Friday, August 3, 2007

The point where the technical and the whimsical collide.

First, the technical:

The Big House
September 1
The Big House
September 8
The Big House
September 15
The Big House
September 22
Ryan Field – Evanston, IL
September 29
The Big House
October 6
The Big House
October 13
Memorial Stadium – Champaign, IL
October 20
The Big House
October 27
Spartan Stadium – East Lansing, MI
November 3
Camp Randall Stadium – Madison, WI
November 10
The Big House
November 17

And then...the whimsical:

"Next year." The eternal motto of the ever-hopeful but always-disappointed. Whenever the end of a season arrives, and for 95% of teams, it ends in disappointment, the ever-optimistic portion of the fanbase inevitably say, "There's always next year."

For Michigan, could this finally be "next year"? Hard to say. Predictably, the Wolverines were picked as the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, and in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll just released today, Michigan is 5th, behind USC, LSU, Florida, and Texas.

It's the beginning of August, and it's 91 degrees outside. Not the weather that comes to mind when thinking about football in Michigan Stadium. When one thinks of football at the Big House, one thinks of a brisk, autumn day, too cool for shorts and a t-shirt, yet too warm for a coat and gloves. In extreme cases, one thinks of a young lad, two days after his 18th birthday in late October, going with his father to see the Wolverines face Northwestern at The Hole that Yost dug, Crisler built, Canham carpeted, and Schembechler filled, only this time the weather is frigidly awful: An hour before kickoff, it poured for a half hour, soaking every square millimeter of the place. For the entire game, the wind howled, the rain sprayed, and in the second half, bits of ice and snow descended from the heavens; the conditions were the definition of "misery". That translated into a poor performance by the Michigan offense. Bogged down by the weather, they mustered only 17 points. But, like they had for the entire season up to that point, the defense flexed their muscles and left Northwestern bloodied, broken and bruised.

Those were simpler, better times. Before a cloud was cast over the program by the patron saint's untimely passing. Before a herculean effort in the Snakepit was all for naught as the greatest player the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has ever seen clinched immortality. Before the crybaby tactics of Urban Meyer and Gary Danielson vaulted the Gators to the national title. Before I had to watch USC run circles around Michigan for the second time in four years, all while seething as Dwayne Jarrett wagged his finger at Michigan defensive backs like the asshole he really is. And before the media, which had warmed up to 11-0 Michigan, praising Lloyd Carr for revitalizing the program, turned their backs, once again declaring that LC had lost it, they he was too old, and the game was too fast. And before Jim Harbaugh turned his back on Michigan, disgracing all those he played with, and disgracing his now-departed coach.

Now, another year looms. "Next" year. The media has voiced part of their opinion, picking UM to win the Big Ten. The coaches have voiced theirs - putting Michigan at #5 in the preseason means they believe a national championship is within the clutches of Lloyd Carr and company. The H&H Boys are back for one more go-around, and they realize what's at stake. It's their last shot, and they also know this could very well be Lloyd's last shot. The stars seem to be aligned: Henne, Hart, Long, Manningham, and Arrington could be Michigan's most explosive offense ever, provided Lloyd and DeBord open things up, which LC hinted at. The schedule sets up nicely - Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Ohio State all come to Ann Arbor, with the biggest road test coming in Wisconsin. Personally, I feel Michigan State cannot be overlooked either. Tressel's flunky Dantonio is already hyping up the Michigan game, and although he may never be able to recruit with Michigan, OSU and Notre Dame, he is at least ten times the coach Johnelle Smith was, and it only takes one landmark victory to establish a foothold.

And yet...there are questions. The "Fab Five" (and yes, I understand I probably shouldn't be using that nickname, since it's Michigan) is departed on defense. Woodley and Branch will no longer be there to destroy the spirits of the opposing backfield. Harris and Burgess will no longer roam the field for tackles, and Leon Hall will no longer do his best to cover up the weaknesses of a below average secondary.

So we must hitch our Maize and Blue wagons to the unknown. To obtain the glory we so desperately seek, the new pieces to the puzzle must fit even better than the old.

Can they be immediately plugged in? Can Graham strike the fear in the heart of QBs like Woodley did? On every snap, when Woodley came around the end, terror went through the mind of the quarterback. The list of Woodley's victims was truly a thing to see.

The Ronald Johnson saga was a bitter pill to swallow for all UM fans that followed it, such as myself. The star recruit that Michigan had shown so much loyalty to, that Michigan had stood by while he was injured, in the end turned his back on us. Whether swayed by family or not, he betrayed the school that opened their arms to him when no one else did. Instead, he opted for the sunny weather and fake breasts of Southern California, choosing to bury himself on Pete Carroll's depth chart than assume the role of potential savior in Michigan's secondary. Instead, the role of savior falls upon another, ironically, one that Ron English stole from the clutches of USC in USC's backyard - Long Beach Poly High School, the football factory in California that has provided USC with countless stars over the years. From there, English found Donovan Warren, a heralded cornerback that will probably see significant time right away. Whether that is a sparkling testament to his talent, or a damning condemnation on the current secondary, it doesn't matter. The loss of RoJo to the temptations of USC was lightened by the addition of Warren, whose mission is clear - prevent this from happening:

It's been ten years since Michigan climbed to the top of the mountain. Three times since 1997, the Wolverines have taken the field in the Rose Bowl, and three times, they have been vanquished, two of those in brutal fashion, and one of those a heartbreaking loss that haunts me to this day. The last time the Maize and Blue left Pasadena smiling, they left national champions, on the shoulders of the immortal Woodson - and even then, the country was divided, as the coaches chickened out and gave half of their crown to Nebraska, because their beloved Tom Osborne was retiring.

It's been too long since we saw that. Far too long since a Michigan team ended the season with one finger extended toward the sky in a symbol of their dominance. So many close calls over the years. 1999, Plaxico Burress pushes off all day en route to an MSU win, followed the next week by a ridiculous collapse at home against Illinois (!) cost Michigan a Big Ten title and send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl. 2000, a 20-10 lead over UCLA, a 28-10 lead over Purdue dissolved into 23-20 and 32-31 losses, and the phantom A-Train fumble at Northwestern led to another blown game, 54-51. 2001, with a share of the Big Ten (a share because of MSU's blatant cheating in "Clockgate - something the Spartans have paid for ever since) on the line, Tressel elevates himself to god status in Columbus, delivering on his promise to beat Michigan. The season then ends with the ugly Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee. 2003, special teams debacles at Oregon and Indiana cost Michigan a perfect regular season, and they got blown away in Pasadena by national champion USC. 2004, the lack of a running game costs them in South Bend, and the emergence of Troy Smith (and the inexperience of freshmen Hart and Henne) buries them in the Snakepit. And then 2006, the Year That Could've Been, after the Year Of Infinite Pain. The year of so much potential, so much hope, so much glory, that ended in such a dud it had Michigan fans tucking their tails and grumbling, "Maybe next year".

Next year is now. I hope.

Perhaps Chad Henne put it best, at the Elite 11 camp where he dazzled the young guys with his arm and gave an impromptu motivational speech that wasn't the least bit motivational, where he gave them a understated but underrated quote:

"Excellence is good. But perfection is better."

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