Over the past month, in talking with friends and fans alike, one constant theme has been repeated "It's a rebuilding year, no matter what happens you'll be better in 09." While I don't necessarily disagree with this sentiment, it's not a sentiment I will adopt nor endorse. If you play at Michigan or you root for Michigan, your goal never changes regardless of transition or adversity. Every season, irrespective of the press's prognostications, Michigan is supposed to compete for, and win, the Big Ten Championship.
As a rational person this isn't an easy concept to embrace. Teams have ups and downs. Personnel changes are constant and inevitable. Other programs rise in prominence. Schedules become trickier. Even your run of the mill season opener can come back to bite you in the ass. So as a defense mechanism the rational fan develops a strong, cynical view of Michigan's schedule. "That's a toss up." "We'll have to play our best to compete." "Yeah. Not a chance." After years of hoping for the best and occasionally getting your teeth kicked in, a little cynicism is warranted, no?
But for the players, there is no room for self doubt. In order to play this game they must believe that they can not only win any game, but can dominate their opponent. That their best is better than their opposite's best. Otherwise, they're left with a situation where the other guy simply wants it more, and we're all well aware of what happens next.
That's why our expectations must remain as high as they've ever been. We must expect that our offensive line will gel and be as dominant as its recruiting pedigree suggests they should. We must believe that a four star quarterback with a rocket arm will be able to run the spread in college just as well as he did in high school. That a defense, shredded in 2007, will find redemption in 2008. We must believe these things because the alternative is to accept mediocrity as inevitable. To accept that means you are willing to forgo the chance at something special for the safety of what you "know."
That is something that Michigan fans (and college football fans in general) can never do. And it's something you will never see Rodriguez allow. In a short period of time he has installed a new attitude in his team. That the safety of what his players "know" they can do is no longer acceptable. He pushes them until they push themselves, and then, as a team they toward a common goal. Rodriguez believes he can mold this team into something special, that the gaps in personnel he inherited provide opportunity to those who are willing to seize it. We must expect they will be as good or better than their predecessors, and they must expect it of themselves if they are to compete and win over the course of the 2008 season.
Obviously, there is peril in this. Reality loves nothing more than overblown expectations and denial. Hopes were made to be crushed, hearts made to be broken. Some might say such bravado is reminiscent of Icarus, overcome by his dreams and thoughts to the extent he failed to heed to the reality of the warming Sun.
But Icarus was a fool. Icarus failed to prepare himself in the manner this Michigan team has. Instead of being handed wings by their father, Michigan's players are earning their wings, building them together, through scorching practices and weight room sessions that would break ordinary men. Binding each other as feathers to that proverbial wing with their determination, sweat, and pain. They have prepared themselves to meet and exceed the expectations we have set for them. The difference is their expectations are higher than anything we can write or say to one another. Each man carries a personal challenge to himself and a personal challenge to his teammates to be better prepared and more capable of attaining the goals they set as a team. They will fly this season on the strength of those goals and those months of preparation.
I say if Icarus used a stronger glue, he'd still be flying.