Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Being Pavlov's Dog

We’re probably not the most diseased fan base in college football, but we’re definitely shadowing the leaders. Diseased may be too strong a term – perhaps broken is more appropriate.
Here we sit, on the cusp of our first 3-0 start in the Big Ten since 1990 and we’re not really sure what to do with ourselves. Matt Hayes’ excellent piece in The Sporting News used a stat that perfectly articulated what a heady position the program finds itself in today: we’ve got a realistic chance at back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time in 73 years. Think about that – we win three more games this season and the team accomplishes something that hasn’t been done since BEFORE THE UNITED STATES ENTERED THE SECOND WORLD WAR. And three wins seems imminently possible – Ohio State seems like the only insurmountable task on the remaining schedule. Sure, there won’t be any easy outs, but it’s not a Herculean task to find three more wins.
For all intents and purposes, the next two games should be gimmies: Purdue has looked competent in their last two games, but they should be a year or two away from being legitimate players and Illinois is without a quarterback and would be better served with a paper bag filled with warm malt liquor as their coach. Our offense has finally shown some semblance of multidimensionality, with an efficient if not spectacular passing game, and our defense and special teams have become exactly what you'd expect from a program led by Jerry Kill.
But check out the ‘tronz and the extent to which dyspepsia rules the day is remarkable. “Let’s get to 7-1 before celebrating too much,” “Purdue has looked really strong these last two games and will give us everything we can handle,” “Did you see what they did to that MSU defense? MSU is better than us, so I have no idea how we’re going to stop them!” We just beat Northwestern, what I believe to be a top-half conference team, holding their offense to 17 points, and we are concerned by a team that won its first B1G game in 18 months two weeks ago.
And what’s sick is I kind of identify with it. Going into the Michigan game, I saw no way we could win. Sure, the season results to that point suggested we were playing better as a team, they were likely starting a blob of ineptitude at quarterback and their offensive line deserved a “SIEVE!” chant; but I saw 50-years of history as the great equalizer and we’d lose as soon as our players saw the devilish spirit imbued in those winged helmets.
But we won – and now I’m dealing with the converse: I see no way we lose this game. Hazell appears to be doing a nice job with Purdue in cleaning house and the freshmen he started last year and early this year seem to be improving by leaps and bounds. But he’s in the second year of the rebuild and they shouldn’t be able to threaten us at this stage. They’re basically the 2012 version of Minnesota. Competent, occasionally showing some teeth, but a few years away from legitimately competing with some of the better teams in the conference.
And the last half of that sentence is what is giving me and much of the Gopher fan base pause. “The better teams in the conference.” Are we really one of the better teams in the conference? I mean, it seems like it. Say what you will about the condition of the B1G, and the West Division in particular, but it seems like we may be one of the better teams. Winning this division may be the equivalent of owning the best house in a bombed-out neighborhood, but it’s still worth some measure of legitimacy.
But simply uttering those words as regards Gopher football conjures demons. We thought we were one of the better teams in the conference in 2008, sitting at 7-1 and showing a pulse against Ohio State. We promptly lost the next five games and got nuked into the stratosphere by Iowa. Prior to that was probably 2003 and then, yeah, no reason to revisit that Himalayan mound of barf.
We’re facing a Pavlovian response to perceived success. We’ve gotten close a couple of times in recent memory and gotten a white-hot laser shot through our eye. Now, on the brink again, we’re rightfully averse to embracing it. The downside to keeping our emotional distance from the team this year is missing a little bit of enjoyment from the current level of success. The downside to going all in, throwing your proverbial balls on the table and spitting in the devil’s eye is the feeling of crushing despondency that comes from being burned by this team again. That feeling is still fresh, familiar – I get why it’s tough to move the chips to the center of the table.
I’ve decided to join the #Believe train now and will worry about tomorrow tomorrow. People are actually picking the Gophers to win the West Division. Like, people not affiliated with the program. I don’t remember the last time there was such sentiment from people whose wardrobes weren't comprised entirely of shirts with a rodent on them.

So, enjoy today. It may all go away on Saturday or the Saturday after that. Enjoy the positive vibes because it’s been too long since we’ve experienced them. It may be ten years until we find ourselves in this place again and I don’t want to mitigate some of the misery later by being miserably anxious now. It will hurt again, if not in a week, then in two or six or 52. And we’ll all get through it together, just like we always have. Enjoy today, enjoy it while this fleeting sensation of success lasts. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

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