Just a few short weeks ago both the high school and college football seasons kicked off. Expectations and hopes were sky-high for nearly every team in the land, as the new calling beckoned with the promise of a fresh new start. Every team was unbeaten, and each game on every schedule looked winnable to diehard fans.
After all, few things in life serve more ably to annually embody the notion that hope springs eternal in the human heart than football season.
And so it is that we come now to the most important week of the still-young 2007 campaign. You may think that statement bold, or at the very least, odd. How can this possibly be determined as the most important week? Doesn't one of the most time-honored adages in football teach that you take the season one game at a time, and that no game is more important than the one you're playing this week?
That's exactly right. And it's also why this, of all weeks, is the most important one this year.
Teams that have gotten off to a poor start - or are struggling along somewhere near .500 at this point - still have a golden opportunity to make something special out of the remaining 2007 season. And conversely, teams that got off to a great start - some which are even unbeaten at this juncture - must now confront living with success.
Each of those challenging scenarios contains great opportunities, just as each is fraught with peril. But be not mistaken, folks, this is the crucial week for teams across the land, regardless of the category they inhabit.
Looking at high school football first, in most cases region or league play has not started. The first few games have been played against traditional rivals, or scheduled against lesser or equal programs in order to give the team an opportunity to jell and to find itself. The bulk of the schedule still looms ahead, and how the team play in this crucial week will for the most part determine how the rest of the season goes.
A team which has foundered early, perhaps going winless to this point, has nonetheless made progress in practice and almost certainly has improved on the field against competition each week.
Whether it has young players and is rebuilding, or a coaching staff new to the school and community, pieces of the puzzle have started fitting together. The bonding between players and coaches has had some time to start working, and the adversity a struggling team has already faced in the first few weeks can actually help build the character needed to make a break through to a successful season. Whether or not enough pieces have come together will be evident this week.
For a team hovering around .500 also serves as the barometer for how the rest of the season will go. If success was found in the first few games, but coming against lackluster or inferior competition, coaches could possibly have been misled into thinking they had found some answers to the multiple questions that constitute the challenge of coaching high school football. Losses against superior athletes or well-coached, seasoned teams may have caused changes to starting lineups which were ill-advised over time, but seemed right at the moment.
Crunch time has arrived, however, and the coaches of the mediocre team have to decide whether to dance with who brung 'em or to go with yet another cast of characters and hope that the right combination has been found.
This week also provides the litmus test for how the season will unfold for even the most successful of teams. It is crucial for the unbeaten team experiencing great success for the first time, or experiencing a return to greatness from lean years.
These teams have to stay hungry during the rest of the week. They have to go out there and try to win the game, instead of trying not to lose it. They must keep their focus on their next game, not daydream about how wonderful it'll be to go 10-0 and make the playoffs. And they've got to quit listening to the alumni who remember great success in the past and exhort the current squad to bring back the glory. They've got to play for today, not for yesterday, no matter how wonderful a tradition they have inherited.
And therein lays a great danger for the team experiencing great success thus far in the young season. Assuredly, this week's competition is not reading the headlines about how great the undefeated team is. Instead, all week long, they are practicing and planning how to knock them off to kill their dream season.
So, with regards to high school football, this is the most crucial week of the season. Winless teams and those hanging around .500 have a chance to turn things around; successful teams must stay focused and play to win, not try to avoid a loss.
The college scene, whilst a little bit different, still possesses some of the same tenets. Any team that has struggled out of the gate has now had time to get its footing and can begin pursuit of a league title. Take Michigan, for example. After a season-opening loss to Appalachian State and an almost-disastrous 0-2 start, the Wolverines have righted the ship and now stand poised to make a run for the Big 10 title at 2-2.
Appalachian State, on the other hand, experiencing near hero status among small schools for its unprecedented victory over Michigan, forgot to tell tiny Wofford College. (Wofford, unfazed, knocked off "Happy Appy" last week.)
Closer to home, the Georgia Bulldogs face a stern test. After upsetting Alabama last week in Tuscaloosa, the Dogs must forget about the Crimson Tide and focus on the game against Ole Miss. The Rebels narrowly missed upsetting the defending national champion Florida Gators last week, so if the young Bulldogs are not completely immersed in their next game it can go south pretty quickly.
But there are a few undefeated and premier programs still strutting their stuff at the collegiate level. Those teams, much like any high school team experiencing early success, must stay aggressive and dance with who brung 'em instead of shifting to conservative play-calling to try and protect their national ranking.
So, any way you look at it, this is the most crucial week in the young 2007 football season. The cream will definitely rise to the top after this week's contests have been decided. Fans in every nook and cranny of America will know how the rest of their favorite team's season will go. Devout fans everywhere will most likely make a special effort to be in the stands. The support given by "the 12th man" goes a long way toward determining whether the season will result in chicken salad or chicken manure.
Greatness, mediocrity and despair all beckon as the season unfolds in this: The most important week of the season.