I am less excited about this college football season than any I can remember. Even last year, when expectations were extremely low, I was at least excited about Saturdays parked on the couch half-watching the noon games, really getting into the 3:30 games, engaging in some perfunctory life activities and then topping it off with a great Saturday night football game or three.
This routine really began in 2004. With our rise into the national conversation, I have become more and more of a true fan of college football. Growing up I was into it, and when I lived in SEC country for 2 years after college I couldn't help but follow college football closely. But it always seemed like the polls, the big games every week, the stars hyped by ESPN and the games featured during the first half hour of GameDay were a different sport than what we played. There was the college football universe, and there was UofL football, and rarely the twain did meet.
That all changed in 2005, when no less a venerable media source than the New York Times picked the Cards to be in the BCS Championship game against Michigan. That was a disappointing season, but still saw the Cards in their first New Year's bowl game since 1991. And we were in the conversation, a part of the college football universe.
Of course, everything changed in 2006. I don't want to or need to wax nostalgic for too many words about that season, because everyone has their own favorite memories and heartbreak stories about what they did before, during and after the Rutgers game, or exactly what they said the moment after Michael Bush went down. Also, don't forget Mario's stiff-arm.
But the 2006 season was important because, for most of the season and especially those two weeks in late October and early November, the Cards were the biggest story in college football. Every game I watched that season, I would root for or against a team based only on how it would affect our team's chances to play in the BCS title game. We would study the polls like they were the Talmud and email about them every week. And, unlike earlier seasons and basketball where it rarely really mattered, the beauty and awfulness of college football is that every game DID count, and every game DID affect us. I even was ok with UK winning (although I never could actively root for them) because it helped us, and if we were going to get to the BCS, literally every little computer point mattered.
The anticipation of the 2007 season caused the same sort of obsessive analysis. A pre-season top 10 ranking, a lot of the major pieces back from 2006, sure there were questions about the new coach, but he was saying the right things and everyone trusted Jurich. With the explosion of great college football blogs and websites, ESPN's daily college football show in the summer, a new high-def TV and almost every major game now broadcast in HD.....as a Cards fan and a college football fan, the excitement over the 2007 college football season was the most excited I have ever been about almost anything in my life.
As that season wore on, and we started to realize things had changed, my college football fandom carried me through the rest of the year. UK's best season in a generation (if not ever) and a number of great games they played fueled general excitement and interest. LSU played a great game almost every week, and the upstarts (Kansas, USF, Missouri etc) made for a fascinating season. It is easy to forget that in early December, it looked like WVU v. Missouri was going to be the BCS Championship game. Despite everything that happened with our season, 2007 as a whole was a great year for college football fans.
Then came 2008, foreshadowed by the Meh Spring Game. Knowing going in that it was very unlikely we would garner any positive attention, I went into the season not expecting much but secretly hopeful that maybe we could have a decent year. This was exemplified by the UConn and USF games. Here's my post after the crushing UConn loss. Somehow my hopes were up enough to be crushed by that game. By the USF game, we were sitting at 4-2 and USF came in riding high. Where was I? Well, I gave my tickets to a client and went on a family outing to the Zoo's Halloween event. I was watching the first half and IMing with Quinn1979 and I mentioned how I was back to meh - if we won, great. If we lost, well, one step closer to Krag being gone. As I said that, Scott Long caught a TD and Quinn remarked that I had perfectly hedged myself. I think those were the two themes of the 2008 season - Meh and perfect hedging. In no way, shape or form would I have thought that 5-7, no bowl and a 5-game losing streak to end the season would result in anything other than breathless speculation on ITV while tracking Jon Gruden's plane.
I thought of that as I read this Sunday's articles in the CJ previewing the season. There's a lot going on in these articles. First, you have Krag reading from the coach-on-the-hot-seat interview answer outline. Then you have Jurich antagonizing the fanbase with quotes like this:
UofL athletic director Tom Jurich is firmly behind his embattled head coach. Jurich acknowledges the Cards could miss a third straight postseason but says he will "stay the course" with Kragthorpe.
"I don't like to ever be patient. I am impatient, but I also know the job at hand," Jurich said. "I know what we have to get done. I know we can't just do this overnight."
This is inexplicable to me. But to avoid turning this post into one about that, lets move onto the actual football discussion. There are some things in here that the irrational sports fan in you can latch onto:
Burke also will have more options at the line of scrimmage. When he breaks the huddle, he will have three different plays he can use, depending on how the defense lines up. Kragthorpe has simplified the reads Burke has to make before selecting the play. Instead of reading the entire defense, he might be able to key on where one player is aligned.
"It's very simple, especially in the run game," Burke said. "It's very black and white. Some of the run checks last year weren't as simple."
Kragthorpe also plans to give his quarterback more alternatives on passing plays beyond a primary or secondary receiver. Burke said he will have more "full-field" reads. If his primary receiver isn't open, he'll swivel and progress to his second, third and fourth options.
Maybe that was the problem last year, Irrational Inner Fan says. This is sorta what Mike Leach uses at Texas Tech and they score a ton of points with midget quarterbacks. Burke was a big deal out of high school, and maybe he just never got a real chance at NC State because of politics. Scott Long is really good, and Doug Beaumont is back. Vic Anderson is awesome, Darius Ashley has been drawing comparisons to 2008 Vic and anything we get from Bilal is gravy. Maybe the offense can party like its 2004.
It gets better when you read about the defense, from the other article linked above:
With a revamped defensive staff and an aggressive scheme installed by new coordinator Brent Guy, the Cards are confident they will be better this season
Defensive line coach Ken Delgado said he also has some sleepers in junior-college transfers Tim High and Joe Townsend and walk-on Drew Davis. All three could make an impact by season's end.
"We're kind of in the catbird seat because we're going to be in a position to surprise some people," said Delgado, the lone holdover from last year's defensive staff. "At times we were very dominating up front last year. If this group can continue to carry the torch and keep progressing, they have the same potential."
"You may be right about the least experience," Patrick said. "But out of the last four years here, I think we have the most talent in the secondary that we've ever had."
For the first time this morning, reading those articles, Irrational Inner Fan won out. New, aggressive defense! Sleeper JUCOs! Talent in the secondary! A confusing but strangely effective "catbird seat" metaphor! Rational fan knows this article has been written 1,000 times before and will be written across the country this year, next year and beyond. But that's the beauty of college football and sports in general - every season starts fresh, your record is 0-0, and other cliches, etc.
So will we be any good this year? I seriously doubt it. Is there a chance that all it took for Kragthorpe to succeed here was to institute a simplified offense, find the right DC to come up with an aggressive gameplan and keep the talented guys healthy? Sure there is. Has Irrational Inner Fan won out? Decidedly not. Basically, I see a few possible season scenarios:
1) Our Best Day
I think if everything goes right this season, we go 7-5 with wins over ISU, UK, USM, UConn, Ark. St., Syracuse and Rutgers. I realize that in that list are three teams Kragthrope is 0-2 against. UK isn't that good and is slowly sliding backdown to earth after their "magical" 8-5 season two years ago. UConn is going to be terrible this year, and I have a feeling even Kragthorpe knows he can't lose to Syracuse again. I don't see our best effort winning @Utah, @WVu, @USF, @Cinci, or beating Pitt at home, especially after losing badly on the road to Utah. This is best case scenario, short of a miracle.
2) Reasonable Certainty
I am reasonably certain we will go either 4-8 or 5-7 this season. We will beat ISU, USM, Ark. State and 1-2 Big East opponents (UConn and/or Syracuse). I am reasonably certain that we don't beat UK, and Rutgers might be our BCS representative, so not a likely win. I am reasonably certain and sick to my stomach about the fact that this will be enough to keep Kragthorpe around, especially if some of our 7-8 losses are "close losses" where we are in the game but never really a threat. I am reasonably certain this will be a frustrating and dreadful season. This is my nightmare.
We lose badly to UK, Southern Miss sneaks up on us, we go winless in the Big East and even Arkansas State gives us a scare on Halloween. A 2-10 finish and tens of thousands of empty seats in PJCS for senior night bring our short regional nightmare to a close as Kragthorpe announces he is stepping down at the end of the season. I think there is a 15% chance of this happening.
So this is the ultimate fan dilemma. Do you root for Scenario #2 or #3? Do you root against your team in order to save it?
When I was a kid, like most kids, summer was my favorite season. As I've gotten older (I would say "become an adult" but I still regularly play video games, my parents still pay for dinner when we go out to eat and the saddest day of the year for me is always the day after UofL loses in the NCAA tournament), the fall has become my favorite time of the year. There's something about the crisp air, school starting back (even better when you aren't actually in school!), college football on Saturdays, leaves changing, the whole aura of fall. Spring is usually thought of as the time of renewal, but I think fall actually has more newness than spring. Great things start again in the fall: college and pro sports, fantasy drafts with friends, the baseball playoffs, your favorite TV shows, school, new jobs, even work gets busier and more purposeful again.....Fall is when you aren't looking forward to something anymore. Everything you've been looking forward to is Back.
So I think that is what is so frustrating for me about this season - because I'm not really looking forward to it, I'm not able to enjoy the start of fall. And I've struggled with how best to approach the season with that in mind. While everyone else's season starts this week, ours really doesn't start until Sept. 19. College football and UofL football have diverged again. And even then, we really won't know much until the middle of the season about which of the three season scenarios is most likely. Heck, there's even the remote Fourth Scenario - we beat UK, we make a run through a down Big East and the Rutgers game will really mean something. I'm not getting my hopes up, but the fact that it is possible makes it impossible for me to hope that Kragthorpe will fail spectacularly and lose his job. So, I think that's the approach I'll be taking this season: cheer for the best, hope for the best, but take what comes. And hope that what comes is much better or much worse than 5-7.
College football starts this week. September is finally here. This is what you look forward to all summer, what you get excited about when pitchers and catchers report in February, when pads go on for a few weeks in March, when the last notes of One Shining Moment fade to your late local news. Everything is Back. I just wish I could get excited about it, knowing that UofL football was really Back too.