For the Furman Paladins and Head Coach Bruce Fowler, this was the year.
This was the year that there was not going to be a flood of losses to start the season. This was the year that Furman football would return to "normal". And in spite of the mediocrity spell of the last half decade, "normal" at Furman means winning.
"#14 in '14" was the theme. This Paladin team was going to challenge to extend its record of Southern Conference championships. Again.
Instead, they are mired at 2-5 and in a familiar boat: Lose and you're out. The next game IS their playoff game. And if they go down, they're left playing for next year. Again.
That would leave Furman with five losses by mid-October for the third straight year. In the Fowler era, they've never entered a bye week above .500. Typically, that leaves the fans grumbling. Again.
Let us acknowledge that the majority of this season rests on the crushed ankle of Reese Hannon. Furman fans learned this last season: As Hannon goes, so go the Paladins. The offense is tailored for his skills; but mostly, it requires his smarts. While he probably isn't the most talented signal-caller in the Southern Conference, he may well be the wisest.
If Hannon doesn't take a late hit to the lower leg against Gardner-Webb, then this article would be pointless. But he did, and here we are. Again.
Hannon's injury is low-hanging fruit when it comes to picking a reason for 2014. A strange convergence of circumstances left Furman with Hannon as their only experienced quarterback. It goes all the way back to the NCAA's refusal to grant an extra season to Chris Forcier in 2012 through the opening game injury to backup Dillon Woodruff in 2013.
Typically once again, fans do not want to hear this. There is deep frustration over the roller coaster ride of the Bruce Fowler era, including a lot of complaints about the offensive coaching and play selection. But there is an important footnote to the maddening inconsistency in Furman's offense.
It's noteworthy that none of Fowler's teams have started a season with a proven quarterback until this year, and that didn't last past the third quarter of week 1. Forcier had little experience as a starter; Hannon was forced into action as a freshman, then missed the first half of last season with injury; Dillon Woodruff has been injured, unproven and ineffective; and current starter PJ Blazejowski is a true freshman.
In Blazejowski, however, there is hope that trends are changing. Furman looks like a brand-new unit under his leadership, so much so that there may be a competition next spring when Hannon returns. The Paladins hope that Blazejowski can thrive over the next few weeks, as they battle to contend in the Southern Conference.
Two good quarterbacks is a luxury that Fowler and his staff would love to have.
Winning five straight is a tall order for a true freshman quarterback. If it doesn't happen, it will be a shame because of all the talent throughout the rest of the team. But it will not be a reason to call for Bruce Fowler's head.
Normally, four years is enough to judge a head coach. But this is an unusual circumstance, and the 2013 SoCon title--their first in almost 10 years--should buy Fowler significantly more time.
Yes, it's been a bumpy ride. But be patient, Paladin fans. You might be overjoyed at what happens when this team is finally settled at the most important position on the field. Right now, it looks like they are headed in that oh-so-critical direction.
If so, the next "Again" may be their 14th SoCon championship, even if it doesn't happen in 2014.