Introducing Big Ten Week.
Growth and Initiation: Manhood is often established by an abrupt, random crisis, sometimes at an unusually early age.
I think to call Rich Rodriguez's first season at Michigan an "abrupt, random crisis" is obviously a gross understatement, but that's past. The issue at hand is a year later is whether this particular set of Wolverines' first encounter with the cold, cruel reality of an indifferent world will linger as a kind of debilitating Freudian trauma destined to undermine Rodriguez's entire tenure, or whether their first tentative steps (and crashes, and subsequent scars) are only the prelude to a proper coming of age.
There is much to be said here for the saving graces of talent and resources, which -- Holden Caulfield and his many similarly doomed peers notwithstanding -- usually combine for the kind of happy ending Michigan fans are accustomed to. But if 2008 was a painful childhood, '09 certainly looks like a rocky adolescence: The starting quarterback is a freshman, as (in all likelihood) are both safeties, and at least nine other starters will be sophomores who played either very little last year or very poorly, for the most part. Somewhere in the neighborhood of eight starters weren't even on the depth chart at the beginning of '08, which may not be all bad but does promise another round of growing pains -- the formerly green offensive line and linebackers should be in much better shape, but otherwise this is an outfit still very much finding its way. That's hardly fatal in itself. For their own sake, though -- and especially their coach's -- let's hope the slow maturation process on the field is accompanied by the requisite patience off it.
Time and Change: Aspects of childhood are retained in all of us, sometimes hindering growth, sometimes helping put events in perspective.
For more evidence that they grow up so fast, see Juice Williams, whose personal bildungsroman has brought him to a moment of truth as a senior: After a long, arduous and gradual process of maturation involving repeated clashes between protagonist Juice and the judgment of an unbending social order, this is the year the spirit and values of the social order must become manifest in his game. Specifically, that means taking better care of the ball -- though Williams has dramatically improved his accuracy since that dreadful freshman year in 2006, he threw more interceptions last year (16) than any other quarterback in the Big Ten and also lost four fumbles, three of which led directly to opponent scores in losses to Minnesota, Ohio State and Northwestern.
Aside from his frequent generosity to opposing defenses, though, the other ongoing theme of Williams' career is that of an increasingly confident playmaker who frequently lives up to his enormous promise -- he led the Big Ten in total touchdowns and total offense and led the team with his third straight season over 500 yards rushing. He shredded Michigan like the Wolverines were the anonymous characters lunging futilely for Red Grange on old 1920s newsreels. Illinois' success is directly correlated to the extent that that Juice, the mature veteran who still remembers that he's one of the best athletes on the field, replaces the uncertain Juice who still struggles to solve opposing secondaries.
Alienation: Modern society is defective because it doesn't provide group ties which in primitive cultures makes alienation virtually impossible.
Mike Kafka, the Northwestern senior, walks by the lake's shore immersed in his thoughts. He has demonstrated his patience, and been richly rewarded at last. Kafka is the starting quarterback. Yet in his private moments he cannot help but turn over the assessment of his coach, the ambitious Fitzgerald, innocently glimpsed in the coach's diary during an unguarded attempt to retrieve a playbook from that immaculate, dreaded office, in the large oaken desk he has grown in time to loathe:
The first is outwardly very plain, but serious and clever; although I love him as I love all my quarterbacks, I don not rate him very highly. His mental processes seem to me to be too simple. He looks neither to right nor to left, nor into far distance; he runs around all the time, or rather revolves, within his own little circle of thoughts.
Kafka, the senior, laughs involuntarily. He has lately imagined emerging to a "packed house" at Ryan Field and other hopeless delusions. He considers that he is losing his mind. Practice begins at two.
He is the Wildcats' quarterback.
(You didn't think we were getting through this without a Kafka/Kafka reference did you? Surely Northwestern's season will be marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity.)