The College Football Playoff has created huge upside for fans of college football and nothing but trouble for the coaches trying to get there. Before the Playoff, there were all kinds of ways to measure success that didn’t involve a national championship. But now, it’s fairly clear-cut: You’re in or you’re out.
Oklahoma was used to being in, which is really good. But in the Sooners’ three consecutive trips to the semifinals under Lincoln Riley, some shortcomings have been exposed that would seem worth addressing in coaching and recruiting to close that last gap with the teams that are truly capable of winning a national title.
So when that doesn’t happen, it’s fair to ask why. Why can’t Oklahoma tackle in space? Why do so many opponents seem to play with so much confidence against the Sooners? Why do all these blue chip prospects they get on defense play like average Joes?
Oklahoma has signed 62 recruits rated as four or five stars by rivals.com in its last four recruiting classes while Iowa State, the team it lost to 37-30 on Saturday, has signed three in the same span. And the team it lost to the week before, Kansas State, has signed one.
Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley talks to a referee during Saturday's loss to Iowa State. (Photo: Brian Powers, USA TODAY Sports)
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You can’t expect Oklahoma to win every game where it has more talent, but these back-to-back meltdowns by the Sooners feel significant in a way that a one-off bad performance might not.
Instead of closing the gap with Alabama and Clemson, the Sooners are backsliding. Maybe it’s just a year under adverse circumstances where a bunch of things are going wrong at once. Or maybe there’s something more concerning.
But Oklahoma isn’t really a young team overall; in fact, its defensive two-deep is loaded with experience. This is the second year of Alex Grinch’s system, which should have pointed to some kind of improvement on defense. Besides the quarterback position — and, to be clear, Spencer Rattler isn’t the problem here — this wasn’t supposed to be a rebuild. But that’s what the Sooners look like on the field. The last two weeks, they haven’t been able to impose their will physically the way really good programs tend to do in close games.
It’s just kind of puzzling. Though Riley stressed that Oklahoma isn’t really far away from being 3-0, isn’t the point here that they shouldn’t have been close to being 1-2?
No reasonable person would consider it a failure to lose in the semifinals, as Oklahoma has done three years in a row, but Riley has set the bar at making it there. If you fall short — and it appears they’ll fall short spectacularly — that’s a real fork in the road moment for a young coach who has received nothing but praise in his career.
But now there will be real heat for Riley from a fan base whose criticisms have been tepid. After what it has seen so far this season, the angst meter is about to go to the next level. That’s why Oklahoma is No. 1 in the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.
FOUR MORE IN MISERY
Texas: It is unclear whether the Longhorns’ defense is worse than last year, but it's certainly not better. And that’s a problem when you’ve pinpointed defense as the problem, as Tom Herman did after last season, and replaced his coaches with a new staff that wins the offseason but still loses when the lights come on. The narrative for Texas has not changed much. TCU was better prepared and played harder than the Longhorns in a 33-31 win, which is the Horned Frogs’ seventh in nine meetings since joining the Big 12. Despite some sloppy penalties and struggles in the red zone, TCU managed 457 yards of offense, which continues a trend that started the week before when Texas gave up 56 points to Texas Tech. Texas has plenty of resources to throw at its problems, but it isn’t solving many of them year over year. And that’s going to really frustrated Longhorns fans, particularly this season, since it appears the Big 12 is going to be wide open. When Oklahoma’s down like it is this year, the Longhorns should pounce. But for all Herman’s coaching changes, the Sooners don’t appear to be in much better position to take advantage.
Auburn: Gus Malzahncan’t seem to break the cycle of a year or two of a competent offense followed by a year or two where it looks like a fire drill. And when it’s the latter, Auburn fans get mad, as they were after a 27-6 loss to Georgia. Though it’s fair to wonder whether sophomore Bo Nix is really the guy to get Auburn back into SEC title contention down the road — he’s still kind of erratic and unsettled in the pocket — going 21-for-40 for 177 yards against Georgia was as much the product of an offensive line that got manhandled all night. You can’t realistically put Malzahn on the hot seat in this environment — the cost of replacing him and staff would be more than $20 million — but that idea is going to seep into the discourse soon if Auburn continues to be as inept on offense as it looked Saturday.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp's in-game coaching was ripped to shreds by fans and media members alike during a 38-24 loss to Florida. He decided to kick a field goal down by 24 points late in the third quarter and his offense seemed to operate with little urgency in the fourth when trailing by two touchdowns. Muschamp is now 26-27 overall at South Carolina, and the general feeling is the team has leveled off at mediocrity. Muschamp’s conservative coaching style and inability to hire a difference-making offensive coordinator have stalled the progress fans expected to see by now. The Gamecocks should beat Vanderbilt next week, but likely will be underdogs in the next four after that. Things could get ugly quick in Columbia.
Texas A&M: At 14-14, with the ball and some momentum, the opportunity was there for Jimbo Fisher to put some real pressure on the Crimson Tide. Instead, a vanilla series of three plays resulted in a punt, and in a blink, Alabama had expanded the lead to 28-14. That was pretty much that in Texas A&M’s 52-24 loss, a game that did not seem particularly stressful for Alabama because the Aggies did little to make it stressful. Fisher is getting paid $7.5 million a year to at least be a nuisance to the Alabamas of the league. Instead, as he gets into the meat of Year 3, there is far more on-field evidence that Texas A&M is plateauing rather than threatening the best teams in the league.
TRENDING TOWARD MISERY
UCF: Only a truly entitled fan base would be upset about losing five games over the last three seasons, but then again, we’re talking about a school that spent an entire summer crowning itself the national champion even though it had not won a national championship. UCF is experiencing more disappointment lately than it did before, and there was no obvious excuse for a 34-26 loss at home to Tulsa other than the Knights got outplayed by a pretty mediocre football team for the second year in a row. UCF’s blowout wins over Georgia Tech and ECU are in the rear-view mirror and the the Knights are no longer the standard-bearer of the AAC.
Kentucky: There are a million stupid ways to lose football games, and at programs like Kentucky that have a history of near-misses, those moments become lore. Moments like Saturday’s 42-41 overtime loss to Ole Miss tend to reinforce the psychological damage. Though it’s not the first or last time a team will lose because it missed an extra point in overtime, it felt uniquely Kentucky. And though the stakes weren’t particularly high, it’s another layer of scar tissue on top of the lifelong struggle of caring about Kentucky football.
Middle Tennessee: Rick Stockstill has been coaching the Blue Raiders since 2006 and experienced a lot of success, including eight bowl games. From 2015-18, when his son Brent was the team’s starting quarterback, Middle Tennessee went 22-10 in Conference USA games and finished all four seasons with a winning record. Since then, the Blue Raiders are just 4-12 overall and appear headed toward the C-USA basement after a 20-17 loss to Western Kentucky. Even though Stockstill made the program relevant for a long time, this sudden downturn will inspire some calls for change.
TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS
“3rd best team in Oklahoma” – OUInsider.com
“Looks like it will be a race between Texas and OU for Urban Meyer” – orangebloods.com
“The game has passed Jimbo by” -TexAgs.com
“So why does Gus not take the UGA game and Bowl games seriously?” – AuburnUndercover.com
“No wonder Muschamp’s kid went to Georgia” – TheBigSpur.com
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