It was right there, Tennessee.
Given all the chaos in college football over the last few weeks, all the Vols had to do was beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt, then kick their heels up and watch championship weekend from their couch. If they won both games, a berth in the College Football Playoff was all but locked up.
So what does Tennessee do? They didn’t just lose Saturday to South Carolina, they got absolutely exposed and embarrassed, 63-38, proving that coach Josh Heupel – and his ballyhooed offensive system – just wasn’t ready for prime time.
South Carolina scored touchdowns on its first five offensive possessions, then got into the end zone on four straight trips in the second half after Tennessee pulled within 35-31. In the end, a South Carolina team that had just 237 yards of offense last week against Florida (and just 203 in a home setback to Missouri on Oct. 29) came up with 606 yards against a team that many pundits and Vol fans already had penciled into the semifinals.
That will leave a mark.
Though this season was an overall net positive for the Vols after the clown show this program has been for the last 15 seasons, the way this season developed was a rare opportunity. Under Heupel, the Vols looked almost unstoppable offensively at times and had notched wins over Alabama and LSU. Even with just a little bit of help, their playoff argument was strong.
But Tennessee just completely fell apart under pressure and suffered one of the most lopsided losses in the modern era for a team that was favored by three touchdowns. In the process, quarterback Hendon Hooker suffered what appeared to be a pretty serious leg injury in the fourth quarter.
In other words, pretty much every dream Tennessee fans had for this season — a playoff berth and a Heisman Trophy win for Hooker — vanished in the span of a couple hours. And to think, all they had to do was beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
That’s why the Vols are No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of which fan bases are feeling the most angst about the state of their program.
Winners and losers:Michigan, TCU survive close calls; Tennessee stumbles
Week 12 rundown:What you need to know about college football’s Top 25 games
Four more in misery
North Carolina: Basketball season has started, which means Tar Heel fans are no longer beholden to the sport they hold in lesser regard. However, their football team going into championship weekend with a remote chance to make the College Football Playoff would have demanded at least a bit of their attention span during the holidays. No need to worry about that anymore, though. The Tar Heels posted perhaps the most humorous result of the season in a 21-17 loss at home to Georgia Tech, giving fans a permission slip to check out on whatever happens from here.
You can’t really call North Carolina a fraud, since fraud implies that people thought this team was actually capable of doing something special. In reality, the Tar Heels were always a team with a questionable defense whose 9-1 record before this weekend was a castle built of sand. After blowing a 17-0 lead to Georgia Tech, whose search for a new coach will ramp up significantly over the next couple weeks, North Carolina fans can now put their entire focus on trying to get back to the Final Four.
Stanford: There has been increased speculation recently about whether this might be David Shaw’s last season on The Farm. It should be. Whether it’s a firing (less likely) or Shaw stepping away to do something else (more likely), the joy and promise of what Stanford football can be is gone.
It’s remarkable to think about how close Stanford came to playing for a national title under Shaw between 2011-2015. With a little luck, it could have happened three times. And as college football was evolving into a more wide-open game, Stanford was a fun-to-watch antidote that simply wanted to beat the crap out of people at the line of scrimmage.
But those days are gone, and they’ve been gone awhile. Stanford’s 27-20 loss to Cal dropped the Cardinal to 3-8 overall and 1-8 in the Pac-12, its worst season since 2006 under Walt Harris (who was fired that year). With Shaw posting a losing record for the third time in four seasons, his tenure has clearly run its course.
Michigan State: There is something oddly appropriate about a coach whose contract broke the entire salary structure of college football coming back the next year and missing the postseason. That is the likely fate for Mel Tucker, whose Spartans were shocked by Indiana 39-31 in double overtime and will be 5-6 when they head to Penn State next weekend.
Tucker’s 10-year, $95 million contract, which was earned on the basis of exceeding expectations last season, truly looks like the sport’s version of cryptocurrency: All hype with nothing of substance backing the asset other than speculation that it will grow in value.
To be fair, writing off Tucker as a Big Ten factor over the long haul would be foolish. Michigan State is not a blue blood, and there are going to be some ups and downs. Whether Tucker can successfully navigate them, however, is a total unknown — yet he is being compensated like a coach with a track record of national titles.
That shouldn’t be the expectation for Tucker. But part of being a really good program, and having the elite contract that his more accomplished peers have, is producing year-to-year consistency. If Tucker can’t do that better than he did this season, it’s going to be a rough decade for the Spartans.
Florida: Do you remember when we were talking about the Gators as a sneaky SEC East contender and quarterback Anthony Richardson as a guy who could win the Heisman Trophy? It wasn’t actually that long ago — Sept. 3, in fact — when Florida started the Billy Napier era with a 29-26 win over Utah.
What’s happened since, though, isn’t a good look. The Gators are as milquetoast and mediocre as a blue-blood program can be. After falling 31-24 to Vanderbilt — yes, Vanderbilt — for just the second time since 1988, the Gators are 6-5 and staring at one of those seasons that have gotten several recent Florida coaches fired.
Of course, that’s not going to happen with Napier. He’s in his first year, and there was an understanding when he came in that the program’s talent base had declined under Dan Mullen. Still, it’s Florida! You can’t be 6-6 at Florida, which is the likely outcome after next week’s game at red-hot Florida State. This is a school that fired Will Muschamp after his fourth season, Jim McElwain midway through his third season and Dan Mullen midway through his fourth season despite posting top-15 finishes in his first three.
In other words, the clock is already ticking on Napier, and he should be under no illusions about that. If he isn’t competitive at the top of the SEC next season, his seat will be as hot as Chernobyl.
Miserable but not miserable enough
Mississippi: After blowing a huge opportunity last week against Alabama and then spending this week listening to all kinds of rumors that Lane Kiffin is being wooed by Auburn, it’s no surprise the Rebels were completely lifeless in a 42-27 loss at Arkansas. In fact, the score didn’t even do it justice as Arkansas led 42-6 early in the third quarter. But that’s standard fare for Ole Miss in the last quarter century. Just when it looks like the Rebels are on the verge of breaking through, reality smacks them right in the face.
Nebraska: For about 59 minutes, the Cornhuskers were a better team than Wisconsin. But that didn’t matter Saturday. Of course it didn’t. Nebraska’s nightmare is seemingly never-ending, and a 15-14 loss to the Badgers confirms that this program needs big, bold action with its next coaching hire to rescue it from permanent irrelevance. Though it’s only one game, allowing a game-winning touchdown with 35 seconds to go after leading 14-3 early in the fourth quarter is emblematic of how frustrating the last few years have been. At 3-8, Nebraska’s problems are deeper than Scott Frost or interim coach Mickey Joseph. The entire attitude and culture of the program needs to change, or else the Huskers will be thought of going forward not as a historic blue-blood falling on hard times but as irrevocable losers with little hope of regaining their swagger.
Baylor: The Bears were the latest team to fall victim to the magic of TCU, losing 29-28 on a walk-off field goal after leading 28-20 deep in the fourth quarter. At 6-5, any type of hope for Baylor to flip the narrative of this season is gone. It’s a disappointment, for sure. But having the chance to ruin hated rival TCU’s playoff hopes, only to have it ripped away at the very end, will be a bitter reality to live with for the next 12 months.
Rutgers: Though Greg Schiano did one of the most remarkable program-building jobs in the modern era of college football between 2001-11, his second stint at Rutgers has offered little hope that he can rekindle the magic. After a 55-10 loss at home to Penn State, Rutgers is now 6-20 under Schiano in the Big Ten and will finish with a losing record for a third straight year. This Rutgers team has had a horrendous offense, and its only wins were against Boston College, Wagner, Temple and Indiana. If that’s the best you can do, it’s hard to make much of a case that there’s hope of becoming relevant in the Big Ten.
Nevada: After four straight winning seasons under Jay Norvell, the Wolfpack has built a strong case this year as the worst team in FBS. Not only is Nevada now 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Mountain West — never has this program gone winless in a conference season — it has failed to score 21 points seven times. That is a remarkable run of offensive futility under first-year coach Ken Wilson, who got the job largely because he was an assistant at Nevada from 1989 to 2012.