals, records set. Remember the way that Denard ran that first time against Western Michigan, not that he would go on to break all sorts of records that in the end are sterile and meaningless things. Drop a statistical nugget, an ugly bundle of numbers, into your metaphorical pool of memory and it sinks to the dark bottom. Drop the memory of Denard dropping the snap, picking up and running past everyone on his first play floats, even runs, atop the surface of those same mental waters.

These people that we watch every Saturday are not only players, they are human beings with a set of differentiating characteristics that make the existence of another person like them literally impossible. As such, each player, even the little-used or the not very good, should be given their due respect. Even Jareth Glanda produced a memory for Michigan fans to lock away and store forever, a point of raw memory that many will recall thirty years down the road when thinking about the 2012 Sugar Bowl. Sure, it helps that Michigan won, but Glanda's simultaneously hilarious and timely "reception" might prove to be a more lasting note in the annals of Michigan football than the fact that Michigan won the Sugar Bowl, a glorified exhibition game.

Also, lest I verge too far into the realm of the morbid, it is always good to appreciate these players that give their time, their bodies, and their minds to Michigan, simply because you never know how much longer they (or anyone else, really) will remain in this world. This is true of everybody in every walk of life, but for a sport that is often, as I said, considered "life and death" by some, it is important to remember what life and death actually are. Death is final. The extinguishing of a life is final. Your sadness after a Michigan loss compared to these things is like the Earth's place in the Milky Way galaxy: it is an incredibly insignificant speck of dust in a larger speck of dust within a Universe holding billions and billions of these larger specks.
That little spot is how important the result of sporting events ultimately are vis-a-vis everything else in existence...i.e. not very. Still, there is considerable good to be found therein. 

As we approach, I will pour more time into this sinkhole of an obsession, running down my various predictions for various teams, players, conferences, etc. Whether or not the things I write here are widely read, this has been a fun thing and a good outlet for my thoughts on the teams and sports that I love. In a way, creating this blog and tasking myself with formulating thoughts on various offseason and in-season happenings has subconsciously molded and changed my opinions on a lot of things: recruiting, realignment, playoffs, the overall intentions of the principle players of college athletics, the ultimate importance of any of this stuff.

Let us praise great men and appreciate what has been accomplished. Just as importantly, let us question the things that need questioning. If this post seems incredibly disjointed, that's probably because it reflects the inefficiencies and hypocrisy of the NCAA and collegiate athletics. In a way, such an entity can only be responded to in kind with a similarly disjointed and conflicted message. Even so, this is a good time to tinker with that message, to reformulate and recalibrate the reasons and mechanisms of our fandom.

In a month, the season will start and there will be plenty to talk about. The Alabama game will produce some sort of significance, good or bad, a sort of barometric measuring of the strength of Michigan's football program. Michigan will travel to Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio State, and will attempt to end Michigan State's winning streak at home. Very soon, there will be a lot to talk about: narratives to build up and deconstruct, statistical models to analyze and fit to certain theoretical frameworks, and a bevy of new memes and hilarious gifs.

For now, let's also savor this ephemeral silence. Very soon, things will become much louder.

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