I was walking through the airport in Boston on Monday and came across a similarly outfitted Michigan fan. I was sporting a head-to-toe attire that must have looked more like an advertisement than a fashion statement. My advertising comrade remarked as he passed by, “Now we just have to beat Penn St!” Certainly it is possible that this particular fan has specific disdain for Penn St. Maybe he is from Pennsylvania and took a lot of crap from his buddies last year. Those motivations can’t be ruled out entirely. However, I’m pretty sure that’s not what provoked his statement. Expectations are rising faster than a space shuttle on Viagra. Just a few short weeks ago there weren’t any expectations. More than a few of Michigan's own fans actually thought a loss to Western was likely. There weren’t expectations of beating Notre Dame. There was hope but hope is something entirely different than expectation. There were no expectations of beating Michigan State in E. Lansing or Iowa in Iowa City. Again, there was hope but not expectation. Penn St. doesn’t come to Ann Arbor until October 24. Yet, "airport fan" already has Michigan 7-0 heading into that game. If it were just one guy, I could chalk this up to someone getting a little too excited a little too early. Unfortunately, this rapid change in expectation is starting to spread a little too fast for comfort. Seconds after Michigan capped off its dramatic win over Notre Dame, a fan turned around and said to me, "With EMU and Indiana next, we're basically 4-0 and then we should beat MSU and Iowa!" I was like, "whoa!" It’s not a wildfire or a plague, yet, but it could become one.
Confidence is high amongst the “M” fanbase and for good reason. Rich Rodriguez has accomplished as much in these first three games as he did in his entire first season. There is no doubt that Michigan is a “good” team. The problem is that “good” is very ambiguous. Nobody knows just how good and nobody will know until the wee hours of October 11 when Michigan finishes its wicked two-week road exam in E. Lansing and Iowa City. Blowing out Western and Eastern Michigan, and pulling out a squeaker against Notre Dame speaks to Michigan’s ability to be competitive which is vastly different from Michigan’s ability to beat good teams on the road. As a result of Michigan’s impressive start and Michigan State’s unimpressive one, Michigan fans now expect a victory in E. Lansing. I’m not sure that’s fair.
I’m not suggesting that Michigan will lose to Michigan State and Iowa. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I’m just saying that the expectation of a win is a disservice to both Rodriguez and the team. These guys were left for dead after last season. Nobody with the exception of a few level-headed Michigan fans had the Wolverines even remotely on their radar heading into this season. As a result, any success this season should be viewed as a bonus. If fans absolutely need to get carried away with something, they should get carried away with the idea that Rodriguez should be the frontrunner for National Coach of the Year. His team is averaging 38 points per game with two true freshmen at quarterback.
Some may not understand the dangers of seemingly innocent expectations—especially in this particular instance. Trust me, expectations are never harmless. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Michigan. Even the most enthusiastic of supporters of the program admitted that the struggles of 2008 would likely haunt Michigan through 2009. Everyone knows how difficult it is to transform a football program from something as specified as a pro-style attack to something equally and oppositely specified as the spread. Rodriguez hasn’t received any favors off the field but he’s been given some leeway on it. If we infuse expectations into 2009, then Rodriguez suddenly becomes vulnerable to something that he was supposed to be immune to this season. When expectations aren’t met, criticism is quick to follow and that is the last thing this team needs. Large groups of people cannot be trusted to handle failed expectations with "a grain of salt." That is why the term "mob mentality" exists. Instead of asking people to do the impossible by acting reasonably in the face of failed expectations, the expectations should be eliminated all together. They serve no purpose; not this season.
I mentioned that new expectations are not fair to Rodriguez but I also mentioned that they aren’t fair to the team. The latter is not to be overlooked. Michigan is being led by two true freshmen quarterbacks. The fact that they’ve managed to put up 38 points per game so far is truly unprecedented. However, it’s all been at home against defenses that are hardly physical. At some point in the next year or two, Tate Forcier and/or Denard Robinson will be savvy enough to perform equally well on the road as they do at home. Right now, though, there should be every expectation that these guys will struggle in hostile environments. Even veteran quarterbacks struggle on the road. Increased expectations are simply not fair to Forcier, Robinson and the rest of a team that was universally picked to finish near the back of a weak Big Ten conference.
Unfortunately, "expectations" have already started to have a negative impact. I couldn’t help but to chuckle at the headlines and stories that discussed Forcier’s “struggles” against Eastern Michigan. Michigan won 45-17. That’s a four touchdown spread. Forcier had zero interceptions and completed over 50% of his passes. He was called to pass just 13 times compared to 33 attempts against Notre Dame. Michigan ran the ball 39 times against EMU because it was averaging 9.7 yards per carry. Forcier didn’t struggle because he didn’t have a chance to struggle. He was asked to hand the ball off and not make mistakes and that's what he did. That didn’t stop ESPN’s Big Ten blogger, Adam Rittenberg, from reporting that Forcier struggled. It also didn’t stop the AP from making Forcier’s struggles the story of the game. The original title of that story was, “Forcier struggles, Brown lifts Michigan.” It was, of course, changed to a more fitting title most likely because it looked incredibly silly next to a four touchdown blowout.
The “Forcier Struggles” angle could be a prophetic sign of what could come later in the season if Michigan starts looking more like the young team that it is. Unreasonable expectations lead to unreasonable criticisms. Nobody would be talking about Forcier “struggling” if he hadn’t been idiotically thrown into the Heisman race after the Notre Dame game by overzealous college football writers and pundits. Likewise, nobody would have any reason to blast Rodriguez for road losses to good teams if his young Michigan team wasn’t built-up sooner than it should be. This is a talented but inexperienced team with many unanswered questions. Those questions will be answered by Mid-October. Meanwhile, Tate Forcier is playing really well. Michigan is playing really well. Why can’t that be enough for now?