Changing with a world that's changed
You're barely out of your teen years and you've enjoyed a little success. No, you've enjoyed a lot of success. You are at the top of your sport. The world has trained its high beams on you and doesn't care if you're blinded.
The rules of the sport haven't changed. The ball is the same. The object is the same. And yet, everything is different. You want to -- you must -- recapture the simplicity of it all. You are Johnny Manziel. You are Rory McIlroy. You are Teddy Bridgewater. You are Ohio State, and Stanford, and your No. 1 task this spring is to master the six inches between your ears.
Playing at a high level is one thing. Playing at a high level with the whole world watching is something else. That's why McIlroy never made it the 10th tee last Friday at the Honda Classic. McIlroy apologized Wednesday for walking off of PGA National midround. Living up to being No. 1 got to him.
Urban Meyer didn't just ride into Columbus on a truckload of Buckeyes. He won two national championships before he arrived at Ohio State. Meyer has a graduate degree in the art of deflecting national expectations, a task high on the list for the Buckeyes this spring.
It has been three years since Ohio State began the season in the top five. At some schools, that's the blink of an eye. At Ohio State, that's an eternity. In three years, Ohio State has dealt with scandal, NCAA probation, the firing of a beloved coach, mediocrity and last season, the cruelest issue of all: irrelevance.
All of that is behind Ohio State. The fans smell success. The nation sees a 12-0 team that is returning its best player, Braxton Miller, a quarterback who changes the game the minute he steps across the sideline.
As spring practice began this week, Meyer unveiled his strategy for deflecting expectations about a team that, for all of its tradition, is unaccustomed to this stage. The motto that Meyer chose for this season, "The Chase," is deliberately vague.
"We're all chasing something," Meyer said.
Stanford, which never has begun the season in the top five since the AP began issuing a preseason poll in 1950, likely will cross that threshold in August. Even with Andrew Luck running the offense, the Cardinal never dealt with being the team to beat in the Pac-12 Conference. Stanford, which began spring practice last week, is 35-5 the past three seasons, won the Pac-12 title last season and has 15 returning starters.
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Coach David Shaw, whose keel rarely dips below the waterline, has built a team that has his personality. The Cardinal won last season because they maintained their focus through a difficult schedule, a quarterback change and the challenge of having to beat a talented UCLA team twice in six days to go to the Rose Bowl. Stanford has so many veterans that Shaw got away with signing only 12 incoming freshmen last month. That experience should help the Cardinal handle the spotlight that will train on them this season.
Even coach Charlie Strong believed Louisville was a year early last season. The Cardinals went 11-2 and upset Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl anyway. That alone should mean that Louisville will sneak up on no one.
On top of that, add a Heisman Trophy candidate in Bridgewater, the brilliant quarterback who will be a junior next season. Plus, Syracuse and Pittsburgh already have left the Big East for the ACC.
Louisville stayed in the Big East for an extra season. Think that won't motivate the Big East schools left behind? UConn, South Florida and Cincinnati will be ready for Louisville, no matter how high the Cardinals sit in the rankings.
But none of them -- not Ohio State, not Stanford, and surely not Louisville -- carries the burdens lodged on the shoulders of Texas A&M this fall. The Aggies went into the Southeastern Conference last season with a new coach who revitalized them and proved they belonged in the toughest league in college football.
After going 11-2, finishing in the top five and unleashing a quarterback who emerged from the depth chart to win the Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M can check off all the boxes about proving itself. Now comes the challenge of continuing the climb from this point.
Manziel has to learn how to live and play in the public eye. The rest of the Aggies may live in Johnny Football's shadow, but they still must grapple with the demands of success. Coach Kevin Sumlin is doggedly trying to maintain Texas A&M's position as an underling to BCS champion Alabama, even though the Aggies beat the Crimson Tide 29-24 in Tuscaloosa in November.
Artist Daniel Moore plans to release a painting of Manziel stiff-arming a Crimson Tide defender in the Aggies' victory. Moore, a Birmingham, Ala., artist, understands the marketplace. He knows Texas A&M fans are keen to memorialize last season. Sumlin's players may understand his message that they haven't won anything yet. But the world around them has changed.
The question being answered this spring on football fields and golf courses alike is whether the athletes can change with it.