Source: USA TODAY
Maybe it’s fitting that the final Misery Index poll of the season is topped by the program that has experienced the least amount of misery over the past four years.
Since Nick Saban walked into Tuscaloosa, everything has come up Bama in college football. Either the Crimson Tide are going to be holding the crystal football at the end, or beating them is going to be a season-maker for the rare team up to the task. They’re the center of the universe, and every now and then such responsibility is going to come with significant disappointment.
Think about what was at stake Saturday night in the Iron Bowl. Not just a rivalry or the SEC West title or the BCS championship game. Had Alabama won the game and gone on to win its third straight national title — and fourth in the last five years — it would have set the high-water mark for all-time among college football dynasties. It would have solidified quarterback AJ McCarron as the greatest winner the sport has ever seen. It would have drawn Nick Saban ever so close to Bear Bryant in both national championships and legendary status. And on and on and on.
Instead, Alabama is going to have to settle for something far less dynastic.
And all because Saban — the man who thinks of everything — let a situation get away from him.
Frustrated by his kicker’s inability to make field goals of 44 and 33 yards earlier in the game, Saban turned down a chance to kick a 30-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have given Alabama a 10-point lead. Instead, he went for it on fourth down from the 13 yard line, got stuffed, and gave Auburn new life.
We all know how Auburn’s 34-28 victory unfolded from there.
The question, of course, is if Saban didn’t trust his veteran kicker to make a 30-yarder, why did he throw a freshman backup out there with one second left in regulation to try a 57-yarder?
It makes no sense.
Sure, Saban might have seen Adam Griffith make 60-yarders in practice, as he claimed after the game. But that’s an out-of-character decision for Saban to leave so many things to chance — and especially not to be prepared for the possibility that Auburn would run the kick back.
Alabama just got caught in exactly the wrong personnel package in that situation with a bunch of offensive linemen on the field, who were suddenly put in position to chase down a cornerback with a full head of steam. In other words, once Chris Davis eluded the first tackle, there was no chance to catch him.
And just like that, the course of college football history was changed forever.
(Disclaimer: This isn’t a ranking of worst teams, worst losses or coaches whose jobs are in the most jeopardy. This is simply a measurement of a fan base’s knee-jerk reaction to what they last saw. The way in which a team won or lost, expectations vis-à-vis program trajectory and traditional inferiority complex of fan base all factor into this ranking)
(Disclaimer No. 2: By virtue of firing their coaches, Connecticut and Southern California are hereby excluded from this and future editions of the Misery Index since fans can now look forward to a new regime taking hold in 2014.)
1. Alabama: Interesting conversation leaving the stadium Saturday about which Iron Bowl loss was more disappointing for the Crimson Tide — 2013 or 2010, when Cam Newton led Auburn back from a 24-0 deficit in Tuscaloosa on its way to the national title? The Misery Index would have to side with 2013. Not just because of the ending but because of what was at stake. In 2010 Alabama had already been eliminated from winning the SEC title and the national title. It was mainly trying to spoil Auburn’s season, and the Tigers were the better team in the end.
This time Alabama was the better team and had numerous opportunities to put the game away in the fourth quarter. Moreover, blowing this game ruins the above mentioned historical accomplishments that seemed to be well within reach. And maybe worst of all for Alabama fans, listening to the Paul Finebaum Show on Monday is going to be pure agony.
2. Clemson: There’s a long list of things Dabo Swinney has done very well since becoming Clemson’s permanent head coach in 2009. He’s recruited like crazy. He’s united and energized the fan base. He’s put Clemson back into the top echelon of programs in the country. He’s won 10 or more games each of the last three seasons. But there’s one thing he has not done enough: Beat South Carolina. Over the decades, this has been a pretty lopsided in-state rivalry in Clemson’s favor. Aside from a stretch between 1941 and 1954, Clemson has won a lot more than it lost to the Gamecocks.
But times have changed in the Palmetto State, and let’s just be honest with each other: Steve Spurrier owns Swinney right now. Ever since 2008, when Swinney beat South Carolina as an interim head coach (a win that went a long way toward him keeping the job), it’s been all Gamecocks — five consecutive wins by an average of 16.8 points. This year hurts worse than any of them. Clemson was in position to win, tying the game at 17-17 late in the fourth quarter. But a barrage of turnovers — six total — ensured that Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd ended his career without tasting victory over South Carolina.
3. Nebraska: A press box conversation at the Iron Bowl on Saturday raised an interesting question. What is Nebraska football right now? Seriously, what is it? It’s just kind of there, floating in space, not really bothering anybody or threatening the order of things. There is nothing definable about it. It’s just an inert Midwestern program, indistinguishable from Iowa with not as good of a football team at the moment. Moving to the Big Ten in 2011 hasn’t made Nebraska football any better or more relevant, and Nebraska football hasn’t made the Big Ten any better or more relevant.
The shocker here is that Nebraska will apparently keep Bo Pelini for a seventh season, even after a 38-17 loss to Iowa that finished off an 8-4 regular season and some questionable behavior during and after the game. Pelini is 57-24 as Nebraska’s coach and has not made himself particularly easy to like, which means he’ll enter 2014 with a very divided and heated fan base questioning his every move.
4. West Virginia: If not for Gene Chizik’s fall at Auburn, Dana Holgorsen would be the clubhouse leader for coach who has done the most damage to his reputation in the shortest period of time. A couple of years ago, he was hailed as the next genius. Today, West Virginia fans are complaining because the school is unlikely to cough up $11 million to buy him out. There’s no other way to say it: From Week 1, when the Mountaineers squeaked by William & Mary, until the final collapse Saturday against Iowa State, this has been a disaster season.
No matter how much slack you want to cut Holgorsen for the transition into the Big 12, you can’t go 4-8 at West Virginia. You can’t lose by double-digits to Kansas and get beat 37-0 by Maryland. You can’t blow a 31-7 lead against Iowa State in the season finale and lose 52-44 in triple overtime. The Big 12 took West Virginia because it had been a football brand with national appeal, staying power and a devoted following. But all that is in jeopardy if Holgorsen doesn’t turn it around next season.
5. Fresno State: It would have meant so much for Fresno State — the original “BCS buster” who never actually busted the BCS — to finally break through and get one of those coveted bids. Honestly, for the last few weeks, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that it would happen. All Fresno State had to do was beat a pretty mediocre bunch from San Jose State and then take care of a Utah State team without star quarterback Chuckie Keeton in the Mountain West championship game.
But all of that Fresno State firepower on offense was ultimately done in by a defense that looked shaky all season and ultimately cracked when it mattered most. Fresno State gave up a stunning 736 yards to San Jose State, losing a 62-52 shootout that brought back memories of the old, 1980s Western Athletic Conference.
You hate to overstate it, but that’s a program-changing loss for Fresno State — and they know it. The value of a BCS bid not only would have been important financially but for the perception of its football brand moving forward, just as it was for Boise State and TCU. Instead, they’ll likely end up in the Las Vegas Bowl. Good luck getting fans fired up for that.
6. Florida: Well, it wasn’t quite the apocalyptic beating that some envisioned. The Gators “only” lost to Florida State 37-7 at home, and the game was semi-competitive for nearly two quarters. Still, it’s hard to imagine a team looking forward to the offseason more than Florida, which finished the year with seven consecutive losses. Still, the majority of the Florida fan base will not be pleased with athletics director Jeremy Foley’s decision to keep Will Muschamp for another year.
If he can turn it around in 2014, all will be forgiven. If not, the blowback will be severe — both for Muschamp and Foley, who is widely considered the best of the best in his profession. This is an important, wide-reaching decision at a delicate time. The Gators can’t afford to sink deeper into the hole, or else the climb for the next coach will be at least a year or two longer, much like what faces Tennessee now. And that’s hard, especially when your primary rivals have all gotten a head start. It will hurt even worse for Florida fans should the Seminoles go on to win the national title, giving them three in the modern era to tie the Gators.
7. SMU: The Mustangs still have one game left, but keep an eye on this situation. Despite much improved play in the second half of the season, there’s a lot of unease about the direction of the program, especially in the wake of a 34-0 loss to Houston on Friday. That left SMU 5-6 and needing to beat American Athletic Conference leader UCF next weekend to reach bowl eligibility.
Though SMU has not been inclined to fire June Jones — he is well-liked, and such a move would be both expensive and distasteful for school president Gerald Turner — it will be interesting to see how high the heat gets turned up. This is one situation where both sides may be unhappy.
Is SMU fully committed to doing what it takes (especially on the academic side and non-conference scheduling) to help build the program and push it to the next level? On the other hand, why hasn’t SMU’s investment in Jones yielded the financial gains expected from things such as ticket sales?
8. Michigan: Pretty remarkable that some people actually thought of Michigan as a dark horse national title contender back in the preseason. As it turned out, the Wolverines barely ended up a bowl team. Michigan’s struggles have been well-chronicled, but a lot of that angst would have gone away had Brady Hoke found a way to beat Ohio State on Saturday and knock the hated Buckeyes out of the national title race. Instead, Hoke made the fateful decision to go for two — the right decision in the eyes of the Misery Index — and came up short 42-41.
What’s worse for Michigan fans: Nearly beating the Buckeyes only to lose in such agonizing fashion, or knowing that Ohio State is now likely to play for a national title because of one play against the Wolverines? If Ohio State goes on to win the championship, that will be a forever moment in the rivalry — and one Michigan will have a hard time living down.
9. Georgia Tech: Ever since Georgia got its act together as a football program, the Ramblin’ Wreck hasn’t fared too well in this series, winning just once since 2000. It’s no surprise, then, that Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has tried to downplay the importance of the rivalry, repeatedly saying it shouldn’t define the Yellow Jackets’ season. There’s some truth in that. The fact is, Georgia Tech is not on Georgia’s level as a program and may not be again (consistently) in our lifetime. They’re just different animals now. That’s why it was so important for the Yellow Jackets to win this year — at home, against a beat-up Georgia team starting a second-string quarterback.
Not only did Georgia Tech lose, however, it lost in pretty brutal fashion — blowing a 20-0 lead, allowing Georgia to tie it up with 4:17 remaining, then losing in the second overtime 41-34. So that makes it 1-5 for Johnson against Georgia and 7-5 this season. The Jackets will make their sixth consecutive bowl appearance under Johnson, but fans certainly have a right to wonder if the program has stagnated. Things aren’t terrible at Georgia Tech, but there’s not much to get excited about, either.
10. Rutgers: Even though we already knew things were going poorly at Rutgers, what with the constant mini-scandals popping up every few weeks and the truthfulness of athletics director Julie Hermann again being investigated, it seemed at minimum the football season could be salvaged with a bowl bid. But now? Now, Rutgers is in a tailspin and needs a win against South Florida next week to get to 6-6 and become bowl eligible. It sounds simple, sure, but nothing is a given with this Rutgers team, not after losing 28-17 to woeful UConn last weekend.
That’s five losses in Rutgers’ last six games, with the lone win coming against Temple 23-20. Second-year coach Kyle Flood is now very much in the crosshairs of the Rutgers fan base, and recruits are jumping ship. This is not the way Rutgers envisioned heading into the Big Ten next season.
Also receiving votes (Miserable, but not quite miserable enough): N.C. State, Illinois, South Florida, Purdue, Air Force, Virginia, UAB, Memphis, Kansas, North Carolina
Dan Wolken, a national college football reporter at USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @Dan Wolken
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