Misery Index Week 1: Suffering in Southern California

College football is back, baby, which means unless you root for Alabama you’re absolutely guaranteed to be miserable at some point this season. It’s a condition that takes several different forms. Some prefer to be anonymously miserable and find solace in various Internet communities where innuendo and unbridled rage reign supreme. Others just need someone to talk to.

Whatever form it takes, there’s no denying this sport has a way of inflaming passion and overreaction unlike anything else in sports. If you take a step back, there’s nothing rational about tying up so much emotion in 18- to 22-year-old amateurs who probably only chose the school you care deeply about because of a clever social media hashtag, an inducement against NCAA rules or some other reason that would probably blow your mind (trust us, it’s not because the recruit shares your sentimental attachment to Dear Old State U’s campus square).

And yet still, when when these unpaid players — who you will only really care about for the three or four years they wear your uniform — don’t quite live up to your unrealistic expectations, it can turn into a meltdown that transcends all reason and sanity.

Take some of the initial reactions Saturday out of Los Angeles, where proud Southern Cal fans already have put Clay Helton on the hot seat after one game.

Granted, it was a terrible game: A 52-6 loss to Alabama, after which Nick Saban declared the Tide didn’t really play all that well.

Really, if you’re USC, what could be worse than that kind of humiliation on a big stage while Lane Kiffin — whose tenure as head coach started this entire domino effect of mediocrity — is drawing up plays on the other side?

That’s why the Misery Index exists, to gauge just how a fan base like USC feels today on the heels of that kind of performance where, after all the optimism of a new year, reality of where you are in the college football universe hits you smack in the face.

(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. Southern California: The only thing that truly drives USC in the decisions that determine its football destiny is arrogance. The Trojans don’t value professionals with a proven track record of running athletic departments and winning championships; they value Trojans who appeal to nostalgia. The loss to Alabama wasn’t a one-off; it was the parting gift of Pat Haden’s tenure as athletics director and the culmination of so many bad decisions that have left the rest of college athletics wondering whether Southern Cal really takes winning seriously or just likes to say it does.

After Kiffin was fired, even a small amount of research on Haden’s part would have revealed that Steve Sarkisian was a bad idea for USC. And then, after Sarkisian's off-field implosion, Helton was given the job full time without a real coaching search and in the euphoria of a victory against rival UCLA. This isn’t meant as any disrespect to Helton, a solid journeyman coach and good assistant, but he would not have gotten a single other open Power Five head coaching job last year.

And yet USC gave him the keys to one of the five best programs in college football without even making a play for someone like Tom Herman or Justin Fuente, much less some bigger names who might have been interested. That’s pure arrogance. And now with Haden out of the way, the decisions will be made by Lynn Swann, another former Trojan with no experience running an athletic department or handling a coaching search (if one is needed). Good luck.

2. LSU: Remember the Les Miles love fest that sprang organically out of the rumors last fall that he was days away from being fired? Remember how public opinion turned from “Fire Les!” to “Keep him and get rid of the administration!” almost overnight after the clumsy way in which his supposedly imminent departure was leaked to the media? Well, here we are, and nothing’s changed after a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin.

Here’s the truth: LSU fans are bound to ride this roller coaster until the school finally pulls the plug, whenever that happens. How in the world did people talk themselves into LSU being a top-five team? Shouldn’t we know better by now? There are the same old problems with the passing game, the same lack of support for Leonard Fournette and the same defense that is good but not good enough to make up for problems on the other side of the ball.

And if there’s one thing fans will not abide, it’s losing over and over in the exact same way. It’s repetitive, it’s boring and it amplifies the angst of a fan base that doesn’t understand why Miles can’t fix the obvious problems when he’s got every resource available and so much talent at his disposal. Of course, LSU will probably win its next seven games and roll into the matchup with Alabama on Nov. 5 back in the top-five. Don’t buy into it because fans have seen this movie too many times before.

3. Oklahoma: Even in a highly unpredictable sport, some things never change. When Oklahoma is supposed to be great, the Sooners find a way to disappoint. When all faith in Bob Stoops’ program has been abandoned, they win Big 12 titles.

But this year was supposed to be different because…uhhh….uhhh…Baker Mayfield? Nope. Oklahoma’s 33-23 loss to Houston was the most dispiriting performance by the Sooners since, well, not that long ago. They are usually good for at least one stinking rotten egg a year (see Texas last season), but fans are going to be absolutely furious because so much of this one was self-inflicted. The Sooners were highly undisciplined, seemingly committing penalties every time they had Houston in jeopardy, and shot themselves in the foot with sideline confusion and coaching errors.

Giving up a 100-yard return of a field goal attempt was inexcusable, partly because it happened after a timeout that allowed Houston to set it up. Houston played great, but Oklahoma was a very willing participant in its own demise. Very disappointing for Stoops given his experience and what was at stake for Oklahoma coming into the year as a top-five team.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a reason Dan Mullen has been quietly trying to bounce out of Starkville and get a fresh start somewhere, particularly this past offseason. Life in the post-Dak Prescott era is going to be challenging, and when you’ve taken Mississippi State of all schools to No. 1 in the country — as the Bulldogs were for several weeks in 2014 — you’ve probably already hit your ceiling.

For all the remarkable things he’s accomplished— and six consecutive bowl games coming out of the SEC West is mind-blowing at Mississippi State — Mullen has raised expectations to the point where a bad season won’t be well-received by the fan base, which already is edgy over the fact that Ole Miss has become a fixture in the top 15.

Of course, even as bad as some thought it might be, nobody could have envisioned a 21-20 home loss to South Alabama when Westin Graves’ 28-yard field goal attempt to win doinked off the upright. It was a pretty horrendous result on its own — ESPN’s FPI metric said it was the biggest college football upset in five years, for whatever it’s worth — and especially if it portends a 1-7 type season in the SEC. That would quickly erase a lot of the goodwill he’s built and probably make it even more difficult to get an equivalent job somewhere else.

5. Kentucky: It wasn’t a great weekend to be a Stoops brother, especially Mark as he enters a monster season. Kentucky has given him everything he needs from sparkling new facilities to a big, fat contract, and all he’s produced is some nice recruiting classes and 12 wins (just four in the SEC) in three seasons.

The Wildcats also have had a habit of losing winnable games and blowing big leads, both of which were factors in a 44-35 loss to Southern Mississippi. Kentucky led by 25 in the second quarter before a total second-half implosion. It’s bad enough on its own, but even worse because Southern Miss’ offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson got a Gatorade bath at the end of the game. Why? Before the 2015 season, Kentucky hired Dawson to run its offense but threw him under the bus quickly when things fell apart.

Dawson landed at Southern Miss, returned to Lexington and put up 520 yards in the opener. All things considered, it could not have gone worse for Stoops. The fan base has already started to turn on him but held out hope this year would be different. It looks no different after one week, and remaining support is teetering.

MISERABLE, BUT NOT QUITE MISERABLE ENOUGH

6. Memphis: Despite opening the Mike Norvell era with a blowout win against Southeast Missouri, fans got the shocking news Friday that the Tigers didn’t even make the final cut for the Big 12’s expansion beauty pageant.

7. Boston College: Trying to close out Georgia Tech in Dublin, the Eagles gave up a fourth-and-19 before giving up a touchdown with 35 seconds left to lose 17-14. They haven’t won an ACC game since Nov. 29, 2014.

8. Auburn: Oddly, Auburn played its most competitive game in a while against a top-five opponent, but somehow Gus Malzahn might have made his seat even hotter in a 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson thanks to his bizarre quarterback rotation and high school-ish offensive game plan that didn’t confuse Clemson one iota.

9. Vanderbilt: Derek Mason started tinkering with his quarterbacks even though the Commodores led South Carolina 10-0. Vanderbilt lost 13-10, after which Mason insisted his bizarre handling of quarterbacks had nothing to do with it. Nobody’s buying that.

10. Colorado State: No matter how good or bad the teams are, the Colorado-Colorado State rivalry always is competitive. For second-year coach Mike Bobo, losing to the Buffs 44-7 while in the middle of Big 12 expansion mania isn’t a good look.

TOO SHOCKED TO BE MISERABLE

Virginia: Bronco Mendenhall was hired to make things better, not worse. Losing 37-20 to Richmond does not qualify as better.

Washington State: At least Cougars lost the opener to a good FCS team this time in Eastern Washington rather than Portland State as they did last year.

Tennessee: Didn’t deserve to beat Appalachian State, but Butch Jones insists all is well.

Northwestern: Became the first Power Five victim for P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan.

TCU: Gary Patterson’s defense gave up 41 points to whom? South Dakota State isn’t even the good Dakota State.

FIVE TOTALLY REAL AND AWESOMELY IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Who Should Be OU’s Next Head Coach?” — landthieves.com (Oklahoma)

“Hey Dan, wipe that ****in’ smile off your face, (expletive)” — elitedawgs.com (Mississippi State)

“Maybe this is crazy but bring in Art Briles as a consultant” — AuburnUndercover.com

“Whoopee!!! Another Sat where I get my joy solely from an SC loss” — bruinzone.com (UCLA)

“Still no killer instinct” — theclemsoninsider.com

Copyright 2016 WCNC


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