Hopefully longtime readers of the Misery Index understand that it is mostly a semi-serious vehicle to look back at each college football Saturday and analyze some of the more notable results through the lens of angry fandom — which, in the end, is what makes people so passionate about the sport to begin with.
Rarely is watching this sport or being a fan of a team associated with actual, real life misery. It’s just entertainment, after all. But for maybe the first time in a decade of doing this every week, we saw that very thing unfold Saturday at Florida State.
There’s nothing snarky or funny to say about what happened to the Seminoles against North Alabama, when quarterback Jordan Travis was carted off after a run that ended with part of his lower body bent the wrong way. Though the official diagnosis had not been given Saturday night, we don’t really need one. It’s bad, and it’s almost certainly going to end his season and Florida State’s hopes of making the College Football Playoff.
Quite simply, it’s heartbreaking. It’s brutal. It’s the one truly miserable part of the sport.
The Seminoles eventually won the game, 58-13, but that hardly mattered. You could tell in the body language on their sideline and in the morose tone of coach Mike Norvell’s halftime interview that the score didn’t seem so important.
For the team, for the coaching staff and for the fans, this is as bad as it gets. Florida State had been building for years toward a season like this, and it could hardly have been going better. The Seminoles had passed every test, starting in Week 1 with LSU and running all the way through the ACC schedule. All that realistically stood between Florida State and the playoff was a trip to underwhelming Florida next week and a date with Louisville in the ACC championship game.
Everyone who plays or watches football understands that an entire season or career can change with one bad step or one dangerous tackle. But the idea that it would happen in a throwaway game against an FCS team? Who could even come up with something so awful?
Travis, a sixth-year senior, had improved every year in Norvell’s program to the point where he became one of the best quarterbacks in the sport. He didn’t deserve his college career to end this way, and neither did his teammates, whose hopes of doing something special this season were largely in his hands.
But that’s the reality for Florida State, and it just stinks. There’s not much more you can say.
For the sport of college football, though, it’s also a big potential problem.
Let’s say the Seminoles find a way to beat Florida and Louisville anyway and are sitting there at 13-0 on Dec. 3. Typically, an unbeaten Power Five conference champion would have no issue getting into the College Football Playoff.
But the field is chosen by a committee whose charge is to pick the four best teams in the country. With Travis, an unbeaten Florida State would pretty clearly be in that group. Without Travis, it seems like a stretch.
If Florida State does manage to finish off an unbeaten year, it would be pretty cruel — especially under these circumstances — to leave out a team that’s done everything it was supposed to do. But the purpose of the Playoff is to decide a national title, and a team that loses its starting quarterback and offensive engine in the 11th game of the season isn’t the same team that we saw through the first 2½ months.
In the NFL, it doesn’t matter. If you qualify for the playoffs but suffer a major injury at the end of the season that dooms your chances of winning the Super Bowl, you’re still in the playoffs. For better or worse, college football doesn’t work that way. It’s a somewhat subjective endeavor, and at least until next season when it expands to 12 teams, there are only four spots available.
The CFP committee has been very lucky over the years to avoid pretty much any truly tough decision. But this FSU situation could present a real conundrum when they have to weigh what’s best for the playoff with what’s fair.
If an injury against North Alabama is what costs the Seminoles a playoff bid that seemed so likely when they woke up Saturday morning, it has to go down as one of the unluckiest moments in the history of the sport.
Four more in misery
Michigan: Beyond the real-time NCAA investigation that cost linebackers coach Chris Partridge his job on Friday and has cast serious doubt over Jim Harbaugh’s long-term future with the Wolverines as he serves a three-game suspension, there’s a bubbling question as it relates to their current goal of winning a national championship. Is Michigan actually that good? The Wolverines have managed to get to 11-0 while beating just two teams that currently have seven or more wins. One of them was Penn State, which doesn’t ever beat elite teams, and the other was UNLV. It is totally fair to wonder whether Michigan has been tested enough to properly prepare for Ohio State next weekend. Also, after a pretty uninspiring 31-24 win over Maryland, it’s a real question mark whether the Wolverines are even good enough to beat the Buckeyes. Maryland has been far from a defensive juggernaut this year, and Michigan managed just 291 yards of offense. Sorry, Michigan fans, but that’s a major red flag heading into the biggest game of the year.
Auburn: There are a lot of things about the current state of Auburn football that Hugh Freeze could reasonably blame on his predecessor. Bryan Harsin just didn’t understand the job and didn’t do it very well, particularly when it came to talent acquisition in the SEC. Losing to New Mexico State in arguably the worst Auburn performance in decades, however, is 100% on Freeze. New Mexico State is a good Conference USA team with an excellent coach in Jerry Kill, but when a program like Auburn loses to a program like that, it’s a calamity. And Auburn didn’t just lose, it got walloped 31-10 at home in a game that certainly didn’t seem like a fluke. Auburn didn’t turn it over and didn’t have an unusual amount of penalties. It just couldn’t run the ball (2.5 yards per rush), didn’t protect quarterback Payton Thorne very well and never made any impact on the New Mexico State defense. Auburn’s had enough bad teams on its schedule to eke out bowl eligibility at 6-5, but this has been a highly unimpressive debut season for a coach with a pretty good track record of instant success in his previous stops.
Southern Cal: Lincoln Riley brought a future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with him to Los Angeles and still didn’t manage to win as many games in his first two seasons as Clay Helton. You remember Helton, don’t you? He’s the guy USC fired so that it could make the big splash hire its boosters and administration wanted in Riley, who left Oklahoma for a massive 10-year contract. USC was right to move on from Helton, but it’s simply a fact that he went 21-6 with a Pac-12 title in his first two full seasons. Riley, meanwhile, is sitting at 18-8 with no conference championships after a putrid 38-20 loss at home to UCLA to close a 7-5 regular season. This is going to be a long, embarrassing offseason for the Trojans after losing five of their last six games. Riley isn’t just going to have to hire a new defensive coordinator after firing Alex Grinch, he needs a top-to-bottom reality check about what kind of program he wants to run. And with Caleb Williams almost certainly departing to the NFL, it’s not like the immediate future looks exceptionally bright.
North Carolina: Tar Heel fans should have a lot of gratitude toward Mack Brown for coming out of the television booth and restoring a decent baseline level of competence to their football program. But at age 72, Brown has hit the ceiling of what he can accomplish in his second go-round in Chapel Hill. Yes, 8-3 is always a pretty good season for North Carolina with the possibility of hitting nine or 10 wins. But it’s also been a year of underachievement with no wins that really stand out and head-scratching losses to the likes of Georgia Tech and Virginia. Given the incredibly soft schedule, North Carolina should have been 10-0 heading into Clemson on Saturday in a game that should have really mattered in the national picture. But the Tar Heels weren’t 10-0, so it didn’t matter much that they lost 31-20. And that’s kind of the problem here. After five years, it’s probably time for Mack to enjoy a nice retirement and for UNC to start looking toward the future.
Miserable, but not miserable enough
Colorado: There’s no reason to be alarmed about the Buffs’ late-season collapse, which was punctuated by a 56-14 loss to Washington State. If they lose next week at Utah to finish 4-8, that’s actually major progress in Deion Sanders’ first season. What is alarming, however, is Colorado ranks just 63rd in the 247 Sports recruiting rankings with signing day coming up soon. Coach Prime will undoubtedly raid the transfer portal again this offseason, but historically that isn’t the best place to fix the offensive line, which is clearly Colorado’s biggest problem. You’d think all the hype would have translated to a few more blue-chippers by this point.
James Madison: It was a tough break, but a predictable one, when the NCAA denied the Dukes’ request to waive the two-year probationary period for FBS newcomers so that they could play in a bowl game this season. The best revenge for James Madison would have been to go unbeaten and have all of America howling at the injustice of it all. It might still be unjust, but after losing 26-23 in overtime to Appalachian State the cold reality is that fewer people are going to pay attention or care about their cause.
Baylor: The school’s administration likes Dave Aranda. For a variety of reasons, including the quality of person he is and how well the program is run off the field, they don’t want to fire him. (And yes, at Baylor, both of those things matter given the scars of past football administrations.) But at some point, the results have to be part of the equation as well. A 42-17 loss to TCU, one week after a 59-25 blowout at Kansas State, will at minimum make it very clear that Aranda needs to turn it around next year. But it’s hard to sell Baylor fans on bringing back a coach who goes 3-9, which is where Aranda is likely headed barring an upset of West Virginia next week. That Big 12 title in 2021 seems far in the past.