Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Look at the time

Most offseasons move glacially, in no hurry to get to the place where you mutually agreed you would meet.

This offseason, I got married, friends got married, I worked harder than I ever have and I inched ever closer to 30, further and further away from the version of me who started this blog seven years ago.

I've had my mind on other things, is what I'm saying.

But Michigan football has always been there. I went to the spring game in April and enjoyed a perfect Saturday afternoon in the old house.

In other years, the Michigan football offseason marked a submergence into a great unknown, particularly during the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years. During the former, Michigan had Denard and his flapping shoelaces, blowing against unmanageable headwinds. Fun, sometimes, but futile.

The Hoke years were like taking a sip of crisp, cold Vernors for the first time in years, leaving it outside in the hot sun, uncapped, then taking sips of it later — increasingly stale, not what it once was, constantly depreciating. A lost cause.

The only solution? A new Vernors.

Michigan got just that two years ago. Since then, things have been pretty good.

Remember in 2010, when Wisconsin ran the ball 748 times in a row like a high school football powerhouse running out the clock against a bad local rival? Back then, 10 wins seemed like a distant dream — like a Vernors outside of Vernors' distribution map. (I would like a Vernors.)

Yes, last season ended with a thud. But Michigan was in the national championship picture in November, something that had not happened since 2006. It's easy to feel like last season was the one that got away. It would be easy for the Michigan fan, in recent years battered and bruised by strokes of misfortune and sheer ineptitude, to look on the dark side of life.

In those moments, I like to say "it's just a game" over and over again, in the hope of incrementally reaching belief of that notion. It isn't just a game, though — it's something that chooses you, whether you like it or not. That's not to say that this game we watch is in any way important or impactful in a greater sense. For the most part, it really isn't.

But as those of us who have become entangled in the regularly scheduled nonsense that is college football know, the disconnect between importance and meaning is wide. In that sense, college football is like a book of memories, without value but full of meaning.


I keep a scrapbook, filled mostly with tickets to sporting events and other miscellaneous items — a Chicago Marathon bib; the magnetic strip CTA card used before the City of Chicago switched to the new, thicker Ventra cards; newspaper covers for Stanley Cup titles. They're just things, taped to paper, in a book I only open now and then.

When I do, I remember things I would not have even thought to remember. The brain takes cues from  these relics. A piece of paper recalls the time when a group of Indiana fans uprooted a row of stadium bleachers at the end of the 2010 game in Bloomington, carrying it with them like an old couch left on the curb for anyone to take. I wonder what happened to that row of seats.

I remember it was there. And then it was gone.

This offseason has come and gone in an instant, even more remarkably so given that none of my professional rooting interests gave me much to root for in their respective postseasons. Usually that would buy me some time — distract me, prevent me from spending idle time trying to memorize from which town every single player on the roster hails. You know, useful things.

This time, the offseason got up and walked out in the middle of a Florida night. It disappeared for a short time in that strange land.

But then it returned, and got into woodworking, and started reading "War and Peace," and volunteered for no fewer than three charities at any one time. It paid its bills early — because early is on time, on time is late and late is a grievous sin. It called its parents almost every night.

Seconds became minutes became hours became days. The Michigan-Ohio State game, No. 3 on ESPNU's offseason replay series of the top 25 games of the 2016 season, plays for the 349th time, and you watch it like it's the first time. It isn't, though, and each time its effect lessens, so that the result is nothing more than anodyne eventuality. When you know what happens, you don't even need to close your eyes. Horror movies lose their power with frequency of exposure.

Fortunately for Michigan, 2016 was less horror thriller than it was triumphant Bildungsroman. In Year 2 of Young Michigan's story, it nearly reached expectations, lofty ones, but was foiled by the usual hangups of youth: bum shoulders, somersaulting punters, nefarious Ohioan referees twirling dastardly mustaches and Peppers-less preparations.

It happens, you know?

In Year 3, the outlook is a little different. Expectations are a function of loss, and Michigan lost quite a bit, sending more players to the NFL than any other team.

Of course, Michigan returns quite a bit of talent, too — some of it tested, some of it not.

Therein lies the horror: the unknown. The shark patrolling the waters around your boat, the whirring chainsaw of third-down inefficiency, the terrifying clownishness of inexperience.

Each brush with horror, though, renders it slightly weaker. What's dark in September lights up in November.

Sometimes, however, it's the demons out in the open, the ones who make no effort to hide, that are the scariest.

Eventually, the door must be opened. On the other side, a scarlet and gray thing will emerge.


In a way, this season sets up perfectly for the Michigan fan.

Not only does Ohio State travel to Ann Arbor, but expectations seem to be reasonably assigned. Is anyone expecting a playoff berth? Not really (I'm not). Would anyone necessarily be shocked if it happens? Maybe a little, but not incredibly so.

It's like a Year 1 in a Year 3, which sounds bad when you say it aloud but works out just fine as a factor of roster turnover and understanding of what the future probably holds in store.

Supposedly, 2016 was The Year, until it wasn't. This year is not The Year — 2002, as far as I can remember, wasn't The Year for Ohio State. Even 2016 wasn't The Year, and the Buckeyes still made the playoffs. Point being, sometimes The Year happens when you don't think it will.

The gravity of The Year will pull expectations back into its orbit next year. A Harbaugh outfit is surprisingly predictable — they can be tracked like Johannes Kepler and his orbits. It doesn't take long before a Harbaugh team approaches the top of the heap.

Johannes Kepler prepares to watch the 1594 Purdue game on ESPN+ with some lo mein takeout. 
Michigan was almost there last year, whizzing past the sun audaciously — a little too close, maybe. The moment passed, and the orbit continues on, further away from the glorious light. For now.

If Kepler were alive today, and happened to be a college football fan, he would probably tell you that orbit is taking Michigan farther away from the College Football Playoff this year than they were last year. After all, it's just simple observation (and a little mathematical ingenuity).

Kepler would probably tell you that college football moves in predictable ways, that programs move in a mathematically verifiable pattern and can be expected to return to a certain place in a certain time.

But Kepler, who was born in the 16th century, knew about a lot of things, but probably not college football. College football isn't cyclical (or elliptical), in the sense that programs simply return to greatness by virtue of their former greatness.

Michigan is back, but not because it is Michigan and thus must be back, like a planet traversing its elliptical orbit. It is back because it got a generational coach, the one guy who was the best possible fit for the job, in addition to being one of the best in the game. There is nothing ordained about that. Someone made it happen. A series of events converged to create the wormhole through which all of this could acquire safe, hyperspeed travel.

Sometimes, amid the hard numbers, the scientists of old saw divinity in the natural order, even when their notepads showed evidence of reproducible knowledge earned.

In an obviously hyperbolic sense, that's Harbaugh coming to Michigan — a brilliant flash of light. It can probably be explained by humble, empirical means — there was a job opening, the allure of coming home, the financial draw from the Michigan athletic department, etc. etc. — but even the most analytical among us sometimes look to the light in awe.

Whatever happens, Michigan football fans are lucky. After years traversing the vast darkness of the universe, careening through belts of wayward space rocks, there is now a hand correcting course.

One last note about the horror behind the door.

Fear is a function of the unknown. What is unknown is partially a function of inherent unpredictability of circumstances and environment. Under Harbaugh, there is certainly much less unpredictability, in terms of the big picture.

Whatever impression of last season lingers in you, there is no doubt that Michigan has improved by leaps and bounds in a very short time. Sure, every once in a while a cosmically bewildering Iowa Event happens, but scientists agree that those are rare in the cosmic calendar.

Michigan was embarrassed against Ohio State, that horror behind the door, at home two years ago. Last season, the Wolverines had them on the ropes— should've, would've, didn't. You know that tune, the one that turns from major to minor only in the final dreary movement.

If there's one thing I still keep with me from Rich Rodriguez's time at Michigan, it's his invocation of "The Lion King."

"It doesn't matter, it's in the past."

It's true: 42-13, 30-27, are in the past.

Michigan has seen the horror twice. This year, the call will be coming from inside the house.

And there should be no fear.