Here we are, only a few days into October, and already, several big name schools have their fingers hovering perilously close to the panic button, and with good reason. The upside to having fifty gazillion bowls is that pretty much anybody with a pulse will make one. The downside of this though? If you don’t, then you’re in trouble. Real trouble. Obviously different schools view different levels of success for job security, but there’s one basic rule of thumb across the board just about everywhere; If you don’t make a bowl game, you’re going to be fired.
Obviously this is not taken literally, every single season, at every single school, but making a bowl game is I guess somewhat equivalent to the Mendoza Line. If you aren’t playing in a bowl, then you’re not just merely mediocre, or slightly below average, you’re just plain awful.
In the lower tier of programs in the country, consistent trips to the postseason aren’t necessary to remain employed, but consistently ending seasons without a trip to such a wonderful winter vacation spot such as Mobile will have you looking for a job.
But at other schools, you get one pass, if that, and if you start making a habit of not playing in a bowl game (a habit meaning it happens more than once during your tenure) you will be run out of town faster than Matt Williams after a year of unmet expectations. And this is where things get tricky with these teams. When they have this blip, is it really just a mirage, a series of unfortunate events that so imperfectly aligned that the postseason was beyond their grasp? Or is it the signs of deeper problems, and much more the beginning of the end, if not THE end already?
This is why it’s best for coaches to simply avoid this predicament altogether. Don’t miss a bowl and don’t let the questions begin to amass. But some big time coaches and some big time schools are dangerously close to opening Pandora’s Box of questions about the future of the program.
Georgia Tech has the third longest active bowl streak in the country, at 18. But barring a complete miracle, it won’t extend to 19. High school recruits of today have never seen Georgia Tech not play in a bowl game. It’s something Tech can sell to kids, but not much longer.
Everyone knew the schedule was going to be tough, but after their flukish run last season, and early season domination of patsies, it was thought they would not only be able to successfully navigate the rough waters to another winning season, but that they would be in the thick of the conference race, and possibly the national title picture. Week by week they’ve taken themselves out of consideration for all three. The Notre Dame loss squelched all talk of the playoffs. The loss at Duke the following week put the brakes on talks of an ACC championship, and then this past weekend’s loss at home to North Carolina, in which a 21-0 lead was choked away, pretty much put the kibosh on bowl possibilities.
Tech sits at 2-3, which, at first glance doesn’t appear to be a death sentence. But then you have to remember this team hasn’t beaten an opponent better than Tulane to this point. You consider that if you look at their schedule, there is only one game left on it right now where they can feel like they’d be the favorites. And that is for a trip to Charlottesville, where despite recent success, it’s been a house of horrors. They have to host Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. They must still travel to play to Miami. They have to go play at Clemson this week. And oh yeah, Florida State and Georgia come calling. Do you see four wins on that schedule? Didn’t think so. Four losses? That’s easy to come up with. What’s frightening for Tech is that 2-10 is as likely at this point as a trip to a bowl game.
The irony in all of this is that the streak should have ended in 2012, but an NCAA waiver allowed a sub .500 Yellow Jacket team that truly didn’t win the division but played in the ACC title game due to the off field transgressions of conference bad boys Miami and North Carolina to play in a bowl anyway. Tech played well against Florida State in the conference title game, and then went and beat USC in the Sun Bowl, finishing 7-7 and keeping some heat off of Johnson. 2013 wasn’t much better, another 7-6 year, another loss in a bowl game. It was obvious at this point that Johnson needed to go. The sooner the better, because the rebuilding process following Johnson will be a long and painful one.
Then, much like this year, in 2014, came back to back losses to those basketball schools in Duke and North Carolina. The ax was ready to drop on Johnson. And then something miraculous (or not, depending on how you want to look at it) and Tech caught fire, won the division, beat Georgia, nearly upset Florida State in the ACC title game and ran all over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Well done Paul Johnson, you pulled the veil back over our eyes for a moment and kept attention away from the real ugly truth at Georgia Tech. The program was ultimately, at its core, in real trouble. Many, myself included, praised Johnson after last year. I even apologized for being “wrong” about him. No, I was right. I let him convince me I was wrong.
And it looks like this year on the flats, we’re going to finally see how right I originally was. Clemson is the toughest game left on the schedule, so it’s unfair to say it’s a must win, that a loss to the Tigers completely buries the Jackets. But, they’ve used their mulligans, and they could really use some breathing room, not mention some confidence. Going up to Clemson and getting a win, which Tech has had a knack for back when Clemson was mastering the art of Clemsoning, would help. But, these aren’t those same Tigers, and these aren’t the Jackets you can believe in to go win a game like this.
Georgia Tech isn’t the only Tech however in the ACC coastal in deep trouble. Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer, another program on a precipitous decline, is staring at a similar fate. From 2004 thru 2011 the Hokies won double-digit games every single year. That’s eight consecutive 10 win seasons. That’s quality work. But over the last three years they’ve only won 22 games. They’ve lost in each of the last two years to Boston College, they’ve been beaten by Cincinnati, and with their loss two weeks ago, they’ve lost in successive seasons to East Carolina. They’ve only even played six games over the past three plus seasons as a ranked team. Again, after eight consecutive seasons of 10 plus wins.
The Hokies, like Georgia Tech, cannot lose more than three more games the rest of the way. And they have to play aforementioned Boston College on the road, just like they have to travel to play Miami and Georgia Tech. They also still have N.C. State and Duke to play at home. Just like with Georgia Tech, the only game left on the schedule that you can say with confidence they could be favored in is against Virginia.
The sharp decline of the program already had many wondering how much longer Beamer would last, especially since special teams, long the calling card of this regime, had become an all out weakness of the Hokies. This year, with it looking more and more likely that a bowl isn’t going to happen, it’s looking more and more likely that this could be Beamer’s swan song.
While Georgia Tech has a game that they can lose and still back their way into a bowl game, a home loss to N.C. State to drop to 2-4 might get the vultures circling in Blacksburg.
Speaking of Beamer and the Hokies, wouldn’t The Battle at Bristol lose some of its luster if Virginia Tech were to find themselves coming off a season without a bowl game? Yeah? Well, what if both Virginia Tech AND Tennessee were coming off seasons without making a bowl? Don’t look now organizers, but that very well could be what takes place.
While the final five games on Tennessee‘s schedule look very, very winnable, and thus, completely missing out on a bowl game doesn’t look as likely with the Vols as it does with the two Techs, it can’t be ruled out. Kentucky is better. Maty Mauck could be back for Missouri by the time they meet, South Carolina could be fighting for their post-season lives in their own right, and Kentucky could be actually playing for something at the end of November. So if you’re Tennessee, you would like a little wiggle room.
The problem is, as they too sit at 2-3, they’ve got a very angry Georgia team coming to Knoxville this week, and then after that they have to travel to take on the Alabama team who has made this Georgia team so angry. 2-5 looks very, very possible. As mentioned, the schedule eases up enough to think that at 2-5, Tennessee could still finish 7-5. However, you have to look deeper than just the ease of the schedule. You have to look at the psyche of this program. Tennessee has lost six or more games in seven consecutive years. Yes, you read that correct, Tennessee hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2007.
So how much life do you think will be left in this team if it starts 2-5? Lane Kiffin bolted after a year. Derek Dooley didn’t finish his third season. Butch Jones is in his third season. Rocky Top could be about to explode….. again.
Mentioned in looking at the schedule Tennessee closes with was of course the old ball coach and South Carolina. There are two programs Spurrier likes to beat more than anyone; Georgia and Tennessee. When looking at what South Carolina has left, there is virtually no way they can survive losing to Tennessee and still make a bowl game. As bad as the remaining schedule looks for Georgia Tech, it’s even worse for South Carolina.
The Gamecocks can only afford three more losses to still make a bowl game. The problem? There are currently four teams ranked in the top 11 left on their schedule. Sure, I suppose it’s good news that three of them are at home, but home is where this team lost to Kentucky.
A bit of irony? The last time South Carolina didn’t make a bowl was 2007, as mentioned earlier, the last time Tennessee didn’t lose at least six games.
Shifting to the SEC West, Auburn isn’t in full-fledged panic mode yet, but they are one road loss in the next two weeks away from going to defcon one. With Ole Miss, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama as four of their final five games, Auburn does not want to enter the final five games of the season anything less than 5-2. Knowing they must win one of those four to reach a bowl game, after pre-season expectations (wildly placed, and not by yours truly) of contending for a national title would be a lot of pressure on a fragile team. Which is why Auburn is getting a bye at the right time.
Because these next two games, at Kentucky, and at Arkansas, are absolutely must win games. And neither looks like a gimme. Conference road games are always tough. But when you need overtime to beat Jacksonville State at home, and only led San Jose State by 7 at home late in the fourth quarter, is there any reason to believe you have any kind of chance on the road against SEC opponents?
Auburn is talented. More talented than their next two opponents. But, they’re also far more talented than both Jacksonville State and San Jose State, and it didn’t mean that much. The problem for Auburn, much like at Georgia Tech, is the very real possibility of finishing the season with 8 or 9 losses. If Auburn stumbles against Kentucky in two weeks, the question becomes, aside from Idaho, will they win another game this year?
I only mention Texas because, well, I have to. They are still one of the biggest brands in the country, even if the on field product has deteriorated to the point it’s unrecognizable. Texas can only afford to lose two more games and still squeak into a bowl game. And both Baylor and Oklahoma still loom on the schedule.
Granted, Texas showed some life against Cal and Oklahoma State, two top 25 teams, but all that progress seemed to get erased with the shellacking at the hands of TCU on Saturday. The schedule outside of national title contenders Oklahoma and Baylor isn’t all that daunting, though no trip to Morgantown is fun, and Kansas State is a very underrated team. The problem is the losses to Cal and Oklahoma State due to shoddy special teams play that pretty much make all of these games must win games for the Horns to make a bowl game. Because, let’s face it, there’s absolutely zero reason on this planet to think they’re beating Oklahoma or Baylor at this point.
Making matters worse seems to be the discord in the locker room that spilled out on to social media this week. The situation in Austin, Texas is messy. There’s a new AD in charge, and Charlie Strong looks more and more like a dead man walking. And if he is, Texas could be staring down the barrel of a season spent threatening to lose double-digit games. Thank God for Kansas, right?
Speaking of former Big 12 powers, someone should tell Mike Riley he’s not in Corvallis anymore. Nebraska finds themselves in as precarious a situation as just about anyone on this list. They sit at 2-3, and with their two most winnable games both being on the road, the margin for error is slim, at most. Missing bowl games doesn’t sit well with the folks in Lincoln. At all. Winning 9 games a year didn’t sit well with them, so imagine bordering on losing that many in a season.
The schedule is also much tougher than it looked a few weeks ago. Northwestern is good. Really good. Iowa is a lot better than expected. Granted, they must come to Lincoln, but that’s where BYU has already won, after losing their starting quarterback, and Southern Miss made a game of it. This is a team that was curb stomped for three quarters by Miami, today’s Miami, not the Miami you grew up hearing about, and who lost to a team who fired their coach in August before the first game was even played.
Yes, there are serious concerns in Lincoln right now. But, on the bright side, as alluded to, they get their toughest opponents all at home. Iowa and Northwestern might have established themselves as the favorites in the division, though neither possesses an offense that looks like it could bury Nebraska and leave them with no chance. Wisconsin has shown they don’t have a pulse offensively against a semi competent defense, and the Spartans of Michigan State seem to be missing that special something at this point of the season. So, with the glass half full, there’s reason to think Nebraska has a shot to win all four of these games, and, ultimately, win out and play for the division title.
But they lost to Illinois.
And there is the glass half empty. It’s also conceivable they lose all four and miss the post-season. It’s conceivable that they not only lose all four, but that they get stymied by the Minnesota defense on the road as well, and the Huskers finish 4-8, at best.
Just a a few short years ago it would have been preposterous to suggest that as we approached the middle of the college football season that programs like Auburn, Texas and Nebraska would be facing such daunting tasks just to make it into a bowl game. Such is the nature of college football though. Two of the most respected coaches in the game, Spurrier and Beamer need to pull rabbits out of a hat to try to salvage their seasons. It’s just the cyclical nature of the game. Not every program, or every coach can stay on top forever. If you’re a Tennessee fan though, you’re starting to wonder if you’ll ever get on top again, or if the karma from firing Phil Fulmer and hiring Lane Kiffin is seeing to it that you never regain your place among the SEC elite. And if you’re a Georgia Tech, you’re kicking yourself for becoming a prisoner of the moment and being blinded to the reality that you knew existed.