I have been trying to put my finger on the pulse of this team for the past few days, ever since I realized that, after the Indiana game, that this season was something of a not-entierly-lost-but-still-kinda-lost cause. In a year or two, these games will either be described as the building blocks of a top ten team— or as the first bricks in Hoke's mausoleum.
My frame of reference is the situation here in Knoxville, where I currently reside. I see so many similarities between Butch Jones and Brady Hoke's first year (except the record). I can sense a very similar positive attitude shift, where "how can we mess up this time" is replaced with "we have a fighting chance." This is, of course the honeymoon period for most Tennessee fans, with the Georgia game promising what the South Carolina game delivered. Most fans (well, at least the rational ones) are even willing to accept 7-5 or even 6/6 next year as something of an inevitability, since their quality O-line will be lost to graduation, their QB situation will either be "mediocrity" or "young prospect x," and even some of the senior leadership will be lost from the defense.
I recognize the hopeful feeling since we all here just experienced it. I can see the calm rationality which they have now, feeling that they somehow found a real coach, a sense that a blunder has been replaced with a process, that Real Coaching ™ is here, that it will only get better. This fan base is the honeymooner's of college football. We, however, are the "In-Betweener's" (and no, not that over-rated British television show... well, kind of, actually).
Michigan fans, fresh off this feeling, see a promise that has not been realized— a team which 2012 would beat by 10 and 2011 would beat by 21. The play calling appears at times to be an exercise in ideological fatalism, like trying to turn Texas into a socialist commune. Even the defensive coaching is being called into question.
At the other end of the spectrum— well, we all know what a program clearly spiraling out of control looks like. This is what bothers me about the team recently. I don't know if I am just out of touch, but it seems to me like what ever is going on, it isn't a program spinning out of control— just one that has made a decision which, in hindsight, feels sacrificial and a bit fatalistic (though I suppose that, if this is the end, I would say that it would be more slow and subtle rather than some dramatic death spiral). It feels like a team which is dedicated to a certain identity, one they have been wanting to convert to for the past few years and, with Robinson gone, they felt they could wholly commit to. Once it became apparent that that wasn't viable, they seem to have chosen to stick with it, believing not only will this be better for the future but also, I'd like to think, believing that a consistent dedication makes more sense— i.e., that changing the game plan will be detrimental. The reason I think this is the case is for a few particulars: mainly, that coaching staff might see a turnstile starting at all three positions between the tackles PLUS a QB which doesn't seem to respond well to confusion on the O-line, and conclude that changing the game plan significantly would be exacerbating and not fixing these problems.
The hope is, of course, that this faith will be rewarded (though, clearly, the odds of that happening this season are diminishing by the week), that someday we will read a puff piece by Tom Rinaldi talking about "keeping the faith", "weathering the storm",and the like. Perhaps someone will write a book and tell the story about how this was the beginning of the end for an overmatched coaching staff which eventually ran out of steam. For the record, I don't see the latter being the case. I think next year will be better than this and the year afterwards will be even better.
This perspective gives me hope and grave concern: one the one hand, this belief might turn out to be justified, and we might enter an Carr-like, NFL-factory age where top recruiting classes and top-level bowl games are the norm-but with a coach willing to roll the dice when it counts. The fear which is driving trolls to troll, the faithful to have a Kiergegaardian struggle, and many reasoned people to "leave" the board by posting about doing so regularly is painfully obvious: in maintaining the premise that the system will work, the coaching staff just might sacrifice too much to ever realize the fruits of their labor.