Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Only four days until the heartbreak begins

Northwestern football is not an easy thing. There are times when it is comparatively easy to, say, serving in a North Korean labor camp, but even those times, I find, are rare. At no point was this more evident than a year ago when my Wildcats were sitting on the precipice of a potentially program-defining season. In 2012, NU had pulled off its best season in nearly two decades, going 9-3 with all three losses coming in brutal fashion before winning a bowl game for the first time since 1949. It was a year that was so good, with each loss being so precarious, that one couldn't help but wonder what could have been.

And so 2013 was supposed to be the year. We were ready to join the big time and as we sat 4-0, ranked No. 16 in the country and were ready to tangle with Ohio State in a game that could have been as strong a statement as a bunch of guys in tight purple shirts can make. Even in the third quarter Northwestern held the lead and looked to be on the verge of a transformational moment. And then it all fell apart. Despite that loss, NU fans held their heads high until a surprisingly bad performance against Wisconsin. Then the cracks started to show. And they continued showing. And showing. And showing. Eventually it became clear that 2013 wasn't going to be the dream season many of us hoped it would be, and to further the point, we plebians of the college football world were viciously knocked down as we tried to scale the summit, reminding us where we stood in the course of things.

After that brutal experience, this Saturday, we're going to do it all over again. And I. Can't. Wait.

Call it masochism if you must, in fact, that's probably a fairly accurate assessment, but there is almost nothing I enjoy more during the year than spending my fall Saturdays gorging on beer, wings, waffle fries and if all goes well some purple shots. There is nothing that feels better than tipsily toasting with friends and walking through Central Park after seeing a Northwestern victory, however rare they may be, and that time of the year is almost here.

College football formally kicks off on Wednesday night when Abilene Christian plays Georgia State, though the season really begins in earnest on Thursday with a whole host of games featuring schools large and small. For me, however, the interminable wait for fall Saturdays won't end until, well, Saturday when Northwestern hosts Cal at 3:30 p.m. ET, in a return companion to last year's visit to Berkeley, which I attended with a whole traveling band of Wildcats.

As you might be able to tell from what I laid out in the previous paragraphs, the sentiment surrounding this season isn't quite as optimistic as the last. Many believe Northwestern's 5-7 mark in 2013 is a more-accurate determination of the team's true skill and talent level. I am not one of these people. I also think the 10-win season of 2012 is probably as much of an outlier and the truth is somewhere in the middle, but I'm also a big believer in the law of large numbers.

Northwestern may not really be as good as it was in 2012, but it certainly isn't as bad as it was in 2013. To further the point, three of Northwestern's losses (the 3OT loss to Michigan in which the Wolverines tied the game late on a field goal that almost certainly was illegal, the OT loss to Iowa in which NU was driving for the win late before fumbling it away, the hail mary loss at Nebraska) were unlikely outcomes in which defeat was suddenly and painfully snatched from the jaws of victory. Reverse those outcomes and suddenly the 8-4 2013 Wildcats had a season that still wasn't what we might have hoped, but certainly wasn't anything to be ashamed of.

To my detriment, I am forever the optimist -- I always tell people it's the only way I can survive being a Mets fan -- and so as I'm sure many of you can imagine, I actually don't think Northwestern is going to be all that bad this season. I don't expect them to compete for a division or conference title, but I don't think a 7-8-win season is a ridiculous notion either. Because I've somehow convinced myself of that, the inevitable downfall will probably be all the more brutal.

Sure, it's painful. It's always painful. That's life. And I can't put into words how happy I am to have that pain back again.

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