So we have that first loss on our record and as I read around various Gopher-centric sites, listen to local sports programing and gauge the pulse of Gopher Nation, you'd think that the season is over. The game at Penn State was one where the Gophers had plenty of opportunities to win. There were problems on both sides of the ball that contributed to the overtime loss. But it was a loss, on the road in the Big Ten to a decent team. We really should just move on, learn from it, get better and get ready for Iowa.
But let's, as fans, take this Monday to pause before diving into Hate Week.
The Funny Game of Expectations
Expectations are really what define each and every season. Every single person has their own set of expectations for the season. Some are unrealistic. Some are perpetually pessimistic. Some think they are reasonable (which I'm usually not really). But the point is we all come into the season with a set of expectations and our level of content-ness is derived from this arbitrary baseline.
Remember back to this summer when we would look at the schedule to bucket games as Likely Wins, Likely Losses and Toss-Up games. I believe that most reasonable Gopher fans bucked games like this. Arguments can be made about whether to place Maryland as a win, and I think we'd all agree it leans that way. But for now I think that is fair to assume this would have been the majority opinion...
- WINS (6) - Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State, Rutgers, Illinois, Purdue
- TOSS-UP (4) - Penn State, Iowa, Maryland, Northwestern
- LOSSES (2) - Nebraska, Wisconsin
Now let's get back to expectations. When looking at the season as a fan, it is easy to move a lot of those toss-up games into the win category because we think more highly of our own team than others do (that's natural). And when projecting final win totals it is easy to push most of those into wins because that's what we tend to do.
But the fact is, those are all games that really are toss-ups. Regardless of how those four teams started the year, they are still capable of beating our favorite team. Penn State stumbled to an early 2-2 record and many Gopher fans started moving this into the win category...prematurely. I said it a couple weeks ago and I'll reiterate...the Gophers have yet to prove that we should be overconfident about any of these Big Ten games. Saturday's loss was a reminder.
And the second funny thing that happened with Gopher expectations is that somehow the soft schedule eventually created an atmosphere of expectations that this is a top-tier Big Ten team.
- We have a Soft schedule - The Gophers really do, the season to-date is not changing that notion.
- This Means More Wins - The soft schedule began to create a notion that this would translate into more wins than a Gopher team typically accumulates. This is also a reasonable expectation.
- Maybe That Means Even More Wins - Then the extra wins turned into a belief that maybe a couple extra wins turns into a few extra wins. It was entirely plausible. If all of the "Toss-Up" games were wins (not out of the realm of possibility) then we have a 10-win season.
- Big Ten West Contenders? - With more wins, comes higher place in the standings. It also breeds confidence and the last couple weeks of the season we are playing for a chance at Indianapolis. Again, not a crazy notion...given the soft schedule.
- This Team is Going to Be Really Good - this is the leap. Soft schedule means more wins, which means contending in the West, which means we are one of the best teams in the West.
The short of it is that soft schedule <> great team. Good teams will take care of business on the field and we can define how good they are when the season is over.
Don't get me wrong, I still like this team a lot and it is a good team. But we have not actually accomplished anything yet to be confident in any of our Big Ten games. And expectations shouldn't be beyond what is reasonable. Reasonable means that we will lose some of those Toss-Up games. We may lose all of them, we may win the remaining three.
The problem with expectations is that there seems to be a notion that it is all or nothing. With this team they either need to finish with 10 wins and a trip to Indianapolis or it was a disastrous season. Something like this...
There is middle ground and if any of us are thinking that an 8-wins season is disappointing, then I think you need to look at Gopher success over the last 40 years.
The community is dangerously on the brink here and it is all because of everyone's individual pre-set expectations. Calling an 8-win season is not settling for mediocrity and it doesn't mean that we don't want to strive for more. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with fans being upset by a loss that was in hand and desperately wanting to see a great Gopher season.
But there is middle ground and I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE the community here to keep the conversation going about this team in a respectful manner. There is plenty of room for discussing what needs to improve. But there is no need to paint someone into one extreme or the other.
All sides need to avoid the "I told you so!" mentality. The season is far from over. This team could tank and end up with 6 wins. This team could fix some things, get some people back on the field and still manage to get 9 wins. This team could start to click and make a run through the West. The middle is much more likely, but the book on this season has not yet been written.
This Penn State game was one of the key games in this crucial 3-game stretch. But it does not define the season.
Moving to the Product on the Field
There needs to be some things cleaned up. There is no doubt that this team has things it needs to fix. And we can spend the week talking about it.
The defense is really struggling, particularly with big plays. The offensive line needs to be better. Tackling needs to improve. And the penalties have got to stop. But there are some encouraging things as well. The running game has been very good, even with a weak push from the OL. There are a number of young guys who have really impressed (Devers, Johnson, Winfield to name a few). And defensively they've actually been pretty good most of the time...just those damn explosive plays.
These things are all fair game. And again...talking about what this team has done well isn't going to the land of Rose Bowls, rainbows and unicorns. Talking about the team's issues does not mean they are doomed to lose to Rutgers (if that happens...then we can shut it down) and we should all abandon ship as quickly as possible.
The Penn State game wasn't all bad, but we made some key mistakes and lost a game that was very winnable.
Moving On to Iowa
Bring on Hate Week!! I hope the team has a sour taste in their mouth for the entire plane ride back from Pennsylvania, watch some film and take it out on the Hawkeyes. Beating Iowa really changes nothing in regards to season expectations. Winning 2 of this 3-game stretch is still within reach and makes the season outlook rather good still. No reason to get over-confident just because Iowa has sucked against NDSU and Northwestern...we haven't proven anything yet. But lets get a win and get Floyd home!