Sunday, November 28

Devotion and Doubt

I found myself rooting for Alabama over Auburn this past weekend. But I wasn't sure why. Maybe it's because I was still hoping that Boise State would get a shot at the title, and I figured that was the easiest way they could get there. Or because in Pick 'Em I needed a big upset to have to chance to come back in the standings. Or because when I hear that "S-E-C! S-E-C!" nonsense I feel like a cat being petted in the wrong direction - uncomfortably testy. Auburn was one of the last stops on my road trip, and despite my exhaustion it was probably the best Thanksgiving Friday of my life. The fans were as generous with me as anyone, and a jovial day ended with a hearty celebration at Toomer's Corner. My heart should probably always be with Auburn in the Iron Bowl, but I needed my brain to give it the reminder.

I moved to Argentina two and a half years ago, and have felt more distant from college football each season. Not that I haven't been paying attention, but it's just not the same when you can't take in the whole Saturday. Reading box-scores as they come in just isn't the same. I can curse the fact that internet here is too slow to stream all I want, but it doesn't change the situation. The last two weeks, I took an extended break to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family and got to behave like a real fan again. Oh how I have missed taking in the full slate of games every week. That said, it did not go very well for me and my team.

I've been on the side of giving Rich Rodriguez another year, but it was based on limited information. I haven't been able to actually watch many of the games over the past three seasons. I've had to go on box scores, bloggers' analyses, and angry or relief-filled e-mails from friends. In statistics, we'd say that a model built on limited data like this has a lot of error. Over the past two weeks I gathered more info. I watched not just Michigan's games against Wisconsin and Ohio State, but various other teams playing various other games. During the Ohio State/Iowa game last week, it struck me how they limit their mistakes to the bare minimum. They are not a superb team, especially on offense. But it's not like they're a good enough team to truly dominate. Except for those occasions when Pryor goofs, the team never shoots themselves in the foot.

It strikes me that as Michigan fans, we must watch between our fingers, waiting for the next big mistake. On Saturday, otherwise reliable receivers dropped easy and hard passes all day. It was sunny and dry. There was no reason for these gaffes. The best offensive play of the afternoon, the one Michigan's run all season where Denard Robinson jab-steps and then throws deep over the middle was negated because of the stupidest of penalties. The defense started out playing strong, but eventually the mistakes arrived via missed tackles or by players being out of position.

It is clear that Rodriguez is a talented coach when it comes to schemes and running an aggressive offense. Whatever he has done to coach Denard in the offseason and during this year has worked tremendously well. Last year Denard wasn't remotely a quarterback. This year he broke records. And I'm willing to forgive his proclivity to turn the ball over as that's what first-year starters often do. But the team is clearly not prepared to play. At the end of the year, the kinks should already be worked out and the blooper-reel stuff eliminated. What we saw the last two weeks simply cannot happen. Maybe they had a bad couple of weeks, or perhaps the team is tired. I'm still working with limited data here, though the more I gain, the bleaker the picture becomes.

If Michigan can indeed snag Jim Harbaugh now, it's clearly the choice with a higher probability of long-term success. Rodriguez was not dealt the best hand when he arrived at Michigan. The talent wasn't there, and many people were working against him, hard. From the old-schoolers in the athletic department who wanted Les Miles, to the Detroit Free Press' hatchet men, to the litigious WVU Athletic Department, he had a lot of unfair stuff to deal with. I am sure the team will improve next year if he stays. There are few seniors, and the offensive recruits coming in seem to have a lot of potential. And it would be impossible for the defense to be any worse, even if Greg Robinson is miraculously spared the axe. Maybe the continuation of this nadir is not all Rodriguez's fault, but that doesn't really matter anymore. It's like one of those sad country songs where the singer burdens himself with blame, but gives a fair share to the fates. Either way, the dude's just going to be miserable for a while, and there's not much he can do to lift his spirits.

I am now very concerned about the ceiling of the team with Rodriguez. If they can't catch a pass in the most important game of the year, and can't stop getting dumb penalties, and can't be in position, will they ever be an elite team? Because that's the real reason Ohio State has now won seven times in a row. They get the most out of the players they have. This year, I'd say we got the most out of just a handful: Denard and one or two offensive lineman. That, more than anything makes me think it's time to cut bait. It's pretty clear that Jim Harbaugh gets the most out of his talent.

Again, I'm out of the loop. I can't even decide which teams to root for anymore. Not seeing games hurts all of it. I guess I still need to hear what people like Brian and Dave have to say. They've been preaching patience all year. But after they saw what we all saw these last two weeks, I can't imagine they have a lot left. Suddenly, a bowl game is small consolation.

At the very least I am thankful to have endured those games and seen so many others. Reading about how Boise State saved their season with a last second bomb only to blow it on two botched chipshots pales in comparison to taking it in live. At the very least I have come to a conclusion about something. Next year, I'm finding a way to spend my Saturdays with football, even if I have to move. Either that or I'll have to buy a guitar and pick up a drawl so I can lament my various losses in song.

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