Before we move indoors and all gets lost in hoops hoopla, let's salute the surprises in football 2012:
* The “ChuckStrong” Indianapolis Colts. There is no better story in the NFL. The Colts were ranked as the No.32 team in ESPN's preseason “Power Poll.” In other words, they were an afterthought. Now playing with heart and purpose (for ailing coach Chuck Pagano) and incredible skill (Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne is the best connection in the league), the Colts are 6-3 and making a playoff run.
You have to pull for Pagano. I stayed up late after the Colts' 27-10 win at Jacksonville on Thursday night, watching the postgame NFL Network interviews with Luck and Wayne. Analyst Steve Mariucci was texting with Pagano, resting after another round of leukemia treatment. He asked Pagano if he had anything to say to his players. Pagano joked that Luck and Wayne needed to work on their tackling technique, as on display after a Luck interception. It was funny and loose, a camaraderie that has engulfed a franchise.
* The championship-contending Notre Dame Fighting Irish. They could be 10-0 soon. They could be playing for a national title when it's all said and done. And I'm not even sure they know who their quarterback is from Saturday to Saturday.
Irish coach Brian Kelly has won everywhere he's ever coached, and won big. It's happening now. For those who said Notre Dame could never challenge the big boys again – and plenty of people have said that – that theory is being exposed. I would suggest never to bring back the “Two-Face” helmets, however.
* Polar opposites Indiana and Purdue. These teams are surprising, in opposite directions. After a rough start, including a loss to Ball State (more on the Cardinals in a minute), Indiana has seemed to find its identity under coach Kevin Wilson. I read a story this week that included “Indiana” and “Rose Bowl” in the same sentence and was not talking about a marching band invitation.
As for Purdue, they were allegedly a Big Ten contender and looked the part in a tough loss to Notre Dame. Since then, coach Danny Hope's resume has blown up. And it looks like he's going to need it soon.
* Ball State. Coach Pete Lembo has put Ball State football back where it belongs, among the top teams in the Mid-American Conference and a bowl contender. The impressive road win at Toledo further raised the Cardinals' goals for this season. If I were the athletic director at Purdue and I suddenly found myself in need of a coach when this season ends, I'd send a close-to-blank check to Lembo. Some guys know how to build programs. And Lembo already knows how to beat Indiana.
* Local prep teams in the postseason. Did anyone have Carroll beating Penn? How about Heritage over Jimtown? How about Norwell, winless for two years, reaching a sectional title game?
I can't say enough good things about what coach Doug Dinan has done with the Carroll program, but beating Penn took it to another level. It's been a common phrase for several years that Carroll, with its growing enrollment, was a sleeping giant. It's not only awake, it appears to be on 24/7 energy drink.
Heritage is using that classic smaller-school path of a couple of great classes to take a solid program up another notch. They score points. They're fun to watch. They're fearless. You beat Jimtown, you've arrived.
Regional losses were tough on Carroll and Heritage, but didn't overshadow their special seasons.
Finally, you had to love the saga of Norwell, whether or not you're a Norwell parent like me. The Knights hadn't won in two years, were 0-9 and put it all together consecutive wins for an improbable three weeks of playoff contention. They came up short in the title game to a great performance by Dwenger junior Ryan Watercutter and teammates, but breathed fresh life into the traditionally strong program.
It's hard to top Friday night lights, but Saturdays are a blast and Sundays are pretty (Chuck) strong, too. If this football season never ends, I wouldn't complain.