College football, as we all know, is unique. In one fell swoop, a season is transformed by a mistake or an off afternoon. It is unlike baseball — a sport in which we go weeks at a time in the dog days of summer without feeling as if much has particularly changed. It is unlike hockey or basketball or soccer or many other sports, in that a couple of unfortunate weeks can cripple the hopes of most squads. College football is different, and born from that desire to be perfect each and every Saturday is a year-round circus of camps and training, of gossip and reports, of anticipation and hype. It is all perfectly represented by that most odd but necessary tradition — the spring game.
Short of perhaps the promotion of a heavyweight fight, few buzzes compare to that of a college football town waiting from January to September in anticipation of a season, which to many can fail in a relative sense by the end of that first or second fall Saturday. During that period of punditocracy, we debate who will start, which faces will be missed or welcomed, and how young men are developing. We generally work through every potential scenario or outcome we can dream up in the long lonely period until play resumes. And while two off-season camps and a summer full of training, weight-gaining and skill work prepare athletes for their eventual judgment day, the spring game is a time in which everyone else can get their football fix.
"I love it," smiled Madison native and sophomore cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu, following the University of Wisconsin's spring game. "I think especially being in Madison. Madison is definitely a place where they love their football. It's great. It just makes our job — especially when we're not on the field or are just in the weight room and doing strength and conditioning — it makes that a little bit easier knowing that our fans are always behind us no matter what we're doing. Whether it's a spring game or a championship game we know it's going to be there."
Of course the postseason turned preseason — roughly all seasons — of buildup can cut both ways. A good or bad play in a spring practice or a spring "game" needs to be taken with a grain of salt. What happens in practice is simply that — practice. Whether it is a day of non-contact drills or a spring game, it is not completely a story of where one is, but where one needs to get to by autumn. Recognizing that balance is important in the face of fans and whoever else that might be tracking the team 365 days per year.
"I don't know. Sometimes it is a little hard to deal with," quarterback John Stocco said. "There's all that attention on us because people love football here. And that's something we appreciate and we understand, and we hopefully realize that. And they want to know as much as they can about our team and what we're doing and everything that's going on like that. But, it's not too hard, I think."
Some players like the attention and others don't.
"The hype, basically year round — it goes both ways," wide receiver Paul Hubbard said. "In some ways it can add mounting pressure leading up to September. But it does keep players on their toes. During the long summer months when sticking to training plans or coaches' advice can make the difference between good and great teams, it can be easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal. And college football is a game in which you take your eyes off of those goals for just one minute and you may find yourself in a difficult hole to climb out of.
Think of the BCS or the pressure to capture a conference crown. People say championships are won in the offseason, and nowhere is that truer than in college football — a sport in which teams have little room for error once the campaign kicks off and little time to "find themselves" in a game situation.
"That's all we're looking forward to," linebacker Mark Zalewski said. "In basketball you can lose a couple of games. In football you lose one game and you could be out of the national contention right there.
"It's definitely fun when you have this many people that care about it. It makes games more fun when all these people are really getting into it."
That keeps the blood flowing all year long for certain guys. Even 10,000 fans at a loose spring game can do that for a player. Take fullback Chris Pressley, for instance. Pressley is a hard-hitting, fast-talking sledgehammer of a blocker who can lift more weight than anyone on the team and seems to get as hyped up than anyone as well.
Without that constant year-round pressure, Pressley thinks it could be easier to get in a letdown mode. He said that when the team comes back from time off, he can read by some players' faces whether they are approaching things half-heartedly. However, if there is a good atmosphere surrounding the team and working in the locker room, Pressley said people push each other harder and say things like, "Oh, this is great. This is fun. Let's just keep getting better."
"I'm fired up," Pressley said. "I think we have a lot of good opportunities to get better. The offseason is the perfect time to get as good as you can be, if it means something to you. That's what we try to get across to everybody, is that it has to mean something to you. If it means something to you, you're going to push yourself.
"If you like self improvement and the people around you, it's great."
Meanwhile, all of us outside the inner-circle can only speculate. It is something that we as a society love to do — from pre-election polling on CNN to Internet chat rooms devoted to uncovering the secrets of a show like Lost. Maybe it is because we know that once the football season starts, every play counts so much. Perhaps that is the reason for such heavy attention in this sport. But the spring game gives us something more concrete to talk about, albeit a weak benchmark for things to come. (The Badgers' 2005 spring game in no way revealed their surprising regular season, for instance).
And while Stocco said that he sees the spring game as another practice and just another opportunity to improve every day, it can provide some of the players with a benchmark as well. For instance, Hubbard constantly reiterated that he was disappointed in his spring game performance. For him, the game served as a reminder that he needs to work even harder in the coming months and continue to grow if he is going to be able to do the things the team needs him to.
"Obviously I didn't capitalize on it the way I wanted to," Hubbard said. "So I know I've got a long way to go to get to where I need to be. So this summer it's going to give me that motivation. This spring game is going to give me the motivation to do the things I need to do going into the season."
As soon as we know it, the talk will finally give way to the walk, and there will be no time left for predictions and guesses. It seems like it might be far away right now, but most of the Badgers realize they can't look at it that way. After all, there is a reason we follow these teams year round despite the fact that they only play for a dozen or so days per calendar.
"Coach Bielema — the last thing he said is that we've got to get ready to play Bowling Green," Ikegwuonu said following the spring game. "It seems like it's a long way away, a hundred-something days away. But it's going to be on us real quick. We've got to be prepared and every day all the little things are going to make a difference. And I think he's trying to harp on that. So over summer drills it keeps building up. And as it gets closer and closer the butterflies start flowing."
Okay, so the anticipation runs both ways, justifying, in some sense, all this buildup. How do they look in practice? Do they have a shot at the starting lineup? Will they be the answer to the running game? How many games can this team win?
Oh, and how do you think they will handle this year's hype?