The character of a season is a funny thing.
It's a feedback loop; you feel good, then better, then better. You feel bad, then worse, and worse. The season in February, May and July is exactly what you want it to be. The season changes by the day as it rocks in the calm and violent waters of the offseason, with all of us on the same vessel, hoping for a future that is bright.
In January, following the post-bowl malaise or excitement, the next season is an unrecognizable blip, a constellation of stars in the shape of something that you can't recognize until someone points it out to assure you that that is the Big Dipper, yes, yes it is.
In February and March, the squeaking of shoes and pounding of the rock drowns out the urge to stargaze for a time. The urge persists, a residual cosmic microwave background of subtle feeling -- it's an ice cream cone you had once on a hot summer day as a kid or the first time you felt something that wasn't a direct product of adult supervision. You know it's out there, was out there, and for a second, you wonder if those facts are even true. Was the ice cream that cold and that good? Did Denard Robinson burn rubber on fields across the Midwest?
In April come the rains -- or, in Chicago, the snow persist, falling lightly upon all the living and all the college football fans. But spring games pop up all over the landscape like so many rogue flowers burying stakes in the unforgiving terrain of sidewalk cracks, yearning for light and water, as is their biological imperative.
And then it all goes away, melting against the return of the sun, which, in these parts, is a nomad of sorts, coming and going as it pleases. The leaves bask in the glow as the thwack of bats symphonizes the song of summer.
In July, the air takes on the smell of bratwurst and flags fly high on the beaches and front porches of America, whistling against the breeze. It is like entering a hall of mirrors, where everything feels familiar yet unrecognizable. Amid the noise, something incubates.
Then August, and boom. The puzzle is missing pieces, but it begins to take shape. Is it too late to go back? Can we go back, to January, April, July? Is it too late to reject the imposition of reality, instead of enjoying a vague, limitless future?
Pads pop and helmets metamorphize, first pristine and gleaming then scratched and weathered. Somewhere in between, football has begun to happen, in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Tuscaloosa, in South Bend and Norman and Los Angeles and Lincoln, in Tallahassee and Knoxville and Austin and Eugene.
On the doorstep of the future, depth charts are no longer things to be hopeful or despondent about; they just are. What you've done is what you've done, and what you are is what you are.
Banners unfurl and bands boom as teams run onto the field for the first time during August's last hours. Things then fall apart, or they don't. There's no in between.
Then it's over.
The air slips out of the whole thing, slowly, then suddenly. Purgatorial January introduces itself, a new subletter you won't take the time to get to know. The snow packs the ground, layer upon layer, blanketing the past in forgetful white. For a time, we slip into amnesia, forgetting what just happened or, a different sort of amnesia, remembering it in some other light, something other than what it was.
The college football fans sees his breath, then it goes away. His shirt is drenched with the rains, then not. Sweat trickles in summer, then not. Then it is time again, to do it all over.
He doesn't find the character of the season then -- no. That comes much later, if at all.
January through August moves with the same rhythm each year. But from August through the first week of January, college football builds its identity for that year, like a child stepping into the world. You don't know what it means to be 18 when you're 19 -- you certainly don't know it when you're 18.
But, years down the road, when you look back and try to push away the fog, try to remember what made one season different than another, you just may know. I don't know what 2013 meant, or the year before it, or the year before.
And when this old season comes to a close, I don't know what it will mean, either. With time, maybe the meaning of the season will become clear, as our lives speed along and memories stick to seasons like barnacles clinging to a boat in a storm.
Then again, maybe each season is just a season, a collection of games dependent upon luck and weather and physiological frailties. Maybe each batch of results is just an agnostic exclamation of uncertainty; maybe Michigan is back, maybe Michigan is doomed, based on so much carefully curated evidence.
More likely, the character of a season is not a statement, but a feeling, a departure from the rhythmic norm of the offseason months. Disappointed in 2005, surprised in 2011, elated in 1997. It's really very simple, when you think about it.
The season is a feeling, years down the road -- I say that with a certainty I admit I might not have. But, it is my choice to make it, so I do.
And, years down the road into the future -- a horizon with all dimensions and none -- the character of the 2014 season emerge, when that feeling becomes clear.
The season itself is an introduction. You say hello and know its name; its character comes later.