...On the way to the start of the season. Earlier this week, I was spending my time within the friendly confines taking in a rare victory by the Cubs. Shortly before last call, I headed out to the beer stand for some frothy nourishment. While the beer man was pouring my beer he noticed that I was wearing a Northwestern hat. The following ensued:
Beer man: "Opening day is Saturday..."
Me (rooting around in my pocket for change): "Huh?"
Beer man: "You don't care do you..."
Me: "Oh! Actually, I really do care. I think they'll have a good season and I'm encouraged by both Mike Kafka's improved arm and this kid they've got coming in named Arby Fields... The secondary is also completely intact from last year...."
The beer man, with his mouth agape, goes silent for roughly 30 seconds, and then quietly says, "Wow... I... uh... didn't expect all that."
Expectations are a curious thing. I've always felt that the run-up to the first week of the college football season is a special time, characterized by a state of bliss fueled by hopes and expecations. Sure, in a few weeks, most of us will be confronting the cold hard reality that a Big 10 championship is just not in our 2009 forecast, but, it's usually the case that through the first game of the season, we can all hold on to our warm, fuzzy comfort for at least a little while longer.
Unless, of course, your team has already brushed up against that menace of reality.
The first game of the season always brings out mixed emotions in me. It's great, of course, to head out of the first week with a win under your belt, and it's even better if you can do so in a particularly convincing fashion. It's hard, though, to be completely excited when you know that the team you're scheduled against is likely either an inferior team or, even, a "cupcake". These are the games you should win - that, arguably, you need to win to be taken seriously in the division.
Most of the teams in the conference this week accomplished their goal, though one (Illinois), failed miserably, and a few others (Minnesota, Ohio State, Iowa) came dangerously close to having their championship dreams dashed before they even got started.
Fortunately, I'm not a fan of any of those teams. This means I get to enjoy my hopeful bliss for at least another week.
Both Northwestern and Wisconsin came away with victories today, and in watching the games I saw several things for each team that I wanted to see on the first day of the season.
For Northwestern, it was great to see the defense, which had largely remained intact, playing up to the way that it did last year. They will be very dangerous this year and I don't think last year's play was a fluke at all. Also, Kafka managed to play the entire game without throwing an interception, which is really a testament to his improved accuracy. It would have been nice to see him throw for a TD, but unless this becomes a trend, I won't be too worried. FInally, how about Arby Fields? His first game and he runs for 2 TDs and 48 yards on only 6 carries! Even though he had to come out of the game with leg cramps, I really think this kid is something special and I'd keep an eye on him for the rest of the season.
As for Wisconsin, while they didn't win by as large a margin as Northwestern (though, let's be honest, it's not like Towson is a fearsome opponent) I still am encouraged by what I saw tonight. Scott Tolzien looked excellent, with a largely clean game - the intereception was the fault of the running back who failed to do his job - and the very brief appearance by red-shirt freshman Curt Phillips suggests that even if Tolzien goes down because of injury or inconsistency, the Badgers will have another good option to turn to, who also has double-threat upside. As predicted, Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson have continued their emergence as dependable WRs and the dual-headed monster that is Zach Brown and John Clay gave the message, "P.J. Hill? Who's that?" loud and clear. Finally, it was good to see that even though things got a bit shaky in the fourth quarter, with NIU pulling within 8 points, the Badgers managed to do something that they had serious trouble with last year - namely, close the game out and retain their lead.
All in all, a great start to the season for my teams, and I'm looking forward to keeping my hopes and expectations alive after next week too!