Misery Index: South Carolina's debacle of a season reaches new low, Michigan State floundering

Dan Wolken

Everyone who looked at South Carolina's schedule knew this was going to be a difficult year. In addition to the usual suspects in the SEC East and its annual game against Clemson, Will Muschamp’s team drew the short straw on its rotating conference crossover game, replacing Ole Miss with Alabama. 

In other words, all the ingredients were there for this to be a debacle — especially if something catastrophic happened like an injury to a key player. Of course, that exact scenario played out when starting quarterback Jake Bentley suffered a season-ending injury in the opener against North Carolina, forcing freshman Ryan Hilinski into the lineup right away. 

So perhaps it's no surprise that South Carolina sits here today with a 4-6 record that could easily turn into 4-8 with games left against Texas A&M and Clemson. But the route to get here has been curious, with some really promising performances (a win over Georgia, for instance) and some really bad ones (getting blown out by Tennessee and Missouri). 

But losing to Appalachian State on Saturday 20-15 is the one that will spark a lot of conversations about the future of the program. Is Muschamp the right guy? Well, for everyone involved, he better be. South Carolina would owe him $19 million if it made a change this year, and that’s some pretty deep water for a program that wouldn’t necessarily have a clear path to an upgrade. 

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Appalachian State linebacker Jordan Fehr tackles South Carolina receiver Xavier Legette during their game Saturday.

At the same time, when a coach is in his fourth year and loses at home to a Sun Belt team that only had 202 yards of offense, nobody’s going to be happy. Muschamp probably overachieved in his first two years at South Carolina and has had some notable wins along the way. But as the SEC East gets more difficult given what Florida and Georgia are doing, not to mention an improving Tennessee, fans are going to be increasingly desperate for some confidence about which direction this thing is headed. 

It’s too early to fire Muschamp this year given all the factors involved. But if South Carolina does go 4-8, the offseason in Columbia promises to be unpleasant for all involved, setting up a 2020 schedule that will have lots of implications for the program’s future. 

That’s why South Carolina is No. 1 in the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched. 


Penn State: James Franklin could end up in the middle of the coaching carousel’s biggest bidding war in a few weeks. Both Southern Cal and Florida State could make a run at him, and there’s no doubt that Franklin’s 77-37 record as a college coach places him among elite company. And yet, on days like today, you can’t blame Penn State fans for wondering if this is really as good as it gets with Franklin. It's never easy to win them all, or even all the games you’re supposed to win in college football. But Franklin seems to have a game a year where Penn State just doesn’t play well in a big spot — and it’s costly. Despite a sluggish start, Penn State had its chances late in a 31-26 loss at Minnesota, stalling after driving to the Minnesota 11-yard line with 1:44 remaining. And had the Nittany Lions converted, they’d not only be positioned for an epic showdown of unbeatens against Ohio State on Nov. 23. So this one goes into the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” pile alongside close losses to Michigan State each of the last two years and the Pitt loss early in 2016 that cost Penn State a Playoff berth. 

Michigan State: The conversation around the Spartans has shifted in the last few weeks. It’s not just about what moves Mark Dantonio will make to fix a program that is now clearly malfunctioning, it's whether he will choose to take that challenge on at all. It would be too easy to say that losing 37-34 to Illinois in a game it once led 31-10 is a low point because the entire season has basically been a low point. But it is a real mess, and the 63-year old Dantonio is going to face a choice — do what's necessary to overhaul the program or let someone else do the job. It’s sad if this is how it ends because Dantonio's run from 2010-15 was really amazing with three Big Ten titles and a College Football Playoff appearance. Every year, the Spartans were one of the best teams in the country, which is no easy feat at Michigan State. But 24-23 since then just isn’t good enough, and whether it’s an incompetent offense or meltdown in the fourth quarter against Illinois, things seem to be getting worse each week. 

Kentucky: There’s a pretty interesting dynamic around Mark Stoops, who is going to wrap up his seventh season at Kentucky pretty soon. Despite the fact he’s 40-44 overall, he’s not only considered a top-notch coach but potentially an A-list candidate for the open job at Florida State. The logic behind that is that Kentucky is a really hard job, and Stoops has done well to get the Wildcats to three straight bowl games including the big breakout season last year when they went 10-3 and beat Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. But isn’t it fair to simultaneously be a bit disappointed at some of the potential big wins Stoops has left on the table? Saturday’s 17-13 loss to Tennessee falls squarely into that category, as the Wildcats didn’t score again after taking a 13-0 lead and couldn’t punch it in at the end of the game despite having first-and-goal at the 6-yard line. Stoops, in fact, is now just 1-6 against the Vols during a period where Tennessee has not exactly been a healthy program (Vanderbilt, for example, has four wins over the Vols during the same span). Stoops has done well at Kentucky overall, but when you really dig into the record, it could easily look better. 

N.C. State: The Wolfpack had the misfortune of catching Clemson the same week the Tigers got disrespected by the College Football Playoff selection committee, so there was absolutely no chance of a let-up by Dabo Swinney and crew. And that’s a tough place to be when you’ve got your own issues, of which N.C. State has plenty. Clemson could have won this game by any score it wanted, though it was the prudent thing to do for Swinney to remove his starters after taking a 49-7 lead on the first series of the third quarter. Curiously, though, Swinney called for an exclamation point with 2:45 left when Clemson recovered a fumbled punt. Instead of kneeling on the ball to run out the clock, he pushed for a touchdown — and got it with 11 seconds left to wrap up a 55-10 win. Was that a shot at the selection committee for placing the Tigers No. 5 last week? Or was it about a prior beef with N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, who has had some minor dust-ups with Swinney in the past? Either way, the Wolfpack have some coin-flip games down the stretch that will determine whether it makes a sixth straight bowl game. If not, this will be Doeren’s worst year at N.C. State since his first in 2013, and at some point being stuck in the mushy middle of the ACC is going to get awful boring for a program that expects to be a bit better than that. 


UCF: Even with two losses, there was a shred of hope for the Knights that they could somehow backdoor their way into the AAC title game, win that one and perhaps make a New Year’s Six bowl for a third straight year if they could get a little help from Boise State. But a third loss to Tulsa on Friday night 34-31 takes that scenario completely off the table. The aura of UCF as the AAC’s dominant program is pretty much gone now, as a 3-7 Tulsa team dominated the fourth quarter while UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel struggled (23-of-38, 290 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) when the game was hanging in the balance. UCF has the infrastructure to bounce back next year, but it's unlikely there will ever be another two-year run like the one they just had. 

North Texas: When you’re in a league like Conference USA, you can go from the hot up-and-coming program to the trash heap in the blink of an eye. A year ago, everyone was talking up North Texas as the next Group of Five school with a chance to break through nationally — as long as it could keep suitors away from coach Seth Littrell. But instead of winning the league as many pundits predicted, North Texas has stumbled to a 4-6 record, with Saturday’s 52-17 loss to Louisiana Tech serving as the exclamation point on a very disappointing year. Though the Mean Green’s offense has generally functioned at a high level this season (the defense is another story altogether), it was a real struggle after senior quarterback Mason Fine got hurt late in the first half. 

Vanderbilt: The Commodores have had some pretty terrible offensive teams over the years, but few individual performances as bad as Saturday’s 56-0 loss to Florida. Vanderbilt’s 128 offensive yards actually doesn't look too bad when you consider it had just 9 net yards on 29 plays at one point in the third quarter. After the game, coach Derek Mason told reporters that there were going to be major changes offensively. The problem is, what's left of the season is short and Mason’s time to actually get it fixed may be up unless first-year athletics director Malcolm Turner is willing to overlook this disaster of a 2-7 season. 

Stanford: The reality is starting to sink in. Stanford is back to being mediocre at football. It has been a pretty incredible run of consistency for the Cardinal with 10 straight winning seasons and a couple flirtations with the national championship race. But year by year, the aura of Stanford football has started to fade into a place where you just don't know what you're going to get from week to week. Stanford's opportunity to get a win at Colorado slipped away when the Buffs went 61 yards in 13 plays and hit a 37-yard field goal at the buzzer for a 16-13 win. Stanford is 4-5 and needs to win at Washington State next week in the worst way. But there’s a bigger question for the program. Once the hot name for nearly every big job, nobody talks much about David Shaw anymore. But is it getting so difficult to maintain excellence at Stanford that he finally starts looking around for something different after nine years at his alma mater?

Northwestern: All year long, Northwestern fans have been griping about the offense and coordinator Mick McCall. And those complaints aren't without merit — the Wildcats remain last in FBS with 3.9 yards per play. But when a team of that ilk actually plays a decent game on offense and still finds a way to lose, that’s when you know you’re just having a really horrible year. Despite out-gaining Purdue 435-345, the Boilermakers kicked a 39-yard field goal with three seconds left to beat Northwestern, 24-22, sending the Wildcats to 1-8. It’s a year unlike anything Northwestern has experienced since the late 1990s, and it comes just 11 months after one of their great successes under Pat Fitzgerald in making the Big Ten title game. For Northwestern fans, 2020 can’t get here fast enough. 


“0% chance this staff can get us where we want to be” - The Big Spur (South Carolina)

“I’m glad we fulfilled our yearly duty to the Vols" - Cats Illustrated

“Does Dantonio still get a statue?" - Spartan Tailgate

“We have reached the abyss" - Vandymania

"Heupel is not the answer" - UCFSports.com