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Misery Index notebook: Clemson's offense out of sync, Nebraska backed into a corner

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Florida leads this week's Misery Index after a 49-42 loss to LSU. Here are the others that made the index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched:

FOUR MORE IN MISERY

Clemson: It wasn’t so long ago that Clemson was the standard for what the modern spread offense looked like in college football. What started with coordinator Chad Morris and quarterback Tajh Boyd turned into a national championship formula in the hands of Deshaun Watson and a unique play calling combo of Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. When it worked even better with Trevor Lawrence, a quarterback with a different physical gifts and skills, Clemson started to look like a fast-and-fun, plug-and-play program. But this season, Clemson isn’t just a bad offense, it’s a miserable offense to watch. Though the 4-2 Tigers managed to hang on and beat Syracuse 17-14 Friday night, it was another game where they looked completely out of sync in the passing game, couldn’t do much running the ball and needed a fake punt late in the first half to help establish a lead they nursed the rest of the way. As a result, it didn’t feel like much of a win to Clemson fans, who are suddenly back to drinking on a cheap beer budget after developing a taste for Dom Perignon from their success of the last decade. For now, that ire is being directed mostly at Elliott, who is now the solo play caller, and offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell. But it’s also clear that Clemson has made some recruiting and evaluation mistakes along the way, and it doesn’t seem like a sure thing that the Tigers are going to get their title-winning mojo back right away.

WINNERS AND LOSERS: Georgia, LSU and Iowa highlight best and worst in college football's Week 7

LOOKING AHEAD: How the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll could look after Iowa's shocking loss in Week 7

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez tries to get away from Minnesota's Esezi Otomewo in the Huskers' 30-23 loss in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez tries to get away from Minnesota's Esezi Otomewo in the Huskers' 30-23 loss in Minneapolis on Saturday.

Nebraska: Even though their record didn’t get better, the Misery Index excluded the Huskers lately because of the perception they were so, so close to breaking through. After an eye-catching win over Northwestern and then a highly competitive three-point loss to Michigan, Scott Frost declared, “It’s going to happen.” But Nebraska fans have heard this refrain a few times before. After losing at Wisconsin in 2018, Frost said, “I think we’ve finally turned the corner.” Last November, Frost said said he was frustrated that a game against Wisconsin was canceled due to COVID-19 because, "I think our program’s ready to turn a big-time corner.” That’s an awful lot of corners — so many, in fact, that at this point Nebraska’s like a lab rat stuck in a maze with no idea how to get out. It certainly didn’t come closer to happening for Frost after a 30-23 loss to Minnesota, representing an obvious end to the narrative that Nebraska was progressing toward something meaningful. Unlike a few previous losses, the Huskers didn’t suffer from heartbreaking mistakes or special teams gaffes — they just got outplayed. And at 3-5 with games remaining against Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, it will take a miracle for Frost to avoid four straight losing seasons at his alma mater.

Virginia Tech: Justin Fuente probably understood this marriage wasn’t meant to last when he flirted with what many would consider an inferior job at Baylor following the 2019 season while in the midst of an overhaul of his Virginia Tech staff. Though Fuente remaining in Blacksburg was framed as his decision, others would suggest that Baylor was headed in a different direction (ultimately Dave Aranda) anyway and he didn’t have the option to leave. Since that moment — and probably even before that, too — the alchemy just hasn’t seemed right. Virginia Tech’s 28-7 loss at home to Pittsburgh was the Hokies’ eighth in their last 12 games against Power Five opponents. That doesn’t include last November’s horrific loss to Liberty or the 2018 loss to Old Dominion, which are particularly problematic since they are in-state opponents with a fraction of the advantages and tradition Virginia Tech enjoys. It’s hard to say how realistic or unrealistic expectations are at Virginia Tech, given that there’s no real context for the program outside of the Frank Beamer era. But the Hokies have felt like a middling ACC program for awhile now at a place that demands more, and Fuente just hasn’t been able to pull them out of it. At 3-3, the countdown to change is on.

Texas: Fans of the Longhorns might want to start turning the games off at halftime from here on out to avoid a heartbreak. Or maybe we should call it a Sarkbreak. Either way, Texas’ atrociousness in the second half appears to know no limits after a 32-24 loss to Oklahoma State. After controlling the game for the first 35 minutes, Texas disintegrated faster than bouillon cubes in boiling water. In the fourth quarter, the Longhorns got outscored 16-0, had one net yard of offense on eight plays and committed a turnover while allowing an average of 6.9 yards to Oklahoma State on 26 plays. On top of last week’s meltdown against Oklahoma, when the Longhorns coughed up a 38-20 halftime lead, Steve Sarkisian’s “All Gas, No Brakes” catchphrase should probably be shelved until Texas proves that its pipeline won’t leak and cause an environmental disaster after 30 minutes of football. Though Texas clearly needed to move on from Tom Herman, it would be hard to differentiate to this point what has really changed under Sarkisian. At 4-3, it’s going to be difficult to measure progress in either wins or substance since the Longhorns seem to be just as up-and-down, just as emotionally fragile under the laid-back Sarkisian as they were under the hard-charging Herman. This is now the point in the season where Texas fans typically check out, and they’ve had a lot of practice over the last decade. It’s going to take a lot of work by Sarkisian to reverse that trend.

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY

Missouri: The hiring of Steve Wilks to run the Tigers’ defense is turning out to be perhaps the worst personnel move of any major program this season. Though Missouri has a talent problem to be sure, they just can’t stop anyone — and a lot of fingers are being pointed at Wilks, who had been in the NFL since 2006. Either way, Saturday’s 35-14 loss to Texas A&M was basically over after the Aggies scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, including one score on a third-and-15 run. Texas A&M didn’t play particularly well after that, but when you’re up three touchdowns for nearly the entire game, it hardly matters. Missouri was a surprisingly feisty team in 2020, but at 0-3 in the SEC this year (and allowing an average of 44 points in those games), it’s not a mystery where the blame will get pointed.

Duke: The Misery Index is never shy about being the bearer of bad news. In fact, it’s a responsibility. And thus, we must be honest about the state of things in Durham. For David Cutcliffe, one of college football’s all-time miracle workers and nice guys, it’s probably time to hand things off to somebody else. The 67-year old Cutcliffe had an unbelievable run between 2012-2018 with six bowl appearances and one ACC Coastal division title. But there’s been a pretty significant drop-off since then, and the Blue Devils are 6-18 dating back to the middle of the 2019 season. Not that the Duke fan base gets particularly exercised about the state of the football program, but the whole point of the Cutcliffe era was not to be an embarrassment. After Saturday’s 48-0 loss at Virginia, Duke is kind of back in that territory. We’ll see how the 3-4 Blue Devils finish up, but it feels like a change could be needed.

Cal: The Bears were impacted significantly by COVID-19, having to operate under severe local restrictions and playing just four games in 2020. Before that, they were one of the least pleasant teams in the Pac 12 to play, knocking off a ranked opponent in each of Justin Wilcox’s first three seasons and playing several others right to the wire because of how smart and hard they competed defensively. But since the pandemic, Cal is just 2-8 and has been arguably the nation’s unluckiest team this season with four losses by a combined 21 points. In Friday’s 24-17 loss at Pac 12 favorite Oregon, Cal ran eight plays inside the Ducks’ 7-yard line in the final 35 seconds and couldn’t get in the end zone to tie the game or potentially win it on a 2-point conversion. The sheer statistical improbability of not scoring in that situation boggles the mind, but losing teams find ways to lose. And Cal’s streak of finishing outside the top-25 every year since 2008 will continue for another season.

Navy: It’s been a bizarre season for the Midshipmen, including the firing of longtime offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper by athletics director Chet Gladchuk, only to have him reinstated after after a plea from coach Ken Niumatalolo. Navy also had to fire an assistant who refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, Navy remains mired in mediocrity after a 35-17 loss to Memphis dropped its record to 1-5 with Cincinnati next up and Notre Dame still to come after that. Should the Midshipmen lose both games, they’ll finish with a losing record for the third time in the last four years. Though it didn’t stick, Gladchuk’s preemptive move against Jasper suggests that there’s real impatience with the state of the program and that Navy may be headed for a significant offseason refresh for the first time in quite awhile.

North Texas: Coach Seth Littrell’s career arc should be a cautionary tale for any Group of Five coach who has some success but doesn’t get the heck out at the first opportunity. After winning nine games in his second and third seasons, including a trip to the Conference USA championship game, Littrell looked like the next hot coaching prospect from the Air Raid family. But after the 2018 season, Littrell never quite got to the finish line after serious discussions with Kansas State. At that point, he was the highest-paid coach in C-USA and North Texas continued to invest in his contract and his staff. But the returns are diminishing — quickly. The Mean Green probably isn’t C-USA’s worst team, but at 1-5 (with the lone win coming against Northwestern State) and coming off a 49-21 home loss to Marshall, it’d be hard to tell the difference. North Texas is 6-12 in the league since 2019 and headed for its third straight losing season, and now he’s far more likely to be fired than to get promoted to the Power Five.

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Mullen doesn’t hate losing enough” - gatorcountry.com (Florida)

“Will Dabo’s arrogance be his undoing?” - tigerillustrated.com (Clemson)

“At least Iowa is still the fake ID of college football” - huskeronline.com (Nebraska)

“I may put myself in the transfer portal” - orangebloods.com (Texas)

“Small, slow and can’t tackle…no way to go through life son.” - techsideline.com (Virginia Tech)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clemson's offense sputtering, Nebraska stuck in neutral: Misery Index