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Misery Index notebook: Oregon's season ends in predictable disappointment; Texas has completely cratered

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Michigan State leads this week's Misery Index after a 56-7 loss to Ohio State. Here are the others that made the index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched:

Oregon: Any fan of the Ducks that didn’t see this coming had been living in a deep state of denial over the past month. Week after week, it seemed like they were playing with fire against lesser opponents. Heck, they weren’t even favored to beat Utah despite being ranked No. 3 by the College Football Playoff committee. Still, when you get knocked out of the College Football Playoff race with as much force as the Utes delivered in a 38-7 wipeout, it leaves a deep bruise on the season, on the coach and on the program.

Oregon’s win over Ohio State in Week 2 — the game that seemed to announce the Ducks as true contenders this season — feels like an awful long time ago. Instead, this season has settled into the same pattern that the Ducks have had pretty much every season under Mario Cristobal. They’ll win games, they’ll contend for the Pac-12 title and they’ll con the media into overhyping them as a Playoff team. But at some point in the season, they’ll shoot themselves in the foot and lose a game they’re not supposed to lose, putting all that good work at risk. Still, they’ll have a shot at the Playoff until they get completely exposed by a pretty good team and we don’t have to think about them anymore.

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The stupid loss this year wasn’t what happened Saturday. Oregon just got beat in every way by a better, more physical team that exploited every weakness the Ducks had. The inexplicable game occurred on Oct. 2 when they lost to a Stanford team that is headed to 3-9.

This same pattern happened in 2019 when Oregon had a real shot to the make the Playoff but lost a very close season opener to Auburn and then just blew it against a very beatable Arizona State team.

Cristobal has some very clear strengths as a head coach, and his staff has raised the talent level to a point where Oregon has a better roster than every team it plays in the Pac-12. It’s also true that winning every game is hard. Getting emotionally ready to perform week after week is hard. But that’s what is required if you’re going to make the Playoff, and Oregon just does not rise to that challenge. For as much as Cristobal likes to build his program on toughness and winning the line of scrimmage, you can’t disintegrate like tissue paper in a rainstorm a couple times a year and expect everyone to buy it.

Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal reacts in the fourth quarter against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal reacts in the fourth quarter against Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Florida: After beating Missouri last season in a game that is largely remembered for a massive brawl, Dan Mullen showed up at his press conference in a Darth Vader costume for Halloween. Apparently, Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz didn’t forget. Because after the Tigers converted a two-point conversion in overtime to beat Florida, 24-23, Drinkwitz had a light saber hidden in the podium. After pulling his hoodie over his head and brandishing the saber, he walked away from his press conference by saying, "May the force be with you."

Sorry, but when the coach of a 6-5 Missouri team is flexing on you over a year-old stunt, it might be time for some serious conversations. Florida, now at 5-6, will be fighting for its minor bowl game life next weekend against 5-6 Florida State. But that’s not the most important thing going on with the Gators right now.

The way this season has spiraled out of control has put Mullen’s future in the balance, but it’s not a straightforward choice for Florida. Money isn’t really a consideration here, as Mullen’s buyout is a relatively reasonable $12 million. This is a football decision, and there would be real risk in jettisoning someone who has proven over a long period of time to be a very good football coach.

In no other industry would someone with Mullen’s track record be fired over one bad year, especially when there’s no sure-thing upgrade out there for Florida to go get. Mullen made New Year’s Six bowl games in each of his first three years and twice had the Gators ranked in the top-10 of the final poll. It would be almost impossible to imagine the next coach matching that production. If Mullen is fired, the probability is overwhelming that he will be replaced by someone worse.

At the same time, this is an emotional business with a lot of recency bias baked into decisions. And Mullen didn’t cover himself with glory at Missouri, particularly in the final minute of regulation when he made no attempt to gain the 35 yards necessary to get into field goal range and simply let the game go to overtime. When you make decisions like that, you deserve to lose. And when you do it while on the hot seat, you won’t have a lot of defenders among those making the call on your career.

Texas: At least they’ve got a coach who makes the players honor the song, right? Of all the takeaways from Steve Sarkisian’s first season in Austin — which effectively ended Saturday with a 31-23 loss to West Virginia that dropped the Longhorns out of bowl contention at 4-7 — that’s perhaps the one thing Texas boosters can hold onto.

But isn’t that all they really wanted? When Tom Herman supported his players who didn’t want to remain on the field after games for the playing of "The Eyes of Texas" because of the song's racist connotations, it made him quite disposable for the people who really call the $hot$ in Austin. We know, thanks to Texas Monthly’s reporting last year and a trove of emails, how much Herman’s stance irked big-money donors. And when Sarkisian was hired, it was laughably predictable that he proclaimed on his first day: "We're going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that song proudly."

Well, Coach Sark and his players have now been singing it after six straight losses. And if it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now: Year 1 has been a complete bust, full of off-field absurdities in addition to the brutal string of losses.

Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian reacts after the Longhorns' loss to West Virginia.
Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian reacts after the Longhorns' loss to West Virginia.

Though Texas propagandists and athletics director Chris Del Conte will spend the next several months talking about what a tough rebuilding job this is and how Sarkisian is changing the culture, it’s worth remembering that Texas was 7-3 last year and finished 20th in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. Herman did not have a losing season and went 4-0 in bowl games, including beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to cap the 2018 season. You could certainly argue that Texas made the right move in firing him, but Herman’s on-field product was not a disaster.

But this? This is a mess. And Sarkisian’s career 50-42 record as a head coach, including his stops at Washington and USC, does not imbue a ton of confidence into the fan base that he’s going to have this thing rolling by the time the Longhorns join the SEC.

Georgia Tech: For the last 30 years, Yellow Jackets fans have been able to boast that their program won a national championship more recently than their in-state rivals in Athens. Even though Georgia Tech’s program has not been as good as Georgia for most of that time, it’s been a pretty nice card to have in their back pocket. But there’s a legitimate fear those days are coming to an end in the next couple months — a turn of events made even worse by Tech’s worst stretch of football in decades. In fact, until this year, the Yellow Jackets haven’t posted three straight losing seasons since the transition from Bill Lewis to George O’Leary in the early 1990s.

But that doesn’t even tell the full story. Georgia Tech’s incompetence these days is so all-encompassing that it can no longer be blamed on Paul Johnson and the transition away from his triple-option offense. Geoff Collins, an Atlanta-area native whose charm and marketing savvy was supposed to make him a dynamite recruiter, has had three years to show progress. Instead, he’s gone 3-9, 3-7 and 3-8 (pending next Saturday’s expected spanking by the No. 1 Bulldogs) and the best case for keeping him is that some of the losses this year are of a higher quality than the losses in past years. It's harder to make that case after a game like this week against Notre Dame, a 55-0 loss, when the Jackets seemed to let go of the rope a little bit after a string of emotionally tough defeats.

For Collins, who signed a seven-year contract initially, job security could come from Georgia Tech deciding that he deserves one more chance to see how his roster develops. On paper, Collins has done well in recruiting and the transfer portal. Plus, Georgia Tech doesn’t really want to pay a big buyout and start over again. At some point, though, the win-loss record becomes too much to overcome. Georgia Tech isn’t an easy job, but it shouldn’t be quite this hard.

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY

Alabama: Nobody is going to feel sorry for a fan base that is disappointed with being 10-1 and still has a chance for the national title. However, when you’ve watched so many great Alabama teams, you know exactly what it’s supposed to look like. And this team does not look like that. It must really hurt Nick Saban somewhere deep down to watch a team that really can't cover in the secondary, drops passes and makes a lot of mental mistakes in red zone situations. It’s just not the clean, crisp football we’re used to seeing from Alabama, and it really puts the burden on quarterback Bryce Young to be almost perfect to make it work. It never really felt like Alabama was going to lose to Arkansas, but it was very clear in a 42-35 win that they weren't good enough to put the Razorbacks away. That’s been a pretty constant theme with this group, and Saban just can’t seem get the message through. Alabama fans aren’t miserable right now because of the record but because they know if this continues, the Crimson Tide will be made to pay in a couple weeks against Georgia.

Memphis: It’s a credit to the remarkable work done by Justin Fuente and Mike Norvell that the Tigers built an identity over the previous decade as one of the most fun teams to watch in college football, with a breakneck offense perfectly suited to the endless supply of explosive skill players they had in the pipeline. But what happens when the well runs dry? The answer is a program, and a fan base, suddenly second-guessing whether Ryan Silverfield — the continuity candidate championed by the players after Norvell left for Florida State — was actually the right choice to keep Memphis’ success going. Silverfield’s record fell to 13-9 overall after a 31-13 loss to Houston, continuing a strange season from the Tigers in which they’ve had a couple pretty good wins (SMU, Mississippi State) but way too many lethargic losses. Should the Tigers fail to beat Tulane next week, they’ll miss a bowl game for the first time since 2013. Just as concerning as the overall record is that Memphis has slipped to 34th nationally in total offense after finishing 4th, 4th and 10th in Norvell’s final three years. The stakes are high for Memphis right now as the school desperately wants to be included if there’s another round of Big 12 expansion. That makes patience a lot less likely if the administration thinks the slippage is a trend rather than a blip.

Duke: David Cutcliffe showed up at Duke in 2008 trying to turn one of the worst programs in the country into something respectable. Unfortunately, his successor will likely have to do the same exact thing. Though there’s been no official word about Cutcliffe’s future — strangely, he wasn’t asked anything about it after a 62-22 loss to Louisville — the speculation within the industry lately has been that his time at Duke is coming to an end. Nobody wants to push a terrific coach and one of college football’s all-time gentlemen out the door, but the reality can’t be ignored. Cutcliffe is 67 years old. He’s 5-17 over the last two seasons with just one ACC win last year against Syracuse. And the scoreboard has been particularly grisly of late with a 31-point loss to Virginia Tech, a 25-point loss to Pitt, a 38-point loss to Wake Forest and a 48-point loss to Virginia over the last five weeks. It will be a sad way to end the largely successful Cutcliffe era, but it feels like all the hard years of trying to make Duke competitive have finally caught up with him. Fans of Duke football don’t demand much, but going back to the absolute bottom isn’t acceptable.

SMU: It’s probably not a coincidence that since Gary Patterson was fired by TCU on Nov. 1, SMU has played its two worst games of the year, including Saturday’s 48-14 loss to Cincinnati. Why are those two things related? Because TCU’s interest in SMU coach Sonny Dykes — and his interest in the job — is probably the worst-kept secret in college football right now. It doesn’t mean the ink is dry on the contract yet, or that perhaps another school might jump in and make Dykes an offer he can’t refuse.

But when all the speculation around a program centers on a successful coach jumping to a rival school across town as soon as the season ends, you can understand how that might shake up a locker room. Of course, it’s hard to know for sure whether Dykes’ future is the root cause of SMU’s downturn over the past few weeks. It’s possible Cincinnati is just a very good team that was cranked up for a big effort Saturday, and SMU was never going to really compete in that spot. But how do you explain the loss to Memphis on Nov. 6? Something has just been off with SMU, and if Dykes ends up leaving for TCU, he will forever be hated for going to that school and blamed for a potentially special season collapsing.

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

"Apparently the forward pass is needed to win a title." — duckterritory.com (Oregon)

"If you’re Dan Mullen, how do you spend your buyout money?" — swamp247.com (Florida)

"We cannot bargain shop for coaches anymore" — stingtalk.com (Georgia Tech)

"All gas no brakes was just a big fart!" — orangebloods.com (Texas)

"When did we become a Big 12 team?" — bamaonline.com (Alabama)

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oregon, Texas, Florida, Alabama among college football teams in misery