Misery Index Week 7: Anguish in Athens

For the first time in the history of the Misery Index, consideration was actually given to declaring a 127-way tie for the No. 1 spot this week. Because as we reach the halfway point of the season, it is beginning to dawn on the college football universe that the gap between Alabama and everybody else this season has only gotten bigger and that another championship for Nick Saban feels inevitable.

What’s the point anymore of investing such emotion and anger into a sport where the outcome is almost predetermined? Why should other schools spend so much money and time striving to catch up when it’s clear Saban can just kick it into another gear?

That feeling of hopelessness has inflicted so many of Alabama’s rivals over the years, to the point where they feel their only answer to rip it up and try to emulate the Saban machine. You could tell last season, for instance, that the Georgia administration had pretty much had enough of Mark Richt the moment their 38-10 loss to Alabama last season went final.

No matter what Richt did the rest of the way — and he finished 9-3, for the record — it was clear that Georgia could no longer legitimately claim to be a rival and that change was coming at the end of the season.

Of course, the folly in Georgia’s shame and anger over that Alabama game wasn’t necessarily in the decision to fire Richt. It was in the foolish haste to hire a Saban assistant and Georgia alum in Kirby Smart without a real coaching search.

If there’s anything that SEC schools should have learned the last decade, it’s that Saban’s greatness does not transfer by osmosis to his staff members. Until they actually occupy the head coach’s chair, each of them is a roll of the dice.

Georgia was not only willing to make that gamble, it did so aggressively and with great enthusiasm despite the reality that more experienced coaches were quite intrigued by the potential of the Georgia job. Georgia didn’t even so much as bother to pick up the phone and call Houston’s Tom Herman, for instance, even though his representatives had made it abundantly clear that there was interest.

But Georgia only had eyes for Smart, and now halfway into the season fans are wondering whether the Bulldogs have really made a change for the better. Because it's not just that Georgia is 4-3, it’s that Georgia is a bad 4-3 with a home loss to Vanderbilt already on Smart’s ledger.

Look, it’s too early to say whether Smart will be successful. He’s doing a good job recruiting, which is vitally important. But in a league where everybody recruits well, that’s not nearly enough to compete for conference titles.

It’s also true there’s only one Saban, and part of the problem with hiring one of his lieutenants is that their impulse is to build the same kind of structure and organization only without his gravitas or self-discipline or ability to communicate his message.

You just don’t know what you’re getting until they do it day in and day out, and so far the on-field evidence has returned very little at Georgia to indicate that Smart is a carbon copy.

And now, until proven otherwise, Georgia fans will have one thought in the back of their minds: Was handing a top-10 program to a Saban assistant with no head coaching experience a mistake?

(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.)

FIVE MOST MISERABLE

1. Georgia: There’s something inherently off when Nick Chubb, one of the best running backs in college football, generates only 40 yards on 16 carries. Credit Vanderbilt's defense, but it’s been true all season that Georgia has a substandard offensive line. That’s not so easy to fix. It’s going to take a lot of recruiting and development for Georgia to get to the point where it can implement the type of pro style system he and Jim Chaney want to run.

And when you think about it in those terms, you have to worry about whether Georgia is positioned to get the most out of quarterback Jacob Eason by his junior year when the NFL scouts will be watching closely. Given the situation Smart inherited, he’d be better off in the short term running a spread type of offense where you don’t necessarily have to dominate the line of scrimmage to move the ball.

Either way, this is shaping up to be a rough year for the Bulldogs, who need to get significantly better on offense or else risk three or four losses. Smart wasn’t a short-term hire for Georgia, but if he doesn’t produce better results quickly there will be significant restlessness in Athens.

2. Notre Dame: Even though it’s completely irrational for Notre Dame fans to call for Brian Kelly’s head — we’ll explain why in a bit — this season has become so damaging and toxic that the impact could cascade for years to come. At 2-5 following yet another horrid loss, this time to Christian McCaffrey-less Stanford, it doesn’t seem like a recovery or even a bowl game is on the horizon. This will go down as Kelly’s worst season at Notre Dame from a number of perspectives, and the narrative that he’s a walking temper tantrum is stacking evidence each week.

This time, it was reportedly Kelly getting into a snit with a Stanford strength coach during the postgame handshakes. Kelly later said the staffer told him “bye, bye” while brushing past him. While snapshots of sideline demeanor and salty postgame comments don’t tell the entire story of a man or a coach, there’s a critical mass of issues that have painted this picture for the Notre Dame fan base. And when you’re 2-5, it makes it much easier to criticize the coach when you fundamentally don’t like what you’ve seen of him as a person.

Does that mean Notre Dame should fire Kelly? Absolutely not. He has restored the Notre Dame brand in recruiting, dealt with difficult off-field circumstances and is only a year removed from a terrific season. Plus, the pool of coaches Notre Dame would likely have to hire from this year isn’t particularly impressive. Kelly isn’t going to get fired, but it might not be the worst idea to start looking around because this is about as tense as it’s been around Notre Dame since the Charlie Weis era.

3. Texas Tech: Among Kliff Kingsbury’s 22 wins as a head coach, only three have come against FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record. The first was Arizona State in the 2013 Holiday Bowl (his first season), the second was against 7-6 UTEP in 2014 and the third was last season at Arkansas. The rest have come against dreck.

Though Texas Tech knew this was going to be a bit of a challenging season on defense with younger players coming in, is there any real sense that a breakthrough is imminent? The Red Raiders got blasted at home by West Virginia 48-17, and continue to just be really, really bad on defense. They’ve given up 68 points to Arizona State, 45 to Louisiana Tech and 44 to Kansas State with Oklahoma, TCU, Oklahoma State and Baylor still on deck.

That’s a problem not just because it's hard to win a football game when you can’t stop anybody, but Texas Tech is wasting a window of opportunity with a truly elite quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, who is completing 71% of his passes this year and could very well be a high NFL draft pick next spring. Kingsbury’s record gets very little scrutiny nationally, but at some point fans look beyond the promise and realize he’s a very high-priced coach who just hasn’t accomplished much yet.

4. Mississippi State: That the Bulldogs even had to schedule a game at BYU is an indicator of just how difficult a task they face competing in the SEC. Whereas their peers don’t have to typically schedule road games against teams outside the Power Five, Mississippi State does it regularly because of how difficult (impossible?) it is to get marquee non-conference opponents to come to Starkville.

That gives Mississippi State less leverage in scheduling than your average SEC team, so Dan Mullen has played games in recent years at UMass, Southern Miss, South Alabama and Troy with a trip to Louisiana Tech coming next season. BYU, of course, is in a whole different category and the Bulldogs took the long flight to Provo only to come away with a 28-21 overtime loss and return with a 2-4 record.

It seems quite likely Mississippi State’s six-year bowl streak will now end, and the program will probably hit the reset button in some ways with athletics director Scott Stricklin leaving for Florida and Mullen almost certainly dangling his name name for other jobs. Mississippi State fans hate the miserable season, but sometimes that’s better than uncertainty for a program whose recent run of success is a historical anomaly.

5. Arizona: It has gotten tense at Arizona lately, which explains why Rich Rodriguez tried so hard to leave this past offseason. Athletics director Greg Byrne had to shoot down speculation last week that Rodriguez is on the hot seat, and Rodriguez has been testy/defensive in recent media interactions. It’s understandable. Arizona is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Pac 12 following Saturday’s 48-14 home loss to Southern Cal.

RichRod probably hit the pinnacle in 2014 with that Fiesta Bowl berth, and now football gravity has pulled Arizona back to Earth. Still, this is a particularly ugly stretch filled with injuries and problems on both sides of the ball. Arizona’s only wins this year came against Grambling State (and the Wildcats were in trouble until deep into that game) and Hawaii. Now they have to face Stanford, Washington State and Colorado after a bye week, which on paper looks like three more losses. At least basketball season starts soon in Tucson.

MISERABLE, BUT NOT QUITE MISERABLE ENOUGH

Michigan State: When a season goes wrong, fans prefer it goes wrong in just one direction because at least they see a clear path to how it gets fixed. The problem with Michigan State is things have gone haywire in pretty much every direction, and the only thing they can really bank on is their faith in one of the nation’s best coaches.

Even then, Mark Dantonio seems a bit at a loss to pinpoint what’s happening with the Spartans, who dropped their fourth consecutive game in a 54-40 loss to Northwestern.

Basically, there's an all systems failure in East Lansing and this is the lowest point in his tenure just one year after the pinnacle of it when Michigan State reached the College Football Playoff. That’s a stark contrast. But where does it go from here, and how does it get fixed? That seems less clear.

Missouri: It’s no surprise Barry Odom sits at 2-4 midway through his first season. The schedule pretty much dictated it, barring an upset. Still, 2-4 is 2-4 and it’s been a particularly ugly two-game stretch for the Tigers, who have been outscored by a combined 82-21 by LSU and Florida.

The good news for Missouri is the schedule gets significantly easier. But that’s also the bad news because if the Tigers stumble against Middle Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina or Vanderbilt it will get really ugly.

Missouri fans are already in a bit of a malaise after the tumult on campus last year combined with the mediocre football, the retirement of Gary Pinkel and the abrupt departure of athletics director Mack Rhoades for Baylor. Odom is a beloved alumnus, but that love will be tenuous if he can’t string together wins quickly.

Rutgers: You’d have to do some serious in-depth research to identify the worst team in the history of the Big Ten, but the Scarlet Knights seem determined to make a run for the title. They have scored two touchdowns in four conference games and been outscored 174-14. Fans could certainly justify the blowout losses to Ohio State and Michigan, but losing at home to Illinois is another matter altogether.

Illinois has been a dysfunctional mess of its own — the Illini were coming off a loss to Purdue, for goodness sakes — but forced five turnovers at Rutgers and dominated on the scoreboard. That’s a dispiriting result for first-year coach Chris Ash and a fan base that is starting to worry whether Rutgers is simply out of its depth in the Big Ten.

UCLA: The lasting image of the Bruins’ 27-21 loss at Washington State is Jim Mora spewing a stream of expletives toward his punter Austin Kent, who shanked a kick with such spin that it bounced backward for negative yardage. That play seems like a good metaphor for the UCLA season, which is now 3-4 and going nowhere. The worst part is that UCLA loses the line of scrimmage on a weekly basis, which tacitly reinforces the eternal stereotype that this program is soft.

Rice: It’s sort of hard to figure what has happened to this program, which had a nice little run of Conference USA contention before falling completely off the grid. The Owls are 1-10 in their last 11 games after a 14-13 loss to UTSA, and to the extent their fans actually care about sports, this is about as bad as it's been since the Jerry Berndt era. You have to wonder if David Bailiff, who has done a good job over his 10 seasons, might have peaked a few years ago.

TOO SHOCKED TO BE MISERABLE

Arizona State: If you’ve been a fan of this program over the last few years, you just sort of accept that the Sun Devils are as likely to blow out a good team as they are to get blown out. They run hot and cold like that, but a 40-16 loss at Colorado is not welcome as the new normal. Quarterback Manny Wilkins had about as ugly a game as you could imagine, completing just 13 of 35 passes for 149 yards, making this blowout fairly unwatchable.

Virginia Tech: Just when the hype was starting to build around the Hokies as a stealth ACC title contender, they lay a complete egg at Syracuse in a 31-17 loss. The offense gained 468 yards but was mistake-prone in key moments, and Bud Foster’s defense was completely overwhelmed by the Syracuse tempo. That's a lot of air to let out of the balloon right when fans could start to envision running the table.

Tennessee: By the end of their 49-10 loss to Alabama, the Vols’ defense was a shell of its former self. The injuries on that side of the ball started early this season and haven't slowed down, which leaves the Vols now very vulnerable in their quest to get to the SEC championship game. They should — we stress should — win out to go 10-2, which would be a tremendous season. But to get another shot at Alabama, they’ll need Florida to lose somewhere along the line, which will make fans nervous the next few weeks especially given the injury situation.

N.C. State: When you line up for a 33-yard field goal to beat Clemson, you expect to be celebrating moments later. Instead, the Wolfpack’s dreams were crushed when that kick went wide right and overtime went haywire. Pretty much everything that happened in the second half pointed to an N.C. State upset, but now fans will have to stew over one of the biggest blown opportunities in program history.

UCF: All the Knights had to do against Temple was prevent a 70-yard drive with just 32 seconds left. Instead, Temple executed plays of 20, 16, 26 and 8 yards and even had a few seconds to spare after scoring the go-ahead touchdown to win 26-25. The Knights are much improved this year under Scott Frost, but that’s a brutal way to lose a game they may eventually need to reach bowl eligibility.

FIVE TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Time to clean house” — dawgvent.com (Georgia)

“Has the game passed Richt by that quickly?” — canesinsight.com (Miami)

“Lou (Holtz) as interim for rest of season?” — ndnation.com (Notre Dame)

“Realistically, how bad did this hurt our recruiting class?” — volnation.com (Tennessee)

“The Odom experiment was a bust” — tigerboard.com (Missouri)

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