Misery Index: Another sad loss shows how far Auburn has fallen

The first step toward Auburn ironing out its football future came Saturday when reports surfaced from multiple outlets that the school was targeting Mississippi State’s John Cohen to be its new athletics director.   

The deal isn’t official, but it seems to be heading that direction. And it’s a curious choice, given that he’s a Mississippi State alum and former baseball coach who only moved to the administrative side in 2016. That’s not to suggest Cohen is a good or bad hire for Auburn, but it is somewhat surprising. At a school where competing with Alabama and contending for national titles in football matters far more than anything else, Cohen’s credentials as a fixer of football programs are not exactly ironclad. 

And trust us when we tell you there’s going to be a lot to fix. 

Auburn’s 41-27 loss to Arkansas on Saturday was a perfect representation of just how sad things have gotten on the Plains. Not only did Arkansas pretty much do as it pleased, racking up 520 offensive yards and methodically dominating the game, but it barely even registered as a big deal. 

It’s a game Auburn was supposed to lose. And if Auburn is supposed to lose at home to Arkansas, that’s when you know it’s time to pull the plug on whatever is going on and start all over again. Even Bryan Harsin, the second-year coach whose eventual firing is among the most sure things in sports, isn’t trying to spin it. 

‘We’re just not good enough,’ he said. ‘That’s what it comes down to.’

If Auburn winning a national title in 2010 and coming within a couple plays of doing it again in 2013 is the upper limit of what the program can be, the last couple seasons have shown what the floor looks like when the wrong coach is in place. Harsin means well and was a good coach at Boise State, but he took the job without understanding or embracing the talent acquisition component that makes all the difference in the SEC. 

You can’t win in that league at the level Auburn aspires to without going head-to-head in recruiting against Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee and winning some of those battles. As things currently stand, Auburn is ranked 49th in the country in recruiting for next year according to 247 Sports. And given how much talent has bled out of the program already – including quarterback Bo Nix, who is having a phenomenal season after transferring to Oregon – it could be really bad for the next couple years before it gets better. 

Even Harsin probably knows by now that his lack of recruiting success is going to do him in, and justifiably so. A baseline-level recruiter at Auburn has no business falling outside the top 25 in that department. 

A coach with some recruiting chops will offer some hope to Auburn fans. But goodness what a fall it has been from the days of worrying about Gus Malzahn beating Alabama (which he did three times, by the way) to now being 3-5 and not a factor at all in the SEC. 

If Cohen is indeed the next athletics director, he will have one job and one job only: Finding a football coach who gets Auburn, understands the SEC and can acquire enough talent to get back into the top 10. 

But for now, there’s only uncertainty and anger for how Auburn let the program fall this far. That’s why the Tigers are No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of which fan bases are feeling the most angst about the state of their program.

Four more in misery

Penn State: It must be exhausting for everyone at Penn State to work with James Franklin. It’s no secret that he’s a chronic complainer, which doesn’t necessarily make him an outlier among big-time coaches. Guys like him are never satisfied with what they have, always pushing the school to spend money on the new locker room thing that their competitor just got or a new dorm that they think will help them recruit better. Just this week, in fact, Franklin regurgitated comments he’s made many times that Penn State – not him, mind you, but the university – didn’t capitalize enough on beating Ohio State in 2016, which is a clear reference to financial investment. 

But Franklin also just got a 10-year, $75 million contract last December despite a two-season stretch of 11-11. So there’s different ways to measure investment. And if he didn’t think Penn State gives him enough of whatever he needs to beat teams like Ohio State, why did he sign the contract? Of course, reasonable people understand this is a game that coaches play when they don’t have an actual excuse for losing – something Penn State has now done against Ohio State in eight of Franklin’s nine seasons. This time, Penn State led 21-16 in the fourth quarter but quickly fell behind 20 points before ultimately falling 44-31. That’s not easy to do, but maybe some more locker room waterfalls and football-only dorms will fix it. 

Northwestern: This is awful. And it’s not even the garden variety awful that you sometimes get with Northwestern because it’s a tough job at a highly regarded academic institution. This is next-level bad, the kind of thing that honestly we never thought we’d see from a Pat Fitzgerald program. At various points, Fitz has been a miracle worker. Sometimes, his teams have merely been average. A couple times they’ve been pretty stinky. But losing 33-13 to Iowa – an Iowa team that hasn’t been able to score against anyone this year – feels like a new low. It looks like a team letting go of the rope.

You can understand why that might be the case. The Wildcats are now 1-7, with that lone victory coming way back on Aug. 27 in Ireland when they beat Nebraska. It has to be frustrating to put in all that work both on the football field and in the classroom only to lose to the likes of Southern Illinois and Miami of Ohio, not to mention in the Big Ten. But what is Northwestern going to do about it? 

Are they going to fire a guy in his 17th season who has coached five teams to top-25 finishes? That seems unlikely. More interesting is what Fitzgerald is going to do. Will he stay and reconstitute the program in a way that works going forward? Will he try to move on somewhere else while he still has a pretty good coaching reputation? It’s a fascinating situation to monitor, even though his team is truly unwatchable. 

Wake Forest: It is really important to savor the moment when programs like this get into the top 10. It’s the kind of thing fans and alums talk about forever because it happens so rarely. And when it ends, it’s a profoundly sad feeling because it’s hard to know when or if it will ever come around again.

The Demon Deacons soared for the first half of this season, proved their worth as a real ACC challenger and came within a play of knocking off Clemson. That got them to No. 10 this week. But that’s where it ends. Who knows for how long? After a dud of a performance at Louisville, Wake Forest isn’t going to be back in the rarified air of the top-10 again anytime soon. The final score, 48-21, thoroughly captured the ugliness. Though Wake Forest did its thing offensively and moved the ball pretty much at will, eight turnovers will get you beat every time. Two of them were pick-sixes thrown by Sam Hartman, who had three interceptions overall.

The point is, this had the potential to be one of those standout seasons that Wake Forest fans can recall years later where they watched each game and what happened in them, like going to the Orange Bowl in 2006. Finishing in the top 10 would have made this team the most memorable in the entire modern history of Wake Forest football. But when you lose like that to Louisville, the shine comes off a bit. It’s a good year, a good team and a solid program. And the feeling of tumbling down the rankings will sting after such a brief appearance among the giants of the sport. 

Virginia: The only thing less fun than playing the worst college football game of the season is losing the worst college football game of the season. Though opinions can vary, Miami’s 14-12 win over Virginia in four overtimes is unquestionably a contender for that title. How ugly was it? Neither team saw the end zone in this game, other than the two-point conversion that Miami converted to end it. Nobody even scored until the last play of the first half when the Hurricanes kicked a 38-yard field goal. 

Sometimes bad games are fun because they’re wild and sloppy and full of mistakes that lead to crazy plays. This game was bad because nothing interesting happened other than lots of punts and questionable coaching decisions. There weren’t even any turnovers. 

Virginia held Miami to 272 yards of offense but got almost nothing in the passing game from Brennan Armstrong (15-of-25, 208 yards), who is clearly struggling in Tony Elliott’s system after ranking among the nation’s most productive quarterbacks last season. 

Virginia still has a slim chance to eke into bowl eligibility, but its 3-5 record marks a pretty disappointing debut season for Elliott, whose offense has scored 20 points just twice this year. 

Miserable but not miserable enough

Akron: Remember Joe Moorhead? The former Fordham head coach was kind of a hot name after a couple years as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, which helped him land the Mississippi State head job. An odd fit from the start, Moorhead was fired after two years. But he’s now resurfaced as the Akron head coach, and boy does he have a lot of work to do. Akron went 0-12 in 2019, 1-5 in 2020 and 2-10 last season under Tom Arth. The Zips have been nominally more competitive in the MAC this year but they’re still just 1-8 after a 27-9 loss to Miami (Ohio). It’s going to be a long road back to relevance. 

Arkansas State: As the Tennessee Volunteers ascend to their best season in nearly a quarter-century, their old friend Butch ‘brick by brick’ Jones is floundering in Jonesboro. Jones is now a breathtaking 4-17 at Arkansas State, with just two wins in 12 Sun Belt Conference games. And this is a league that the Red Wolves used to dominate with nine straight winning seasons under four different head coaches between 2011 and 2019. Arkansas State fans have invested way too much money and ambition into this program to allow it to sink to the bottom of FBS. 

Boston College: No matter how bad things get, Boston College should always be able to say ‘At least we aren’t UConn!’ But despite their ACC membership and a much healthier recent history, the Eagles suffered the indignity of a 13-3 loss in the renewal of an old Big East rivalry. Boston College lost because it turned the ball over five times, which is the immediate story. The larger issue is that the Eagles are 2-6 and tailspinning toward 2012 territory when Frank Spaziani went 2-10 and got fired. 

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