September: Survive And Then Move On

You've waited eight months. Endured through the trials of recruiting season. Got the tantalizing, teasing but unsatisfying fix of spring ball. Waded through the early summer months. Sifted through the print annuals. Devoured the websites.

Found the oasis of training camp, but with your thirst not yet quenched.

Ah, but now you've finally made it: this is the first workweek that actually leads up to a real, live college football game.

But you don't just hunger to see your team, you long for your boys to bust out all over, to prove that this will be a very big year.

That's something to be aware of as you watch the SEC and the rest of the country kickoff this Saturday. September, we should know by now, is not a month for style points, but for survival.

USC doesn't romp to the national title last year if the Trojans don't get off the deck to outlast a pesky Virginia Tech team that, at season's end, proved to be the real deal.

Auburn doesn't have an unblemished season if the Tigers hadn't found a way to win a plug-ugly 10-9 grinder over LSU.

Tennessee doesn't win the SEC East last year if ... well ... if the referees do their job, but the Vols also wouldn't have won the division if they hadn't been able to survive a 30-28 deathmatch against Florida.

On a smaller but still significant scale, Navy's historic 10-win season last year wouldn't have happened if the Midshipmen hadn't been able to grind out uncomfortably close and surprisingly sluggish wins against teams like Duke, Northeastern and Vanderbilt.

September is the month of survival. You avoid upsets, you win key conference openers, but you don't usually blow the roof off the joint. You win without artistry, score without easy precision, and maximize emotion --- though not necessarily technical excellence, because that just doesn't come very immediately for most assemblages of 20-year-old male members of the human species.

This Saturday, don't look for Ohio State to crush Miami of Ohio. Troy Smith will be out, the Bucks will be just warming up for Texas, anyway, and Ohio State will look to be a defense-first team against a MAC Daddy that has appreciable talent. If you're looking for a blowout, you're likely to be disappointed. Merely winning the game --- and without having to open up the playbook too much --- would be more than enough for the Buckeyes.

This dynamic holds true for Florida when the Gators tackle Wyoming, as Chris Leak shouldn't be expected to absorb the totality of Urban Meyer's offensive packages right off the bat. It holds true for Tennessee against UAB, as Erik Ainge might have just a little bit of uncertainty after returning from the injury that knocked him down last season. Oklahoma --- in the post-Jason White era --- should have more than a little sloppiness against TCU. And finally, this motif of messiness should also apply to Michigan's game against Northern Illinois, another one of those feisty MAC teams that has solid talent, but whose Achilles heel is depth. For the first quarter and a half of all of these games --- if not more --- expect sluggishness from the big-name programs.

Perhaps another way of saying all this is that in college football, the most emotion-drenched sport there is, it's easy for the cauldron of season-opening excitement to drown out the human brain's more rational impulses. One such impulse is to realize that a team is vastly different in mid-October from Labor Day weekend, and also quite different in early December when compared to midseason. A college football campaign is a slowly unfolding, long-term process, where a team grows --- or spirals downward --- into a richly textured and layered personality. It's the beauty --- and agony --- of the sport. Keep that in mind when the first quarter of action --- so longed for over an eight-month period of forced football fasting --- doesn't go as well as your emotional side hoped it would. A little rationality goes a long way in college football.


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