WASHINGTON D.C. - It is a testament to the relevance of college football’s offseason, and also perhaps the interminable length of it, that the Misery Index was bombarded for requests to return this season before the first games had been played.
Surely enough had happened off the field, whether it was Bob Stoops retiring or Ole Miss firing its coach for calling erotic services or the potpourri of wacky story lines and controversies that pop up almost every week, to give the people what they really want: A measurement of which fan bases are irrationally overreacting to events and circumstances they are emotionally invested in but ultimately can’t control.
But the Misery Index decided to stay true to its roots and remain silent on all matters of college football suffering until it actually got to see the product on the field. And nobody’s product stood out for its putridness more than Florida’s.
Sure, there were plenty of worse teams in Week 1 than the Gators in their 33-17 loss to Michigan. But that isn’t, and has never been, the point of the Misery Index.
This is about the total experience of rooting for a team, something that can only be measured within the context of what has happened before and what fans believe will happen in the future.
At some point — and it probably needs to be soon — Florida coach Jim McElwain needs to show that he knows how to coach an offense. We know he has done it successfully before at various stops along the way, but he’s failed to reproduce it at Florida, and a fan base that grew up on Steve Spurrier is getting restless waiting to see the evidence.
How can you blame them?
The Gators not only failed in pretty much every offensive category against Michigan, but their offensive line — which was supposed to be the strength of their team — got completely manhandled all game long. Florida gained 11 yards on the ground and couldn’t do much in the passing game either, with just nine first downs for the game and 192 yards of offense overall.
Though the score was closer because Michigan made some big mistakes, including a pair of pick-six interceptions, the game really wasn’t. It never felt like Florida had much of a chance.
And when it was over, all McElwain could offer was an anodyne acknowledgment that Michigan was the more imposing, physical team. “Plain and simple, take your whooping,” he said. “I’m taking it.”
The problem is, Florida’s not a “take your whooping” type of program. Well, actually they were under Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, which got both of them a quick ticket out of town. History tells us the Gators do not abide this type of football for long, and they certainly won’t abide a coach who seems to have few answers on how to fix it.
This was only one game, but it was a problematic performance for McElwain because it did not appear much progress was made in fixing the problems that plagued Florida his first two years. Nor were Florida’s problems a product of missing 10 players due to suspensions, as none of them would have been able to change the physical calculus in the game that allowed Michigan to push Florida players out of the way like trash cans on wheels. Moreover, while Michigan is a good program again under Jim Harbaugh, it’s a young team that made a lot of mistakes — and Florida didn’t even come close to taking advantage. It’s often hard to tell much from Week 1, but the Gators made it very clear they’re a long way from being relevant in the national discussion.
(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
Florida: Ask any SEC coach if they think it would be better to eliminate divisions, and they’ll probably look at you as if you had three heads. But McElwain’s tenure at Florida makes a great argument for why they’re irrelevant. Winning the East each of his first two years technically is a tangible accomplishment for McElwain, but it has bought him exactly zero goodwill from Florida fans. After all, they know what real deal, elite-level football looks like, and the Gators haven’t delivered it.
For McElwain, referencing his division titles in a down SEC East to a fan base that consumed the Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras is no more effective than bragging to a food critic that you run the best high school cafeteria around. Even when it’s Taco Day, it’s still unsatisfying, unhealthy and likely to cause digestive problems in the near future.
East Carolina: Decisions to hire or fire coaches rarely elicit a unanimous response, but the college football world pretty much agreed on Dec. 4, 2015, that ECU dumping beloved alum Ruffin McNeill was going to backfire spectacularly. Though there were murmurs that the program was a bit of a mess behind the scenes — it’s impossible to know whether that was real or just propaganda to justify a controversial decision — McNeill had notched some big wins and was instantly competitive in a tougher American Athletic Conference after moving up from Conference USA.
Though 2015 wasn’t great — at 5-7, the Pirates missed a bowl for just the second time in his six seasons — the quick trigger on McNeill smacked of a program with an unrealistic view of itself, an administration that didn’t appreciate what it had. And since then, things have gone exactly as you’d expect at ECU. New coach Scottie Montgomery had a horrid first year, going 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the AAC. Then last night, the Pirates sunk to one of the lowest points they’ve experienced maybe ever, losing 34-14 at home to James Madison.
Though JMU is one of the better programs in FCS, it should not be putting up 614 yards on the Pirates, who once boasted a huge home-field advantage in Greenville and used to routinely beat big conference opponents like Virginia Tech and South Carolina. ECU is a football school through and through, and its fans will not accept this for very long. Going from McNeill to Montgomery was a big and unnecessary gamble for athletics director Jeff Compher, and so far it’s come up snake eyes.
Texas: You don’t get honeymoons in Austin. Proof of that came via longtime American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls, who reported that the Longhorns season ticket base actually shrunk by 3,000 this year. This despite the arrival of Tom Herman, the boy wonder, offensive genius, Urban Meyer clone who has come in with both guns ablaze in recruiting. Herman in many ways is the quintessential Alpha personality that Texas desperately needs, someone who isn’t afraid to step on toes or push to modernize the program (he literally took a hammer to the Longhorns’ outdated lockers and replaced them with ultra-sleek, $9,000 units).
But some of Herman’s repertoire, frankly, can seem a bit contrived and boorish. His much-publicized motivational tactics — like feeding powdered eggs and burnt toast to players who lose the daily drills, while the winners get the good stuff — might appear brilliant when things are going well on the field. But given the penchant for Herman’s Houston teams to get really, really high for big games but too often letdown for others, you wonder if his approach is too cute by half.
The buy-in of Texas’ players and fans could be tested this season if a 51-41 flop of a debut against Maryland is any indication. In addition to Texas’ lack of defensive talent getting exposed again, Herman got outcoached badly by D.J. Durkin and made poor calls at key moments when Texas could have seized control of the game. Things will surely improve under Herman, but fans now have eyes wide open about how far the Longhorns are from being a factor.
N.C. State: Part of being a Wolfpack fan is the nagging feeling that even when things are supposed to be good, something bad is lurking around the corner. Even an entire offseason of hearing the media yammer on about how N.C. State is a sleeper in the ACC and perhaps the College Football Playoff didn’t do much to move the needle for Wolfpack fans, who basically responded with a collective “prove it,” which is totally fair given the program’s history of underachievement.
So while losing to South Carolina 35-28, with the Wolfpack on the doorstep of end zone in the final seconds, is not a new or particularly unexpected kind of disappointment, it was further confirmation of why N.C. State fans are perpetually cautious and resist hope of something better at every opportunity.
Missouri: The Tigers are coming off consecutive losing seasons, so perhaps no victory should be taken for granted. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Missouri fan anywhere who watched a 72-43 victory against Missouri State with any emotion other than sheer horror about what the rest of the season holds. While quarterback Drew Lock set records with 521 passing yards and seven touchdowns, the Tigers needed all that offense because they basically traded touchdowns with Missouri State for most of the first half, trailing 35-34 until finally getting some stops to create separation late in the second and early in the third quarter.
This is a weird, and bad, trend for Missouri especially given its history — this is the program of Charles Harris, Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Aldon Smith among other great defensive linemen — and its head coach. Barry Odom is regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the country based on his work as coordinator at Memphis and Missouri. But his transition to head coach has been marked by exceptionally poor defense. Something needs to change quickly or else the SEC East — which is no longer as offensively challenged as it used to be — will feast on Missouri and put Odom on an early hot seat.
MISERABLE, BUT NOT QUITE MISERABLE ENOUGH
Florida State: While official word on quarterback Deondre Francois’ left knee injury was yet to come down by early Sunday afternoon, let’s just say nobody around the Florida State program was hopeful in the immediate aftermath of a 24-7 loss to Alabama that he’d be back anytime soon. So while losing the game would have been palatable, especially as competitive as Florida State was until coming undone by special teams errors, Francois' late injury was basically the worst-cast scenario.
With Francois, the Seminoles could have envisioned returning to Atlanta, cleaning up some errors on the margins, and beating Alabama in a championship game. Now, if Francois is indeed done for the season, they know that even winning the ACC might be a stretch.
Baylor: If we’re being real, the last 24 months haven’t been particularly rosy for Baylor fans, but at least the arrival of Matt Rhule has given them something new to grab onto. Rhule has hit all the right notes off the field, mostly calming the skeptics and Art Briles devotees, while reassuring people outside the Baylor community that the program will not backslide into scandal. But, of course, results matter, too.
And dropping his debut to Liberty 48-45 is a reminder that it will be a big, uphill climb for Rhule. While the Flames have sniffed around some upsets the past few years, and quarterback Stephen Calvert is a legitimate talent (he threw for 447 yards against Baylor), actually losing isn’t a great sign for Baylor’s immediate prospects. Good thing Rhule has a seven-year contract.
UNLV: The history of UNLV football suggests there’s no game the Rebels can’t lose. Still, it’s somewhat ironic that the team from Las Vegas lost as 45-point favorites to Howard, marking the biggest point spread upset in college football history.
While it’s too early to give up on Tony Sanchez, who was hired out of the high school ranks with the backing of the Fertitta brothers of Station Casinos and Ultimate Fighting Championship fame, it’s just a bad look to start Year 3 with a 43-40 loss to Howard, a MEAC program with one winning season since 2004. Even for UNLV, this was supposed to be the surest of sure victories. And in Vegas, a town that loves a winner, there’s no quicker way to become irrelevant than to start losing games like that.
South Florida: The Bulls are 2-0, but not all is well in Tampa. That much is obvious in watching them slog through victories against San Jose State and Stony Brook to open the season. As a preseason top-25 team with lots of experience and a pretty easy schedule, South Florida was supposed to score a ton of points and rocket up the rankings, even if making the College Football Playoff was a pipe dream.
Instead, there are all kinds of questions about why Charlie Strong’s team seems to be struggling. Though they held Stony Brook to just 229 yards, the Bulls were tied in the fourth quarter and needed a late score to put the game out of reach, which isn’t what fans envisioned with quarterback Quinton Flowers at the controls.
Oregon State: We don’t know much yet about how this season is going to take shape, but it seems pretty obvious the Beavers are going to be the worst team in the Pac-12 — and maybe by a significant margin. That’s a tough reality for fans to face in Week 2, but is there any other conclusion to draw?
Just one week after getting hammered by Colorado State (which in turn was held to three points in a resounding loss to Colorado), Oregon State came back with a life-or-death 35-32 win against Portland State. Gary Andersen made some progress in Year 2, going 3-6 in the Pac-12, but at this point fans should prepare for a backward slide.
Too shocked to be miserable
Northern Illinois: The Huskies lost to Boston College 23-20, a result made worse by the fact they had a 39-yard field goal attempt to tie it in the final moments. Remarkably, senior kicker Christian Hagan, who has made seven field goals of more than 40 yards, came up short and hit the crossbar from a very manageable distance.
Wyoming: This year is supposed to be a big showcase for quarterback Josh Allen, who could potentially be the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Unfortunately, we won’t have many opportunities to see Allen face top-level defenses. But Saturday was one of those opportunities, and he went 23-for-40 for 174 yards with two interceptions. While that wasn’t totally his fault — his receivers were awful, from all accounts — it couldn’t have been a helpful performance. If he puts up a few more of those, there will be questions about whether he should have entered the draft this past year.
Arizona State: In a potential hot seat year for Todd Graham, it’s not a great sign that the Sun Devils had to hold on for a 37-31 win against New Mexico State in the opener. While the final score is a bit misleading — Arizona State led by 24 early in the fourth quarter, and New Mexico State’s final touchdown came with time expired — it was a close game at halftime. Plus, Arizona State’s defense, which has been a big problem the last couple of years, yielded 549 yards.
Colorado State: Rams fans were livid after a 17-3 loss to Colorado, largely because they had two touchdowns overturned due to penalties (both questionable calls) and a pair of other offensive pass interference penalties that seemed dubious at best. Colorado State fans, at one point, threw bottles on the field to protest the officiating, which is never advisable by the Misery Index.
Utah State: You’d never know by the final score — an overwhelming 59-10 loss at Wisconsin — that the Aggies were actually up 10-0 early and holding firm until a series of errors late in the first half allowed the Badgers to tie the game. That was an ominous sign for the second half, but even so, but getting out-scored 49-0 is a bit much.
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