The final Misery Index of the season is always the worst one to land on because there’s nowhere to escape for the next nine months. Though a bowl game performance can sometimes change the narrative for a team going into the offseason, that’s pretty rare. Generally speaking, a fan’s final impression of a team is going to be formed by the games with the highest stakes.
And for a team like Michigan, there’s no game of more importance to its annual ego check than playing Ohio State. Don’t believe it? Just take a look at how easily coach Jim Harbaugh was triggered after his team was blown out by the Buckeyes for the second consecutive year.
When asked whether his inability to beat Ohio State — now 0-for-5 and counting — was due to “a talent gap, a preparation gap or a coaching gap,” Harbaugh whipped his head around toward the reporter and shot back that he would “answer your questions, not your insults.”
But the real insult is that Harbaugh still doesn’t seem to acknowledge that this is a holistic program problem, not just a bad game that happens to occur annually two days after Thanksgiving. Michigan has both a talent problem and a coaching problem, at least relative to Ohio State, and at some point it will sink in that this is not so much a rivalry as it is two programs that are connected by tradition and geography but not the reality of their goals in 2019.
COACHES POLL:LSU stays at No. 1, while Alabama falls to No. 9
WINNERS AND LOSERS:Led by Ohio State, Michigan, Auburn
SWINNEY RANTS ABOUT BIAS VS. CLEMSON:‘It’s the dadgumest thing’
Harbaugh’s ultimate answer about the “gap” between teams after Saturday’s 56-27 loss? “They played really good,” he said. “They played better today.”
Is that immature defiance a product of his frustration in the moment or what Harbaugh really believes? Because if it’s the latter, there’s a real problem here. This isn’t the 1980s or 1990s anymore. As college football has become more national than regional in the Playoff era, the Buckeyes have ascended to a place where their real rivals are Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. Michigan is stuck still trying to crawl above Wisconsin.
As much hype as the nation assigns to “The Game,” it’s hard to see Ohio State and Michigan as true football peers. Since Urban Meyer arrived in 2012 and modernized the program in a variety of ways, the Buckeyes have recruited from a significantly better player pool. Michigan has gone through some ups and downs as a program over the last 15 years, but the bottom line is that their only win in this series in the post-Lloyd Carr era came in 2011 when the Buckeyes spent a season in chaos after the firing of Jim Tressel.
So while Ohio State-Michigan will always be a rivalry, it is not a rivalry of equals anymore, a point that has been driven home dramatically for fans of both schools in the last two years. That should produce a real offseason of soul-searching for Harbaugh and the Michigan administration. But the sense that it will be business as usual lands Michigan at No. 1 on the final Misery Index of 2019, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.
FOUR MORE IN MISERY
Miami: You couldn’t draw up a worse way to finish the first season of the Manny Diaz era than this, with the Hurricanes suffering an unimaginable loss to Florida International and then backing it up with a lifeless performance against Duke in which Miami gained just 259 yards of offense. At a minimum, the Hurricanes are going to have to make some big offensive changes after this 6-6 flop, perhaps starting with coordinator Dan Enos. Some fans will want the changes to go even deeper with Diaz and athletics director Blake James, but that isn’t going to happen for a lot of reasons starting with buyout money. It is worth noting that 2019 is the seventh time in the last 13 years that Miami has finished a season with at least six losses, and it is hard to maintain the veneer of a historic powerhouse when the mediocrity extends nearly two decades. Miami’s time to get back in the conversation is running out, which is why the fans are burning so hot at the way the Diaz hire has turned out early on.
Ole Miss: There’s an existential crisis that has been brewing all fall at Ole Miss, stemming from a presidential hire where the person who was supposed to lead the search committee ended up essentially recommending and hiring himself. Then the school went through the trouble of a national athletics director search only to lift the interim tag from Keith Carter. And to top it off, there was never even a consideration given to firing football coach Matt Luke despite a 15-21 record. So while fans are hungry for something more ambitious than they’ve gotten, status quo has ruled the day. And they’re understandably upset about it. If you’re an Ole Miss fan, don’t you have to ask how bad things have to get before they start getting better? We won’t know the answer for at least another nine months because they got another gut punch in the Egg Bowl when receiver Elijah Moore’s dog urination celebration after a touchdown with four seconds left pushed the extra point try back 15 yards. After the missed kick, Ole Miss lost 21-20 to finish the season 4-8. Even at a school where the ridiculous has become routine, this is a little much.
Houston: After the Cougars wrapped up the school’s worst season in 15 years with a 56-41 loss to Navy, first-year coach Dana Holgorsen had the audacity to tell the media he was proud that “We didn’t give up on the season. We didn’t quit coaching. We didn’t quit practicing. We didn’t quit preparing. We didn’t quit playing. Ever.” Uh, Dana, aren’t you forgetting something? Don’t you remember that whole thing back in September when you started encouraging players to redshirt and not use up a year of eligibility on a season that was already slipping away with a 1-3 record? Don’t you recall that your best player, quarterback D’Eriq King, among others could have kept playing and tried to salvage this season but instead sat with your blessing? Sorry, but isn’t that the definition of giving up on the season? Maybe Cougars fans will eventually be on board with the way Holgorsen handled this first year, but what happened at Houston was a disgrace. Rather than trying to figure things out, the highest paid coach in the Group of Five folded his tent after a loss to Tulane. After going 4-8, the fact that Holgorsen will be remembered as the person who invented tanking in college football shouldn’t be a badge of honor for anyone associated with that program.
Purdue: Just a year ago, imagine how great it felt to be a Purdue fan. Not only had the Boilermakers discovered an ascendent coaching star in Jeff Brohm and wrapped up a feel-good regular season that included wins over the likes of Iowa and Ohio State, but they won a big recruiting battle against Louisville to keep Brohm from going home to his alma mater. That turn of events should have given the Boilermakers all the confidence in the world that their rise was for real. Instead, they sit here after a 4-8 flop wondering if it was just a mirage. It’s not that Brohm turned into a bad coach this year, but the circumstances of Purdue’s season were such that small cracks turned into craters. From bad injury luck to four losses by seven points or fewer, Purdue’s 44-41 overtime loss to Indiana was a fitting coda to a season where nothing went right. Though the future still feels somewhat bright, Purdue fans got a reminder this year that even with a coach they believe is great, the margin for error for their program is very small.
TRENDING TOWARD MISERY
Alabama: If you think five national championships has earned Nick Saban enough confidence from Alabama fans that they are cool with another year like this one, well, you don’t know Alabama very well. As many of them on Twitter pointed out Saturday night, their enthusiasm for whatever postseason game the Crimson Tide gets registers an excitement level somewhere on par with a dental appointment. It’s all about 2020 now, and even though Alabama lost two games to very good teams by a total of eight points, they’re both spoiled and worried. Has the dominance gap shrunk? Is the offense talent exodus about to hit harder than they realize? Is the defense ever going to get back to where it was? Is the 68-year old Saban over the hill? If he goes a third straight year in 2020 without a national title, that narrative may start to form.
Virginia Tech: It’s never a good day for the program when the in-state rival that you’ve dominated for a long, long time finally turns the tables — especially in a game where something significant is at stake. Not only did Virginia beat the Hokies 39-30, taking the Commonwealth Cup for the first time since 2003, but they also won the ACC Coastal division and gave themselves a real chance to make the Orange Bowl. Had the result been flipped, the Hokies would have been headed to Charlotte to face Clemson and then probably a luxurious week in Miami. While it’s still a solid season for Virginia Tech at 8-4, it will not be soon forgotten that Virginia was tougher and executed better in the fourth quarter after Virginia Tech took a 30-27 lead with 10:58 remaining.
TCU: In terms of the bang for their expectation buck, it’s possible no program has gotten better returns over the years than TCU. That’s why the position the Horned Frogs now find themselves in feels a little bit precarious. For just the third time since he became head coach in 2001, Gary Patterson failed to lead a team to a bowl game as TCU lost 20-17 to West Virginia at home and finished 5-7. “They’re not very happy with me right now and I’m not very happy with them, to be honest with you,” Patterson said of his players during a postgame news conference that was both pointed in its criticism and telling in its tone. Changes are coming to TCU, that is for sure. It likely starts on the offensive side of the ball, where coordinator Sonny Cumbie has fallen out of favor. At the same time, though, there’s a bigger concerning trend. Over the last four years, TCU’s gone 6-7, 11-3, 7-6 and 5-7. Which one looks like the aberration? Patterson has done an all-time great building job at TCU and is the biggest reason why they’re now in the Big 12 rather than the Mountain West. But there’s now evidence of some long-term slippage, and it’s harder for fans to have 100 percent confidence that Patterson will totally fix it.
Georgia Tech: They’ve been playing the “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” rivalry for a very long time — since 1893, to be exact — but never in the two programs’ history has Georgia Tech been this far behind its in-state rival Georgia. That manifested Saturday in a 52-7 Bulldogs victory in Atlanta, their biggest margin of victory ever in the series. Maybe Geoff Collins will eventually be the guy to close the gap. But after a great start in the public relations department and some solid recruiting success during his first year, the on-field product under Collins was just terrible at 3-9. While much of that can be written off as a program making the transition from the triple option to a more traditional attack, some of Collins’ act wore thin with the fan base. From Georgia Tech’s bizarre pregame weightlifting routine to Collins associating himself with the Waffle House brand to holding up “money down” signs on the sideline on defensive third downs, it’s the kind of thing that plays well when you’re winning but feels contrived when you’re losing. And it may take a lot more losing before the Yellow Jackets start to turn things around.
Oklahoma State: In the entirety of his head coaching career, Mike Gundy owns just two wins in the Bedlam rivalry. On Saturday, he was surpassed by Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, who won that in-state rivalry for the third time. Given that Gundy got a dozen-year head start, it isn’t necessarily the best look. While Gundy has won consistently at a higher level than any coach in the history of Oklahoma State football, going 2-13 against your rival is definitely the one big negative mark on his résumé. While a lot of that is owed to Oklahoma’s excellence — the Sooners have been ranked in the top 10 for seven of those losses — people start to get antsy when the gap between wins grows beyond half a decade.
FIVE TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS
“How come Michigan basketball can beat teams that cheat?” – MGoBlog (Michigan)
“Are we obligated to accept a bowl invite?” – CanesInsight (Miami)
“Bring back Hugh Freeze!” – RebelGrove (Ole Miss)
“Program in decline” – BamaOnline (Alabama)
“Mr. Conservative doesn’t disappoint again!” – GoPokes247 (Oklahoma State)