Misery Index Week 8: More frustration for Florida State after another close loss

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On national signing day in February, only four programs — Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Michigan — brought in recruiting classes ranked higher than Florida State, according to Rivals.com. The year before, it was only Alabama. In 2015, Alabama and Southern California had higher-rated classes overall, but Florida State had a nation-leading five recruits with five-star designations. And in 2014, just a month after winning a national championship, Jimbo Fisher’s fourth-ranked class fell behind only Alabama, LSU and Ohio State. 

In other words, there does not appear to be a talent problem at Florida State. But there is a football problem, one that reached its crescendo Saturday when, according to a Florida Times-Union reporter, Fisher got into a verbal exchange with a fan walking off the field after a 31-28 loss to Louisville. The fan supposedly told Fisher to “get new coaches,” to which Fisher responded something along the lines of the fan should come out of the stands and say it to his face. 

Let’s assume Fisher was not serious about that invitation to engage in fisticuffs with a fan and put his $44 million contract at risk. And given what happens in the heat of the moment, it was a relatively harmless exchange. 

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But it does reveal the simmering frustration among Florida State fans at the way this season has unfolded. It’s not unfair, either. 

The Seminoles, who were ranked No. 3 in the preseason, are just 2-4 and have moved to the brink of a historically bad year. This is a program that hasn’t missed a bowl game since 1981. This is a program that has finished in the top-10 three of the last four years. This is a program that has signed 13 five-star players over the last four recruiting cycles, more than Ohio State. This is a program that annually gets talked about in the same breath as Alabama since winning the national title in 2013. 

And now this is a program now that isn’t getting anywhere close to the same results as the programs in its elite recruiting stratosphere. 

Florida State’s dominant stretch of 27-1 with Jameis Winston as quarterback has given way to a new, underachieving reality. After starting 6-0 in 2015, the Seminoles lost a shocker to Georgia Tech on a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. With that game as the starting point, Florida State is just 14-10 in its last 24 games against FBS opponents. 

So while some may want to write this season off as a series of bad breaks for the Seminoles, starting with quarterback Deondre Francois suffering a terrible injury toward the end of the season opener against Alabama, it’s completely fair to question if there’s a more worrisome trend. 

No, FSU hasn’t gotten great quarterback play from true freshman James Blackman. But if Ohio State lost J.T. Barrett or Alabama lost Jalen Hurts, you simply couldn’t envision this kind of slide because those programs are so strongly built in all facets that they would win games anyway. With Florida State, though, there are too many other weak spots: An offensive line that is just OK, a group of wide receivers that is decidedly average for an elite program, etc. And then there’s the defense, which is proving to be overrated. 

Florida State’s defense had plenty of opportunities to beat Louisville and couldn’t. It had plenty of opportunities earlier in the month to snuff out Miami and couldn’t.

So when fans try to reconcile the way Florida State recruits with the way it has played recently, the finger obviously will point toward the coaches. Fisher is a top-level head coach, but he’s also stubborn and loyal when it comes to a staff many outsiders view as stale and inadequate. 

The makeup of Fisher’s coaching staff is not a new sore spot at Florida State, but it has exploded into a crisis. Later, when questioned about the fan who told him to “Get new coaches, Fisher sort of explained his state of mind but didn’t exactly regret the exchange.

“Hey, just support,” Fisher said of the fan. “There’s no reason to be nasty. (I) Shouldn’t have said something; at the same time, defending players and people you’re with. I’m in charge of them. I love them like a father. Someone says something to your family, you take up for them.”

That may hold true in the middle of the season, but if changes aren’t made in another couple months, Fisher’s plea for support will feel like screaming into the void.

(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 State: Perhaps the biggest unintentional insult of the season was lobbed at Fisher when asked Saturday if he would be in favor of trying to get the Louisiana-Monroe game that was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma rescheduled. The implication in that question is that Florida State will need the win to reach 6-6 and keep its NCAA-best streak of 35 straight bowl appearances alive. With four losses already, the Seminoles are in legitimate danger of missing the postseason, especially given their three road games remaining: At suddenly resurgent Boston College, at Clemson and at Florida. Plus, Florida State gets Syracuse at home on Nov. 4, which is no gimme. Hey, given the way they’re playing, it’s possible 6-6 will be off the table anyway. But let’s imagine a world in which Florida State finds enough juice to squeak out victories against Boston College, Delaware State and Florida to get to five wins. Is paying Louisiana-Monroe some ungodly sum of money to play a game nobody will care about in Tallahassee on conference championship weekend really worth the ridicule just to keep some streak alive? We think not. 

Michigan: Betting against Jim Harbaugh is probably a bad long-term strategy, but in the short term has he ever looked as ordinary as he did Saturday night in a 42-13 loss at Penn State? Michigan isn’t paying Harbaugh for ordinary. Michigan isn’t expecting ordinary in Harbaugh’s third season. But isn’t that the word that best describes watching the Wolverines this season? There’s nothing special there, nothing compelling from either an aesthetic or competitive standpoint. Penn State looked like a modern college football machine that basically did as it pleased Saturday, while Michigan’s athletes looked a half-step slow and its coaches totally confused by the wrinkles thrown at them by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Sure, it’s just one game. And Penn State is flat-out better and more experienced this season than a Michigan team that lost 11 draft picks from last year. But at what point does all the talent Harbaugh recruited kick in? If you’re an elite program, should you ever really get beat the way Michigan got beat by Penn State? The good news is, nobody will be able to make fun of Harbaugh for finishing third in the Big Ten East this season. Right now, the Wolverines are fourth. Tied for fourth, actually. With Rutgers. 

Southern California: The warning signs were there from the start. Remember back to opening weekend when we all watched with bewilderment as Western Michigan pushed USC to the brink? At the time, we didn’t know quite what to make of that. Western Michigan rushed for 263 yards that day and basically traded scores with USC until the final four minutes, which seemed bad. On the other hand, you could come up with plenty of excuses for USC if you wanted to. Maybe there were first game jitters. Maybe Western Michigan was a little better than people thought. Quarterback Sam Darnold would surely play better going forward, wouldn’t he? But now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that it wasn’t a fluke. USC has looked like a real contender on one occasion this season — in Week 2 against Stanford — but has largely skated by on ability without feeling the need to impress anyone. The bill for that came due on Saturday in a brutal 49-14 loss at Notre Dame, turning any notion of a playoff appearance into a laugh-out-loud punchline. USC is 6-2, and if not for some good fortune in overtime against Texas or a Utah two-point conversion that went awry last weekend, this could be a 4-4 team. Meanwhile, Darnold has hurt his stock with repeated mistakes that have been magnified by the spotlight on him to start this season. And coach Clay Helton hasn’t carried over the momentum from last season’s Rose Bowl win. USC fans aren’t the most patient group, and Saturday’s meltdown in South Bend won’t give them any confidence Helton has them on a trajectory to competing with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.

BYU: After losing six consecutive games, all but one of them in blowout fashion, you can imagine the last thing anyone involved with BYU football wanted to do was get on a plane, fly four hours to Greenville, N.C., and play another really bad team. But that was BYU’s burden to bear, and the Cougars attacked it with all the aplomb of a team that long ago resigned itself to complete and utter failure. In what we affectionately called the Misery Index Bowl for 2017, BYU lost to East Carolina 33-17 to assure itself of missing the postseason for the first time since 2004. In all seriousness, though, this is a sad state of affairs for a very proud program. Forget the indignity of suffering its longest losing streak since 1968, BYU in 2017 seems adrift. Where’s this program going, and does it understand what it is? Waiting around as an independent until a power conference calls isn’t a growth strategy. In fact, it’s led to a cycle of bad (unrealistic) scheduling, demoralization and now what looks like a bad coaching hire. Clinging to the past has put BYU’s future in peril, and the only question is how much of a mess will need to be cleaned up after a disastrous 2017?  

Texas: After he was hired in January, Tom Herman laid down the law with the parents of his players, directing them to be positive about the team on social media and not talk to reporters. Well, so much for that. Derrick Foreman, the father of Texas receiver Armanti Foreman, basically spend all Saturday night ripping Herman to shreds on Twitter following a 13-10 loss to Oklahoma State that dropped the Longhorns to 3-4. Among his most stinging critiques was this one: “Looks like our 5 1/2 million dollar Coach is OVERRATED! Offense is still HORRIBLE and MORAL VICTORIES DON’T COUNT!!!” To be fair, the younger Foreman, who has 17 catches and three touchdowns this season, seems to be in Herman’s doghouse, so the lashing out has a personal tinge to it. But it’s also true that Texas’ offense has been something less than mediocre, which is a surprise given Herman’s reputation. Under the circumstances, fans don’t want to hear how close Texas is to breaking through, which is the message Herman keeps trying to send. At Texas, you’re either good enough or you’re not. The Longhorns may lose close thanks to their defense, but they still lose.

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MISERABLE, BUT NOT QUITE MISERABLE ENOUGH

Illinois: The point of hiring Lovie Smith to revive a bad football program was not totally clear the day it happened, and it is even less clear today. When you think about the skill set it takes to turn around such a perennial loser, that doesn’t scream paying $4 million to a big name in his late 50s who hasn’t coached college ball in two decades. Though it’s just 19 games into his tenure, is either side really happy with this decision? Illinois is now 2-5, and its best chance to scratch out a Big Ten win this season may have passed with consecutive losses to Rutgers and Minnesota. 

Kansas State: Though they did enough to scare Oklahoma before losing 42-35, this season is a bust for the Wildcats. They’re 3-4 with three losses by one possession, and this looks like the rare Bill Snyder year where people overestimated his team in the preseason. Sophomore Alex Delton is a really fun player to watch at quarterback (142 rushing yards against Oklahoma), but K-State can’t put together a complete game. One side of the ball is always struggling, and you never know from game to game which side it’s going to be. It’s unclear when the 78-year old Snyder will step aside, particularly given his health issues earlier this year, but this is turning into a sour season if this is the one he decides will be his last.

Houston: The Cougars have been unimpressive in every way this season, but never more so than Thursday night when they allowed Memphis to score all of its points in the second half of a 42-38 loss. Houston led the game 31-14 late in the third quarter, but Memphis got into a rhythm offensively and took the lead with 1:28 left following Major Applewhite’s puzzling decision to punt on a fourth-and-1 with 3:17 remaining when it was clear his defense was gassed. Applewhite was easy to second-guess as a head coaching hire because Houston’s process was incredibly flawed, valuing loyalty over every other factor. But how loyal will the Cougars and their fans be to Applewhite, who is a disappointing 4-3 at a program where mega-booster Tilman Fertitta once bragged that they fire coaches for only winning eight games?

Arkansas: There’s no more analysis or introspection needed. The Razorbacks are just plain bad, the type of bad where you’re almost compelled to keep watching them out of curiosity for what bad thing they’re going to do next. The Razorbacks allowed 629 yards to Auburn’s offense in a 52-20 loss at home, while also committing three turnovers to drop to 2-5 and 0-4 in the SEC. While the losses were generally expected, Arkansas got out-scored 93-29 in consecutive weeks by Alabama and Auburn, putting an exclamation point on how far the Razorbacks have fallen behind the elite of the SEC West. This doesn’t feel like a trend that can continue for very long. If Arkansas is going to support Bielema through this season and into next, athletics director Jeff Long needs to come out and say it soon. Because once this fan base turns on a coach, it turns hard. Just ask Houston Nutt about those embarrassing phone records that magically turned up before the 2007 season — and that fiasco occurred four months after Arkansas played for an SEC championship.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema looks on from the sidelines during his team’s loss to Auburn. (Photo: Nelson Chenault, USA TODAY Sports)

North Carolina: North Carolina football doesn’t really move the needle one way or the other, but a program that was solidly better than average for the last five years under Larry Fedora has totally cratered. The Tar Heels fell to 1-7 with a 59-7 loss at Virginia Tech, and it’s sort of hard to imagine how a program could go so far into the ditch so quickly. Obviously quarterback is an issue, and maybe Fedora’s system isn’t quite as wired to plug-and-play as it seemed. There have also been injuries, sure, and it didn’t help that defensive coordinator Gene Chizik decided to leave coaching after last season. But this is truly abysmal, John Bunting-level bad. It’s hard to know if UNC fans have noticed at all or if they’re still too busy celebrating a victory over the NCAA infractions process, but they should probably wake up and at least take up some concern over the direction of the football program. 

TOO SHOCKED TO BE MISERABLE 

Baylor: Let’s stop applauding for Baylor coming close and trying really hard. This team is good enough to win a game. It just hasn’t closed the deal. The Bears were down 38-13 starting the fourth quarter but nearly got West Virginia into overtime, scoring a touchdown with 17 seconds left. But they didn’t get the two-point conversion, so they lost 38-36, and are now 0-7.

Utah: From 4-0 to 4-3 in the blink of an eye, the Utes’ last of production at quarterback has been exposed in a major way. The program has sort of decided senior Troy Williams isn’t the answer, but sophomore Tyler Huntley threw four picks in a 30-10 loss at home to Arizona State.

Indiana: Nobody looks better losing in the Big Ten than Indiana. The Hoosers have dropped close games in consecutive weeks to Michigan and Michigan State (the latter on Saturday, 17-9), following a longtime trend in which they’ve lost eight times by one possession since the beginning of 2015. 

Ole Miss: The Rebels added injury to insult Saturday when quarterback Shea Patterson was lost for the season due to a knee ligament tear suffered in a 40-24 loss to LSU. The Rebels weren’t going bowling anyway due to self-imposed NCAA sanctions, but Patterson’s injury means the last glimmer of excitement for this season has basically been exhausted.

Louisiana-Lafayette: Mark Hudspeth, who is known for putting his feats of strength on YouTube and winning a lot of football games in the Sun Belt, is having a pretty bad year punctuated by a 47-3 loss to Arkansas State. At 3-4, there’s little margin for error if the Cajuns are going to make their sixth bowl in seven seasons.

FIVE TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Hey Clay, have you thought about just staying in Chicago?” – wearesc.com

“Art Briles; Just say yes.” – hogville.net 

“Why isn’t there an angry mob with pitchforks and torches on Holmoe’s front door?” – cougarboard.com (BYU)

“How long are we stuck with Jimbo? Serious question” – warchant.com 

“Urban Meyer = master Foister” – orangebloods.com (Texas)

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