It’s hard to have too many complaints as a fan when your team has won 23 of its last 25 games. Ask Clemson fans from basically any era, who have seen the highs and lows and flat incompetence of a few coaches along the way, and surely they would prefer what the program is now over what it once was.
But this being college football, with high stakes and small windows and Nick Saban blocking everybody’s way to the top, Clemson fans will absolutely feel the hangover of Pittsburgh’s 43-42 victory on Saturday even if they might have half-expected it.
The obvious truth is that Clemson’s season has been a textbook interpretation of Shakespeare’s famous line from Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” It happened to Florida State in 2014 and Ohio State in 2015, and its emergence as a theme with Clemson has been obvious since the first game of the season. That Clemson, unlike those teams, didn’t actually win a national championship is immaterial. Even in their (narrow) defeat, the Tigers emerged from last season’s title game as the darlings of college football with all the magazine covers and flowery offseason profiles that typically come with the trophy.
The moment the championship game ended in January, the excitement wasn’t about what Clemson won or lost but rather a forward-focus to this season with Deshaun Watson and a full cast of characters coming back ready to wreak havoc on defenses every week.
But the encore on this stage is never as carefree as the entrance. As the scrutiny goes up and the pressure builds, players’ individual expectations start to inevitably unwind from the present to their potential multimillion-dollar futures.
Again, this isn’t unique to Clemson. It has happened over and over through the history of college football, and even Saban has directed blame to this phenomenon when his teams have come up short.
The good news for Clemson is there’s no way to deny or excuse it anymore. As Dabo Swinney ardently defended his team in sluggish victory after sluggish victory, the rhetoric felt a lot like someone who chooses to spray on cologne when they really need a shower. Underneath, the stink was still there.
Now it’s out in the open, and 9-1 Clemson is not out of this thing. Unlike Ohio State last year, which magically got right after its stunning loss to Michigan State, the Tigers still control their own destiny. If they beat Wake Forest, South Carolina and then likely Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game, they’ll probably be in the College Football Playoff again. If they can’t win that trifecta of games, they didn’t deserve it anyway.
For now, though, there has to be a lingering disappointment that the full potential fans saw for this team — and the history they hoped it would make — was probably not realistic. And who knows when that kind of opportunity is going to come around again.
(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. Clemson: Sloppy teams don’t usually become less sloppy when they’re not punished for it. And let’s just be totally honest about what we’ve seen from Clemson all season: They were overdue for a shock like this. If you’re going to commit 21 turnovers in 10 games (only 13 teams in the country have more), struggle in the red zone (Clemson is 94th nationally) and average 60 penalty yards a game (87th in the country), it’s a trend that will eventually catch up to you.
Leading 42-34 and on the doorstep of the end zone, Clemson had a chance to put the hammer down with fewer than six minutes remaining. But Watson, as has been his tendency this year, made a careless play and threw a horrific interception with 5:42 left, his second of the game when the Tigers were about to put points on the board. That’s just hard to overcome.
Then, when Clemson needed just 1 more yard to run out the clock, they got stuffed twice, handing the ball back to Pittsburgh with 58 seconds left before what would ultimately be the game-winning field goal. That’s not the stuff of championship teams, and frankly Clemson is lucky that it hasn’t paid a price for it before now. The question over the next month is whether it will serve as an epiphany or prove that Clemson was living on borrowed time all along.
2. Rutgers: We have done our best this season at the Misery Index to avoid this team altogether. First, everyone including Rutgers fans knew it would be a rough ride in Chris Ash’s inaugural season. Second, and maybe most important, there’s been such a pile-on over Rutgers’ misadventures the last few years that it’s only fair to give the new regime there a little bit of room to breathe. But at some point, you have to acknowledge the obvious.
This isn’t just a bad team, but maybe the worst in the history of the Big Ten. It has been beaten 58-0 by Ohio State, 78-0 by Michigan and now 49-0 by Michigan State. It lost close games to Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa. It got blown out by Illinois, and it will probably lose its final two games to Penn State and Maryland. If that happens, Rutgers will join 2013 Purdue, 2012 Illinois, 2011 Indiana and 2007 Minnesota as the only winless teams in Big Ten play in the last decade.
If you’re going to endure that kind of year, it’s helpful to at least have some notion of greater promise in the coming years. But Rutgers fans don’t have that, not in anything tangible. They just have to trust and hope despite the quality of football they see week in and week out that this is as low as it will ever get.
3. Arkansas: The alarms being pulled in Razorback country are only partly because of the record (6-4) and the inconsistency (they’ve alternated being awful and pretty good pretty much every week). Rather, it’s because the identity Bret Bielema has sold to the fan base just isn’t applicable to this team. Arkansas isn’t very good defensively (it gave up 390 rushing yards to LSU and 543 to Auburn a couple weeks ago) and doesn’t really run the ball with the same physicality it used to.
Rather, the engine of Arkansas’ offense has been quarterback Austin Allen, who ranks 33rd nationally in passing yards. Basically, this doesn’t look or feel much like a typical Bielema team, and you don’t know what you’re going to get when the Razorbacks tee it up. It’s starting to feel like Arkansas is settling into permanent middle class status in the SEC, only with less ability to threaten the elite teams this season.
Arkansas might very well finish 8-4, but it has gotten smashed by Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Is that progress, or is Bielema going to encounter some restlessness over his inability thus far to break through?
4. Kansas: When you’re a Kansas football fan, you basically have to look at the season like a lobster. The majority of its mass is simply going to be inedible, so your only choice is to deconstruct it, ignore the shells and spindly legs and disgusting fibrous parts and concentrate on the little bits of meat. A Kansas schedule is built the same way. Most of it you’re just not going to bother with, but the opportunity to savor a good meal is hidden somewhere in there if you’re willing to do the work.
One of those savory little nuggets was Saturday against Iowa State when Kansas had a 24-16 lead late in the third quarter. The opportunity to break an 18-game Big 12 losing streak was right in front of them. Instead, Kansas got overwhelmed in the fourth quarter, never came close to scoring again and finished with a 31-24 loss.
Barring a massive upset, David Beaty’s first two years will end with a 1-23 record and zero FBS wins. It was only nine years ago this program finished 12-1, won the Orange Bowl and was ranked No. 7 at the end of the season. It feels like a lot longer.
5. North Carolina: The Tar Heels got a double dose of pain this weekend, starting Thursday night. First they lost to Duke for the third time in the last five years after a week of controversy over whether the “Victory Bell” trophy base would be spray painted in the winners’ colors (as has been the tradition) as opposed to a new base featuring both schools’ logos.
Well, at least from North Carolina’s side, the outrage was for naught as the Tar Heels’ offense sputtered to 31 yards in the fourth quarter in a 28-27 loss. But the result looked even worse on Saturday when Virginia Tech lost to Georgia Tech, which should have been North Carolina’s ticket to the ACC Championship game. In retrospect, had North Carolina beaten Duke it would have needed only to beat N.C. State on Nov. 25 to win the ACC Coastal for a second year. in a row Instead, the Tar Heels are probably not going to make it, and it’s because of a clumsy performance against a struggling Duke team.
And because North Carolina won’t be playing the first week of December, Tar Heels fans will be subjected to a relentless barrage of rumors over Larry Fedora’s comings and goings on the coaching carousel while muttering that they should be playing for an ACC title.
MISERABLE, BUT NOT MISERABLE ENOUGH
Houston: The “woulda, coulda, shoulda” file is already large in the history of Houston sports, but this season will provide another entry. Though the two-loss Cougars have been out of the playoff race for a long time, the exact scenario they needed to take place has occurred. Can you imagine what might be possible right now if Houston was still unbeaten? Oklahoma, which lost to Houston in Week 1, is on track to win the Big 12. Washington’s loss has made the Pac 12’s bid far more uncertain.
There could easily be a two-loss champion in the Big Ten. And Louisville, which goes to Houston on Thursday, is 9-1 and ranked No. 3. Houston didn’t take care of business against Navy and SMU, so it’s completely irrelevant. But if Houston had simply won the games it was favored to win up to this point, it might have been playing for a playoff bid this week.
Washington: Overnight the mood in Seattle has gone from “We Want Bama” to a fan base racked with doubts about whether this team is really as good as they thought and how badly it damaged its playoff hopes with a resounding 26-13 loss to Southern California. It’s quite possible Washington’s biggest sin was committed years ago when a non-conference schedule including Idaho, Portland State and Rutgers was put together. That isn’t the fault of the current players or the fans, but it could prove to be very damaging if the committee thinks it’s a close call between Washington and anybody else in the playoff mix.
You’d think in a normal year a one-loss Pac 12 champion should be fine, but it’s still true that Washington has only one quality win (at Utah) midway through November. Fans will spend the next few weeks trying to rationalize this and point to other metrics that might show Washington as one of the best four teams in the country. But things are undoubtedly perilous, and there’s absolutely no margin for error.
Oregon: A sense of resignation has sunk in for the Oregon fan base, but things could get very interesting soon. Before the Ducks got beat 52-27 by Stanford to fall to 3-7, the state’s top recruit Elijah Molden (whose father played for Oregon) committed to Washington. That’s not exactly an endorsement of the future under Mark Helfrich. Neither is booster and former athletics director Pat Kilkenny requesting time Monday on the radio show of prominent Portland columnist John Canzano.
Paying more than $11 million to separate from Helfrich would be a tough thing to swallow (though some very rich men who enjoy Oregon football can certainly afford it), and there’s no guarantee the next coach will come in and get this thing back to championship levels. What Chip Kelly accomplished at Oregon is hard to do and even harder to re-create. But it’s becoming clear that change is necessary and probably inevitable. How it happens could play out in pretty dramatic fashion over the next few weeks.
Virginia Tech: This was on the verge of being a special season for the Hokies, but there will probably be more of a “If Only” vibe around their fan base due to some inexplicable performances when Virginia Tech had the most to gain. First it was the turnover-a-thon against Tennessee after going up 14-0 early (eventually losing 45-24 after five giveaways). Then, when it looked like the Hokies had gotten on a roll and could possibly sneak into the playoff chase, they laid an egg at Syracuse.
Finally, this past weekend, they had a chance to wrap up the Coastal Division but were done in again by turnovers (four of them) in a 30-20 loss that was much more resounding than the final score as the Yellow Jackets led 30-7 in the fourth quarter. Virginia Tech can (and probably will) still make the ACC championship game, but it needs to beat Virginia on Nov. 26. Bottom line: Whatever this season turns out to be for the Hokies, it could have easily been a lot better.
Texas A&M: A late-season slide has reminded us never to trust the Aggies until they prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is now in danger of becoming the third consecutive year they finish outside the top 25, and they will need to beat LSU to break the eight-win barrier that has gotten Kevin Sumlin stuck on a semi-warm seat. Yes, there’s absolutely an excuse to be made for them with quarterback Trevor Knight’s injury. But it’s hard to be real sympathetic when Texas A&M was facing another team with an injured starting quarterback and blew a 21-6 lead at home to Ole Miss, losing 29-28.
Texas A&M allowed 490 yards to an offense starting a freshman making his college debut, which just isn’t something elite programs typically do. It seems we’re destined for another offseason in which Sumlin is a topic of conversation because after being talked about and paid like an elite coach, his teams since 2013 have been barely on the right side of average.
TOO SHOCKED TO BE MISERABLE
Auburn: Just when the ship seemed like it was steadied, the Tigers could muster only 164 yards in a 13-7 loss at Georgia. Banged-up starting quarterback Sean White completed just six of 20 passes for 27 passing yards, and Georgia did enough against the run to completely stop Auburn’s late-season momentum. The way the Tigers had been playing, it was hard to see this coming.
Baylor: Can the Bears just end the season already? The assistant coach finger-pointing, player sideline blowups, fan backlash and trustee blame-assigning has turned this entire year into a rotten churn of negativity. And that’s just the stuff they could control, not to mention quarterback Seth Russell suffering a gruesome ankle injury in a 45-24 loss to Oklahoma that will end his season. Will Baylor even accept a bid to a bowl game at this point?
Boston College: A pretty ugly 45-7 loss to Florida State was followed by a Tweet from former Eagles coach Jeff Jagodzinski. “Embarrassing. I can’t even watch this. Let me know when you want to be relevant again! You deserve better.” He has a point. Jagodzinski was 20-8 as Boston College’s coach but got fired following the 2008 season because he interviewed with the New York Jets. It was a spiteful move, and B.C. has basically been downhill ever since.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are used to scoring a lot of points and losing — they do it just about every other week — but this time was the most painful. Poised to tie the game at Oklahoma State after a touchdown with 1:44 remaining, kicker Clayton Hatfield missed the extra point and Texas Tech lost 45-44. Adding insult to injury, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy admitted, “I thought they would go for two.” In retrospect, Texas Tech fans surely wish he would have.
Utah State: It would be hard to find a better example of total chaos at the end of game than the Aggies’ attempt to kick a game-tying field goal against New Mexico. With 16 seconds left but no timeouts, Utah State had time for one very quick play and then to spike the ball before bringing out the field-goal team. Somehow, the message to spike it never got through (or someone thought it was fourth down, when it was really second down) and the game ended with Utah State on the 25-yard line and unable to get organized for a clean kick.
FIVE TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS
►“Coaching and recruiting like an 8-4 team” — TexAgs.com (Texas A&M)
►“Until we field a Defense welcome to mediocrity!” — InsideCarolina.com (UNC)
►“Trumps 1st day in office…Repeal the triple option!!!” — techsideline.com (Virginia Tech)
►“We are part of the pecking order.” — hogville.net (Arkansas)
►“Our offensive coordinators are more predictable than lab rats.” — baylorfans.com