Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Almost there

The air hangs still.

The days until Michigan takes the field for the 2016 season have hit the single digits, but all who have paid attention over the years know that this final week never produces proximity.

For months, the arrow of Michigan's fortunes has trended upward, almost improbably so given its 2015 losses. With one dominant showing against Florida, things changed.

The offseason came and went like a breeze, punctuated by occasional blips of noise -- tweets, satellite camps, seemingly every coach in the country being asked What do you think of Jim Harbaugh? If there's anything else I take away from this offseason, it's a longing for that quixotic time when nothing-controversies didn't burst from nothing like wildfires.

Meanwhile, in actual football news, Michigan brings back most of a 10-win team, including a defense that should prove to be its best in a long time -- 2006-level is certainly within reach. Even that '85 Bears of recent Michigan lore, the 1997 Michigan defense, is not an unattainable goal.

Only this time, instead of Steele and Sword and Gold and Woodson and Renes, it's Wormley and Glasgow and Lewis and Charlton and Peppers. This isn't 2011, when a smattering of talent and several winning lottery tickets yielded something more than what probably should have been.

What Michigan has is something real, something definitive and sharp. Michigan has a defensive front that eats offenses and a secondary that guards its airspace with precision and expertise. For a long time, that wasn't the case. For a long time, Michigan football was a series of mistakes, compounded, an edge blunted by a lack of precision and expertise. That's not to denigrate the coaches and players who came before -- it's simply what happened.

Each season begins with its own set of expectations, a reasonable subset of all possibilities. For Michigan, that subset was limited indeed for some time.

Now, though, the whole playbook of expectation is in play. The Jabrill Peppers carry is as much a part of it all as the handoff to De'Veon Smith or the deep throw to Jehu Chesson. Nothing is out of play, too farfetched, too crazy.

If this all sounds hyperbolic, well, maybe it is. But why hold back when it's so plainly obvious?

The schedule sets up nicely (albeit with road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State) and Harbaugh has a proven track record when it comes to developing quarterbacks. Juxtapose that record with what Michigan did with Denard Robinson late in his career and what Devin Gardner's career became, and the divergence in ability and expertise is stark.

Setting aside all of that, the team is fun to watch again. It was fun in 2011, but even as I sat in the Superdome watching Michigan concoct a win out of hopes and prayers like an underfunded scientist, a sense of ersatz success lingered. It looked good until it didn't -- when that happened, when the light focused on the guts and bones of it all, it revealed a body unwell. Crumbling, deteriorating, unable to stand consistently.

In one year, that changed. That's not to say that Michigan is now a perfect team without question marks, or that it is surely destined for a playoff berth. What changed was the level of precision and purpose.

Think of all the minutes and hours in the day wasted. The times you get up to do something, wander around the hallways of your home like an intruding ghost, only to make a sandwich and sit back down, not having done that thing. Then you remember, oh, right. 

That was Michigan under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Wandering listlessly, making unintended sandwiches. Under Rodriguez, the sandwiches were unique, but weren't sandwiches at all, for they lacked the bread that would have made it a sandwich. They were, figuratively, piles of deli meat, doused in hot sauce and other exotic dressings and toppings.

Under Hoke, Michigan ran out of deli meat in Year 1 and subsisted on mayonnaise sandwiches for the next three years. This was not a good time for anyone involved.

Now, though, Michigan makes sandwiches and remembers to do the other things. It rakes the leaves, takes out the trash, assembles a TV stand and drinks enthusiasm, the caffeine of life. Things are done in order and time is not wasted.

And, as this sandwich metaphor threatens to become unwieldy, threatens to burst, let me also say that this sort of adulation naturally makes me uncomfortable.

The best thing about sports is the unvarnished hagiography it produces, the good things we want to believe (and often should believe, for they are true and good). That is, it's the best thing until it no longer is. And as we've seen in recent years, when hagiography is flipped upside down, revealing something else, those engaged in that categorical praise are more likely to avert their eyes than not. To be honest, I hesitated about including this passage, but felt the need to say it, as it's generally how I've come to view the game and sports in general -- and nowhere is the cult of the coach stronger than collegiate athletics, especially college football (in certain places, it's the basketball coach, but that is more exception than rule). A casualty of growing older and more cynical, maybe. Of reserving praise until it is truly earned, and even then holding the door open for the doubt without. This isn't so much a warning as it is self-preservation -- because there's no doubt that if things go south here, they will do so in a new and likely more acrimonious way than they did with the last two gentlemen who threw their hats into the Michigan football head coaching ring.

That unanticipated aside, well, aside, the season is coming. The offseason is almost completely behind us, the year's night slowly receding as the sun rises in the east.

If you're like me, maybe you pretend, maybe you put on a show, that all of this isn't so important. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year a particularly crushing loss won't affect you out of nowhere, like the honk of a car's horn behind you as you sit entranced at a green light for a second longer than you should but a half-second sooner than is appropriate for one to be honked at. You blink and shake your head through the intersection, on to the next block.

There are no surprises now. There are no doubts about what needs to happen. Michigan's merry band of defensive stalwarts will look to render the quarterback situation a mere footnote. The offense will aim to balance that with fireworks of its own: Smith plowing through defensive backs like they are sentient tackling dummies, Chesson streaking past all like a fiery comet, Peppers zipping around like a 205-pound electron.

When it comes to what we think will transpire on the football field, during the games we care about, the prognosis is positive. And, thankfully, we'll soon no longer have to lean on predictions -- we'll soon have reality, screaming at us knowingly.

On Monday, Harbaugh said:
"…the unique thing about college football is there’s no preseason, there’s no spring training, there’s no exhibition season, there’s no warm-up games. It goes right into the season. I don’t think there’s any other sport in college athletics that’s like that. Certainly not in the professional series. College football is a stand-alone in that way. So, yeah, the practices rage on. The competitions rage on."
The competitions will likely rage on until the final minute, the final moments. We're almost there.

Come Sept. 3, we'll start to know for sure. What is real? What isn't? Even in September, we won't truly know, and maybe not even until the end of October.

But in the wormhole that is a college football season, it'll all happen in an instant. One second, we're subject to the laws of the world, an interminable offseason marked only by rumors and news of other, lesser sports.

Once it starts, there's no going back, no way to reset. And for this team, at this time, there should be no mulligans. All the pieces are there -- now it's time to put them together. The script is being written, but it will likely change along the way, many times. Luckily, Michigan has one of the best directors in the game -- remember that as you pop your popcorn and turn off your cellphones for this move experience with no previews. This is college football: Forget the trailers, just give me the action.

After two failed coaching administrations, we've become accustomed to the notion of "giving a coach time" -- don't you know you have to give a guy a full recruiting cycle before you can really judge him? This isn't an unreasonable sentiment, but in the context of the last two regimes, it's one borne of unreasonable hope in a hopeless situation.

This is Year 2, but we're not talking about time. We're not talking about vague incremental improvements, waited upon absurdly. Vladimir and Estragon have gone home.

We're talking about now, the present, the always-existing fulcrum of time. Everything balances on now, not next year or the year after. What better time to do something than now, when everyone is there, ready to go and do it?

Now is the best time. Now is the only time. There will be time to worry about another time another day.