Part of what separates college football from other sports, even other collegiate sports, are the traditions. Often passed from generation to generation, these traditions are something that virtually every college football program can point to. Wisconsin students jump around, Cal students take in games on Tightwad Hill. Clemson players touch Howard's Rock, Domers touch their beloved sign. Mississippi State fans incessantly ring cowbells, Gator fans incessantly chomp. Oklahoma unleashes the Sooner Schooner to celebrate touchdowns, USC turns to its song girls and Traveler to do the same (advantage, USC). Michigan State fans burn couches, Alabama fans kill 100-year old trees. And on it goes.
Michigan is no different from most schools in this regard, and celebrates many campus and gameday traditions. One of the most well-known of Michigan's gameday traditions is the moment just before kickoff, when the players emerge from the tunnel, jumping to touch the "Go Blue" banner as they take the field. It's an iconic sight that evokes some of the biggest cheers of the afternoon - along with the most pre-game goosebumps. But it's not the only tradition that Michigan can claim. Similar to many universities, the marching band is a big part of the gameday experience at Michigan, and a big part of the marching band experience is the playing of the Victors, the fight song that John Phillip Sousa famously declared the greatest college fight song ever written. The Big Ten loves its trophy games, and Michigan plays in the oldest of these - the hundred-plus year battle for the Brown Jug. Then there are campus traditions, like the painting of the Rock or happy houring at Dominik's Friday before gameday.
It's not strictly the traditions that Michigan fans celebrate, though, but also the program's history. Everyone knows the hallowed place Bo Schembechler holds at Michigan, but Michigan fans also proudly point to turn-of-the-century teams (that's the 20th century, not the 21st) coached by Fielding Yost. This fascination with history has not gone unnoticed by rival fanbases, and Michigan is often criticized for living in the past. But Michigan and its fans can be forgiven for their attention to history, given the school's ... history. Michigan's uniforms, helmets, fight song, the Big House and its nation-leading attendance and the block M itself all contribute to Michigan's iconic standing in the college football landscape.
But there is another tradition in Ann Arbor, one that is also practiced everywhere but taken to the extreme at Michigan, the tradition of unrealistically high expectations. That every year brings with it a championship-caliber team. It's a tradition that's taken hold over many years, and is at a fever pitch heading onto the 2016 season.
Throughout the 1970s, when Schembechler-coached teams routinely rolled into the final weekend of the season with an unblemished record, it wasn't unusual to expect that Michigan would be near the top of the polls at year's end (something that happened nine times that decade). In the 1980s, Michigan may not have continued to play at the same .848 clip it did in the 1970s, but it it still captured five conference championships and finished in the top ten six times. In the 1990s, Michigan only made it to Pasadena three times, but each year still seemed to bring with it a roster full of future NFL players and a pre-season top ten ranking. Even during the leaner years that followed, expectations were lowered, but only for the short term, as there was little doubt among the Michigan faithful that the Wolverines were no more than a few years - or the right coach - away from a return to prominence. The Wolverine faithful didn't wonder "if" the Wolverines would return, but "when."
Is it any wonder, then, that Jim Harbaugh's return to Michigan, after successful stints at San Diego, Stanford and with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, was met with such excitement? Or that after an inaugural season that exceeded all but the loftiest of expectations, that expectations would be even higher in year two?
Such high expectations are certainly not without basis, as Michigan returns the lion's share of last season's ten-win team, nor are they restricted to those donning maize and blue, as Michigan is near the top of most of the far-too-early rankings for the 2016 season. Those already penciling Michigan into the college football playoff, however, might want to pump the brakes a bit. Michigan returns a veteran team led by what looks to be an outstanding defense, but the Wolverines have yet to display a dominant running game, will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, and while the schedule may not be be daunting in its entirety, the Wolverines play Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State during a brutal five-week stretch to finish the season. All on the road.
That's not to say Michigan won't have a successful season or won't build off last year's success, but rather that it won't be easy. And that rather than spending the season scrounging for tickets to the college football playoffs, Michigan fans should try to take a breath, so to speak, and simply enjoy the ride. Of course, that's easier said than done for a long-suffering and ever-optimistic fan base.