It is always an acutely difficult situation for any college football team which occupies it.
The bearer of a national brand name — meaning considerable prestige and annually high expectations — falls out of playoff contention early in the season.
There might be good reasons for the decline. Plenty of pundits might have had their doubts before the season. Though teams generally do improve over the course of September, warning signs existed in week one and weren’t fully addressed.
Do those details comfort the coaches, players and fans on these teams? No. Yet, they exist, and everyone in the inner sanctum of the locker room is brought face to face with a choice:
Fight or flight? Go bold or decide to fold? Redouble one’s energy or slip into lethargy?
It’s a painful situation to confront, but the way teams respond to it reveals much about a program.
Week 5 represents a highly pivotal point in the 2016 college football season for this reason.
Consider some of the brand-name teams which are already out of the playoff hunt (barring a miracle — have to get that disclaimer in) with nearly two full months of football in front of them.
Michigan State is toast.
The Spartans — so tough, so resilient, so utterly impossible to knock out (except for Nick Saban, including the Citrus Bowl several seasons ago) — finally fell off the ledge. It’s not as though Michigan State avoided close games in previous seasons when it won Big Ten titles and major bowl games, but the Spartans regularly fought and executed well enough in pressure situations to rise to the top of the heap. This year, that tendency to live on the edge — like the reality of not having Connor Cook at quarterback in the midst of these white-knucklers — has caught up with Mark Dantonio’s team.
Even if it runs the table (and that means beating Michigan and Ohio State), Michigan State will need the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game to lose a second time. The Spartans will also need several other major earthquakes (Clemson losing twice, Houston losing twice, Louisville losing once independent of the Houston game) to have any chance at the playoff. The team’s season lies in tatters after Saturday’s loss to Indiana.
Florida State has fallen to 0-2 in the ACC after losing to North Carolina on Saturday. The Seminoles ran into an “in-between” year last season, but were supposed to have the horses needed to overtake Clemson this year. A 33-0 run and subsequent win over Ole Miss in the season opener seemed to validate all the hype surrounding the Seminoles, but defensive no-shows against Louisville and Carolina have abruptly taken the air out of the balloon.
As is the case with Michigan State, FSU can win all the games left on its schedule and still (even with shiny wins over Ole Miss and Clemson, plus a thumping of South Florida) get locked out of the playoff if two of the following three things happen: Clemson finishes 11-1, Houston goes 13-0, and the Pac-12 champion loses only once. Florida State, like Michigan State, is staring at a season in which division and conference titles plus the playoff will all go by the boards, barring an equivalent of the college football apocalypse.
Perfection the rest of the way merely offers a moderate possibility of a season-ending reward (a New Year’s Six bowl), and one more loss means no NY6 at all, making the season a complete washout.
It has to be wrenching to sit at the dinner table on these first few nights of October, the chill of the deepening autumn still several weeks away, and realize that a long, hot summer of aspiration and optimism has been reduced to rubble. Given that 19- and 20- and 21-year-olds play this sport, it is entirely understandable if these and other teams play with less than complete passion over the next two months. Some games against rivals might get all the juices flowing, but the relentless parade of Saturdays invites the possibility of letdowns, and of a loss.
Call it the college football version of a “death by broken heart.”
The focus on playoff teams and playoff possibilities is so intense that Michigan State and Florida State will recede (not completely, but to a certain degree) from view. Because the playoff equation is already so clear for these teams, a lot of people won’t care that much whether MSU and FSU end up 9-3 or 8-4. Yes, 6-6 would be a problem, but the difference between eight or nine wins might not mean a lot to most fans.
That’s part of the whole point.
What it means to the players and coaches in those foxholes is the intriguing and essential question of the moment. Will MSU and FSU — and other teams already in similar positions, such as USC, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma — fight with total desperation and determination, or will they go through the motions?
The heart of a competitor, the soul of a gridiron gladiator, will be revealed in these teams.
Michigan State and Florida State — and Oklahoma and USC and others — might be removed from the playoff derby, but if one team rises to 10-2 while another sinks to 8-4 or 7-5, don’t be afraid to give credit to the team and coaching staff which make the best of what is currently a very bad situation.