Misery Index notebook: Ohio State gets script flipped; why are 10-year contracts all the rage?

·13 min read

A series of mistakes and some coaching decisions that will live in Iron Bowl infamy give Auburn the top spot in the final Misery Index of 2021, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.

FOUR MORE IN MISERY

Ohio State: It would be hard to have more confidence in anything on Earth than Buckeyes fans about the matchup with Michigan. The rivalry — if you could call it that — had become so predictable, so one-sided and so non-threatening over the last decade that it was hard to blame them for thinking this would go on forever. Or at least as long as Jim Harbaugh was on the other sideline.

And this year, in particular, Ohio State fans thought their team had a real shot to win the national title. The defense had been improving throughout the season. Quarterback C.J. Stroud was clicking toward a Heisman Trophy. Sure, Michigan was having a cute little season, but how were they going to slow down those Buckeye receivers?

What Ohio State fans could not have envisioned was how thoroughly Michigan could flip the script on them, not just winning the game but physically dominating it 42-27 with 297 rushing yards. Though the Buckeyes theoretically had chances late to get one defensive stop and drive to tie the game, they didn’t come close to slowing Michigan down because they couldn’t win the line of scrimmage. And as a result, Ohio State isn’t going to the College Football Playoff.

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That’s not how this series is supposed to go, or how it’s gone recently when Michigan looked too slow to keep up with the Buckeyes. This time around, they made Ohio State look soft and won for the first time since 2011.

The Buckeyes have one of the greatest programs in the sport, but sometimes you need a wake-up call. And the last few years, their defense has gotten bullied when it mattered most.

Hopefully Michigan’s win signals that this college football spectacle will become a true rivalry again. And in the end, it might make Ohio State even better if it puts pressure on Ryan Day to make some adjustments in his defensive approach. But for now, losing out on the CFP at the hands of Michigan is as tough of a pill as the Buckeyes have had to swallow in a long time.

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) is sacked by Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97).
Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) is sacked by Michigan Wolverines defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97).

Texas A&M: Before the season, when the Aggies gave Jimbo Fisher a new 10-year, $95 million contract to replace the slightly less ridiculous 10-year, $75 million contract he was working under previously, we didn’t know how much it would change the entire coaching market.

Now, 10-year deals are all the rage. Mel Tucker got one at Michigan State. James Franklin got one at Penn State. You have to imagine a few more successful coaches will see the new industry standard and get in line on that gravy train.

But 10 years is a very, very long time in any profession. Which brings us back to Fisher. Does anyone really think that an offense more suited to the last decade (or even two decades ago) is going to thrive for the next one? The Aggies' 27-24 loss to LSU ended what can only be considered an underwhelming 8-4 season for the Aggies in which they’ll finish fifth in the SEC West. Outside of last season, when Texas A&M nearly made the playoff, Fisher is 13-11 in the SEC. Obviously, 2020 counts too, even though the weirdness of COVID-19 benefited some teams more than others. But still, that breakthrough came with a quarterback Fisher inherited in Kellen Mond and a veteran offensive line. The last time he actually recruited a difference-maker at the quarterback position? His name was Jameis Winston at Florida State, which feels like a long time ago.

Fisher’s complicated, pro-style offense with a thick playbook runs against the grain of where college football has been going the last several years. That has to be a concern for Texas A&M fans, who have seen most of the success under Fisher come from the defensive side of the ball under coordinator Mike Elko.

None of this is to suggest that Fisher is about to implode. He’s a good coach, and he’s got a great recruiting class coming in. But is Fisher really someone you want to tie yourself to contractually for the next decade at a crazy salary?

If 2021 was a preview of what Texas A&M is going to be under Fisher, it’ll be two more years before the fans start to agitate for changes.

Oklahoma: For a school that has lost just 10 football games in the past five years, Sooners’ fans have been pretty dour this year. Perhaps that’s because once they actually got a look at this team, they realized the preseason hype about winning national championships was way off the mark. It could be a longer-term ennui associated with being very good but a half-step below the best of the best. Or maybe it’s simply that they saw what was coming in a 37-33 loss to Oklahoma State, which now heads to the Big 12 title game instead of Oklahoma and could very well make the Playoff with a win.

Beyond what was at stake from a Big 12 and CFP standpoint, it’s never fun to lose to an in-state rival that you’ve consistently been able to handle. It’s even worse when that rivalry is about to end, which seems likely as Oklahoma heads into the SEC. Though it’s still unclear when the Sooners will make the jump, a lot of people around the state believe this was their last trip to Stillwater for the foreseeable future. If so, it’ll be hard to feel good about it for a variety of reasons including 12 penalties, going 5-for-18 on third down and muffing a punt at the 5-yard line with 9:43 to go that set up the Cowboys’ go-ahead touchdown. Oklahoma had the ball three more times after that but never got closer than the Oklahoma State 34-yard line.

The good news is that after the game, Lincoln Riley put to bed any notion that he’s bound for LSU — a rumor that had really picked up momentum in the previous 48 hours in some corners of the world. At the same time, among Riley’s five seasons as a head coach, this is the least satisfying in many ways. It’s the first time he won’t win the Big 12 or finish in the top-10, the first time he’s lost to Oklahoma State and the first time his offense largely looked pedestrian against decent competition.

Nebraska: The entire season for the Cornhuskers was a work of art. Despite finishing 3-9, they actually ended the year with a +63 point differential overall and were a top-50 team in a lot of the respected analytics. How does that happen? Time and time again, Nebraska was in games to the very end until a decisive turnover or special teams mistake. They regularly blew leads. In their season finale, they got out-scored 19-0 in the fourth quarter by Iowa in a seven-point loss. In Nebraska’s eight Big Ten losses, only one — a 26-17 loss to Ohio State — came by more than one score. Every week, Nebraska seemed to invent cruel and unusual ways to break its fans’ hearts.

Anyone watching Nebraska can acknowledge the improvement the program has made under Scott Frost, who will return for his fifth season in 2022. And yet from a win-loss perspective, the Huskers hit a new low this year by going just 1-8 in the Big Ten after winning three conference games in each of Frost’s previous seasons.

It’s almost impossible to know what to make of that data set. Was it bad luck? Was it just a unique set of circumstances? Did the losing start to get in the heads of the players as the season went on? Will things start to even out next year?

What we know for sure is that Frost has a lot of work to do if he’s going to turn it around, and it’s concerning that Nebraska currently has just nine verbal commitments — including zero four- or five-star prospects — according to Rivals.com. Whether it’s through recruiting high school players or the transfer portal, the Huskers have to make some upgrades to the roster and start finding ways to close out games instead of falling into the same dumb mistakes over and over again. In 2022, trends and vibes won't matter to the Nebraska fan base anymore. For Frost, it’ll be time to win or else.

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY

Penn State: Much like Texas A&M, Penn State is in the odd position of making a massive investment in a coach coming off a very mediocre year. After eight seasons in State College and with so many prominent jobs open, this seemed like a natural time for James Franklin to make a move. He’s still very well-regarded in the industry, and staying anywhere these days for more than a decade often breeds dissatisfaction. Sometimes it’s good for all parties to just get a fresh start. Instead, Franklin went the other way by signing a new 10-year deal worth $70 million to stay. In another context, though, finishing 7-5 after a messy 30-27 loss to Michigan State would have been cause to put him on the hot seat going into next year. Penn State lost five of its final seven games (beating only Maryland and Rutgers) and is just 8-10 in the conference over the last two seasons. Franklin has an excellent recruiting class coming in, but the Nittany Lions need a reboot going into 2022.

UTSA: It’s not often a school gets a chance at an undefeated season — particularly one like UTSA that only began playing as a football program in 2011 and had never done better than 8-4. And after a remarkable run this year, including some truly miraculous come-from-behind wins, all the Roadrunners needed to finish it off was to take care of a 5-6 North Texas team. Instead? Heartbreak and disaster. UTSA got blown out, 45-23, and will have to settle for 11-1. The tone was set early in this one when UTSA committed a couple special teams turnovers and gave North Texas short fields to build a lead. After such a long season, the Roadrunners just didn’t have the juice to mount a comeback. At one point, North Texas led 45-13. In the big picture, UTSA has had a historic season and will play Western Kentucky next week trying to win a Conference USA title. But it may be the only chance the Roadrunners will ever have at perfection, and they couldn’t get the job done.

TCU: There were all kinds of reasons why it was time for a change at TCU this year. But if you’re going to get rid of Gary Patterson, who is by far the best coach in school history and almost singularly responsible for its current membership in the Big 12, don’t you have to hire more of a sure thing than Sonny Dykes? Nothing against Dykes, a very good offensive coach who moves across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex from SMU, but this isn’t some home run. Dykes has been a head coach at three different schools, and his record is a pretty unremarkable 71-63. In four years at SMU, he went 18-13 in the American and never even played for a conference title. In his previous stop at California, he went 19-30 and got fired. We can all acknowledge that Patterson had lost his fastball, but TCU made the move early in the season largely out of fear that Texas Tech was going to get the jump on Dykes. If you’re a TCU fan right now, even one who thought it was time for Patterson to go, was Dykes really worth all of that upheaval? It seems like TCU’s administration has a slightly unrealistic vision of what it’s getting in this transaction. Dykes is solid, but he’s not a miracle worker or a future Hall of Famer. If this move doesn’t work out, a lot of people in purple are going to have egg on their face.

Boise State: The decline of Broncos football wasn’t a huge storyline this season, but maybe it should have been. Because by going 7-5 in his first season, Andy Avalos is responsible for the worst Boise State season since 1998. Between then and now, the Broncos had done a ton of winning at a really high level and had more or less owned the Mountain West. This year, though, Boise State was good enough to beat the likes of BYU and Fresno State but lost a lot of close games. Had the Broncos beaten San Diego State in their final game, the narrative would have been about improvement and momentum. Instead, after a 27-16 loss, it looks like they have real work to do to get on the same level as the Aztecs.

North Carolina: For months, everything pointed to Mack Brown having his best team yet in his second go-round at UNC. Instead, the 6-6 Tar Heels were one of the biggest flops of the entire college football season and fittingly ended the regular season with a total meltdown against NC State. Leading 30-21 with 2:12 left, North Carolina gave up a 64-yard touchdown, failed to recover an onsides kick, then gave up another 54-yard drive in 26 seconds including penalties for roughing the passer and pass interference. It is expected that the Tar Heels will lose quarterback Sam Howell to the NFL, so even though Brown will continue to collect talent, he’ll probably have to start over at the most important position. Tar Heel fans hoping for a breakthrough into college football’s elite this season will instead have to brace for something of a rebuild.

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

"Can’t believe we let this terrible Alabama team take us to OT” — auburnsports.com

"Bring Back Urban" — bucknuts.com (Ohio State)

"Hard to be excited with the direction of the program" — texags.com (Texas A&M)

"Riley still hasn’t figured out halftime adjustments" — ouinsider.com (Oklahoma)

"I don’t know when I’ll be back" — lions247.com (Penn State)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio State loses out on College Football Playoff as Michigan dominates

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