Rivalry week was headlined by pivotal matchups with title game implications including the Apple Cup, Michigan-Ohio State and much more.
Everyone in college football face-plants at one time or another. Sometimes, it comes out of the blue like in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl when unbeaten juggernaut Florida was overwhelmed by Nebraska 62-24, with the national title on the line. “We got clobbered,” Steve Spurrier said afterward. “I’m embarrassed we couldn’t make a game of it.”
Other times, it’s the dam breaking on an accumulation of issues such as the 2015 Rose Bowl when Oregon wrecked Florida State’s 27-game winning streak 59-20.
But by far the worst kind of face-plant is the one that Michigan pulled off Saturday because it was completely out of left field and yet totally in character. Deep in the recesses of every Michigan fan’s psyche, they had to fear that something like Ohio State 62, Michigan 39 was possible even as the team they watched all season showed absolutely no signs that this would be its fate.
Michigan, which had been the best defense in the country by a large statistical margin, suffered the kind of total failure against Ohio State that can be attributed only partly to physical issues. As Bruce Feldman of The Athletic noted, Michigan had given up just seven passing touchdowns in 11 games before Saturday, before Dwayne Haskins threw for six by himself, completing 20 of 31 passes for 396 yards.
Sure, Ohio State may be the best offense Michigan faced all year, but that’s also a mental breakdown for a program with a College Football Playoff berth in its sights against an opponent that has owned the Wolverines this decade. And with Michigan’s defense malfunctioning, its offense had to operate under more pressure to score than it could handle, which led to bad decisions by quarterback Shea Patterson and a score that totally got away from the Wolverines.
And now the finger gets pointed directly at Jim Harbaugh, even though by any other measure a 10-2 season is something to be celebrated. In fact, Harbaugh has won 10 in three of his four seasons at Michigan, but because he’s 0-4 against Ohio State, how much does it really mean?
Harbaugh has proved that he can build a top-level college program, but for all the hype he gets, he’s never proved he can either sustain (he left Stanford for the NFL right after going 12-1 in 2010) or break through that final barrier that remains for Michigan.
Until he does, Saturday’s disaster is going to loom large in the narrative around his program. Perhaps the Wolverines will overcome and grow from it, but for the next 12 months, until they get another shot at Ohio State, they won’t be able to get away from what happened Saturday. And it won’t be much fun for Michigan fans, who quite appropriately earn the No. 1 spot in the final Misery Index of the 2018 season, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.
FOUR MORE IN MISERY
BYU: The so-called “Holy War” series has only grown more bitter since Utah and BYU went their separate ways in 2010. Or, more to the point, since Utah got promoted to the Pac-12 and BYU went off into independence purgatory, adding a layer of jealousy to the contempt. Because of its more high-profile schedule, Utah doesn’t really need to play BYU anymore, but the Cougars need this game desperately — and they keep finding ways to lose it in crushing fashion.
Between 2012 and 2017, Utah won five straight meetings over BYU by a combined 24 points. But nothing will compare to Saturday, when BYU had a 27-7 lead late in the third quarter before giving up touchdowns on four straight series to hand the Utes a 35-27 win. BYU’s offense completely collapsed in the fourth quarter, running 19 plays for 44 yards, which will register as another major blow to the psyche of a fan base that has absorbed a lot of disappointment over the last decade in this rivalry.
Wisconsin: Reality set in a while ago for Badgers fans about what kind of season this was going to be. Still, now that the end is here, it’s worth stepping back for a minute to measure just how disappointing it turned out. Though plenty of teams who started in the preseason top 25 ended up face-planting in various ways, nobody fell from as high a perch as Wisconsin, which began at No. 7 in the Amway Coaches Poll and had legitimate aspirations of making the College Football Playoff.
Though some wrote off a Week 3 loss to BYU as an aberration, it actually was a harbinger of the issues that would plague this team to the finish. In one year Wisconsin went from No. 2 nationally in total defense (262.1 yards per game) to No. 40 (358.8 per game), a drop-off that turned 13-1 into 7-5. And though Saturday’s 37-15 loss to Minnesota in Madison only added insult to an already injured record, there now has to be some fear about whether Wisconsin’s turn at the top of the Big Ten West is over for a long time to come.
Virginia: Since the turn of the millennium, the Hoos’ annual series with Virginia Tech has been a rivalry only in the most cosmetic ways, owing mostly to the fact Frank Beamer was running a national power in Blacksburg while Virginia was generally not very good at football. But with the script flipped this year — Virginia overachieved to get to seven wins while the Hokies struggled to stay above water — this seemed like a prime opportunity to end the Cavs’ 14-year losing streak in the series and also end Virginia Tech’s run of 25 consecutive bowl games.
Instead, Virginia couldn’t hold a seven-point lead with 2:41 left and lost 34-31 in overtime. For Virginia, which lost its last two games in overtime, it was quite simply a heartbreaking end to an otherwise strong season. The difference between 9-3 and 7-5 is huge for perception, but for the Cavaliers, it came down to just a couple of bounces.
Auburn: Nothing could be more representative of why Auburn fans get frustrated with Gus Malzahn than rolling out a high school-ish trick play formation on fourth-and-4 while trailing by 17 in a must-score situation late in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl. The ball ended up being thrown to kicker Anders Carlson, Alabama wasn’t fooled and Auburn got handed a 52-21 loss.
The recourse for this disaster of a 7-5 season will probably be offensive staff changes, as CBS Sports’ Barrett Sallee noted that Auburn finished 114th nationally in offensive plays of 20-plus yards. But everyone knows that regardless of who the coordinator is, the offense is Malzahn’s baby — and he’s been reluctant in the past to give up much control over it. Malzahn’s hefty contract will prevent him from going anywhere or the school from firing him, so the question going into 2019 is how willing is Malzahn to either hand over the offense completely or evolve?
Check out the top 10 teams in the country according to the Amway Coaches Poll following Week 13 of the college football season.
USA TODAY Sports
TRENDING TOWARD MISERY
Florida State: How meaningful was the Seminoles’ bowl streak? A year ago, even as Jimbo Fisher had one foot out the door, they scheduled Louisiana-Monroe as a makeup game for the first Saturday in December to so they could get to 6-6 and make a bowl for the 36th straight year. But this year, there were no Louisiana-Monroes to save Florida State, which ended a 5-7 campaign with a 41-14 loss to Florida. It would take an anthology to document all the issues with the Seminoles, but suffice it to say, talent wasn’t the only problem. Florida State was sloppy, undisciplined and flat-footed from a scheme standpoint all year, pointing directly toward first-year coach Willie Taggart. He must do better next season. He must.
Ole Miss: The Rebels didn’t even wait 12 hours to make their big offseason move, firing defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff the morning after a 35-3 loss to rival Mississippi State that ended the season 5-7. And there’s no doubt Ole Miss needed change after giving up 30-plus points in 15 out of 16 SEC games under McGriff. But is that going to bring back the enthusiasm for a fan base that seems to think Matt Luke is nothing more than a bridge to get out from under NCAA sanctions until the next guy comes along? And if that’s the case, why wait to make the change you’re eventually going to have to make?
Georgia Tech: At least during the Mark Richt era at Georgia, Yellow Jackets fans could at least convince themselves they had a chance. In fact, even though Georgia went 13-2 in this series between 2001 and 2015, seven of those wins were by a touchdown or less. It was a competitive, thriving rivalry. But Kirby Smart has made it lopsided lately with a large talent differential, which may only grow in the near future. It was hard to watch Georgia’s 45-21 domination on Saturday and think anything other than Georgia Tech’s next win in this series may not be for a while.
Oklahoma State: It’s frustrating for fans when they have no idea what to expect out of their team from week to week, and nobody in the country pulled more of a Jekyll-and-Hyde act than the Cowboys. They managed to knock off two teams who were ranked in the top 10 at the time the game was played (Texas and West Virginia), blasted Boise State and came within a two-point conversion of beating Oklahoma. They also lost to four teams in the bottom tier of the Big 12, including Saturday’s 31-24 loss at TCU to finish 6-6. Even with the big wins, it was the worst Oklahoma State season in a decade.
UConn: Jeff Jacobs, the state of Connecticut’s most prominent sports columnist, made the case in November that if Randy Edsall can’t bring UConn back to respectability, the school should look at just dropping football altogether and focusing on basketball. It’s a legitimate question: Is UConn football worth it? The 1-11 Huskies boasted the worst defense in FBS history, allowing 617 yards per game, inspiring Edsall to say “we don’t have the personnel right now to compete in this league.” History shows that even the worst programs can be turned around, but Edsall has a massive job in front of him.
TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS
“Until this team wins in Columbus, there IS no ‘rivalry’” — themichiganinsider.com
“Anyone who post to keep Gus is obviously a Bammer” — auburnundercover.com
“Biggest choke job in the history of the rivalry. Well done, Kalani.” — cougarboard.com (BYU)
“Man I really like Taggart, but God we suck.” — warchant.com
“What happened to…Tough…Smart…Dependable?” — buckyville.com (Wisconsin)