Misery loves company.
If your college football team isn’t good, there’s a perverse fascination, a point of pride even among fans of struggling teams, about how bad things can get.
“You think your team has it bad? Looks at ours!”
And no program can avoid the inevitable downer season. As Joey Knish once said in “Rounders” after Mike McDermott dropped three stacks of high society during a particularly brutal night of poker at Teddy KGB’s: “Happens to everyone. From time to time everyone goes bust.”
Among those who did so this year: Virginia Tech, which finished 3-8 for its lowest winning percentage since 1992. So just how long has it been since your program went bust? We’re not necessarily looking for rock bottom with this look back, though that depth is reached several times. We’re looking for the last time each team not only didn’t make a bowl game, but didn’t really have a chance at getting to one either.
We’ll put some parameters on it, specifically a sub-.400 winning percentage. Because the COVID-19 year in 2020 led to many abbreviated schedules, we’ll require a team to have played in at least eight games for that season to count.
Without further ado, here’s the last time before this season that each Power 5 school (plus the four soon-to-be Power 5 schools) had a truly forgettable season.
Arizona (1-11): Jedd Fisch wasn’t dealt a great hand in Year 1 — his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, went 0-5 in the COVID-19 season and had lost 12 consecutive Pac-12 games before getting fired — but the Wildcats still managed only a single win, a 10-3 victory against Cal. A 21-19 loss to Northern Arizona, an FCS team, might have been the obvious low point, if not for a 34-0 blanking by the next team on this list.
Colorado (4-8): The good feelings from Mike MacIntyre’s 10-4 season in 2016 were long gone at this point, with Karl Dorrell unable to get things going after a stellar 4-2 abbreviated 2020 season. The Buffs had the nation’s second-worst offense in total yards, better than only New Mexico, foreshadowing Dorrell’s firing this fall.
Duke (3-9): Blue Devils fans will laugh at this season being singled out. When you were once a doormat for over a decade — Duke won 10 total games from 2000-07 — a three-win season isn’t all that bad. Still, this was enough for David Cutcliffe to hang them up. Duke easily had the country’s worst defense, making its transformation this season under Mike Elko all the more impressive.
Georgia Tech (3-9): It’s hard to believe Geoff Collins got even another partial year after this. After a 3-3 start that included a dominant win against No. 21 North Carolina, the Yellow Jackets lost six in a row to finish the season and were outscored 100-0 by Notre Dame and Georgia in the final two games.
Indiana (2-10): Coming off an Outback Bowl season and No. 12 final ranking (their first ranked finish since 1988), the Hoosiers reverted to what feels like their natural state, going 0-9 in Big Ten play. This team had quarterback Michael Penix Jr., though he played in only five games before separating an AC joint in his throwing shoulder and transferring to Washington, where he leads the nation in passing.
Kansas (2-10): This felt like the same ol’ Kansas — the Jayhawks hadn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009 at that point — but in hindsight, it was the first step in Lance Leipold’s rebuild to get KU bowl eligible this year. The Jayhawks lost a couple of close ones at the end of 2021 and famously beat Texas 57-56 in overtime.
Nebraska (3-9): How? How does a team with an even point differential in Big Ten games go 1-8 in conference play? Eight single-possession losses will do it, with a 49-point win against Northwestern evening the balance. Scott Frost’s inability to win close games truly was one of a kind. The Huskers, which finished ranked every year from 1969-2001, are on the verge of finishing unranked for the 10th consecutive season.
Northwestern (3-9): In one of the lulls that are common between Pat Fitzgerald’s peaks, the Wildcats beat only Indiana State, Ohio and Rutgers after going to the Big Ten title game in 2020 for the second time in three years. They’re having their worst year under Fitzgerald right now at 1-10.
Stanford (3-9): The Cardinal’s run as a Pac-12 power seems like a long time ago, with this three-win season part of a recent trend under David Shaw. (Though the 2021 season included wins against then-No. 14 USC and No. 3 Oregon.) This was Stanford’s worst season since going 1-11 in 2006, the year before Jim Harbaugh arrived and resuscitated the program.
USC (4-8): The Clay Helton era finally came to an end two games into the Trojans’ worst season in 30 years. Coming off a Pac-12 South championship in an abbreviated 2020, Helton got the long-awaited axe after losing to Stanford in Week 2. Interim coach Donte Williams went 3-7 the rest of the way. What did all that foreshadow? Lincoln Riley’s hire, Caleb Williams’ transfer in and the Trojans’ rise back to national prominence. Blue bloods don’t stay down for long.
Vanderbilt (2-10): This isn’t a great record, but considering the Commodores were 0-9 the previous season after having to play an all-SEC schedule, it’s a slight improvement. Vandy beat Colorado and UConn in what was Clark Lea’s first season, putting some pieces in place for the group that ended the Dores’ 26-game SEC losing streak this year.
Washington (4-8): The Jimmy Lake era ended with a thud, the second-year coach getting fired after a one-game suspension for a sideline incident when he appeared to strike a player. The Huskies were ranked 20th going into the season but lost their opener to Montana, an FCS team. Lake was 7-6 in two seasons before his ouster in November. Now Kalen DeBoer has the Huskies 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Arkansas (3-7): This proves that not all 3-7 records are built the same. Sam Pittman’s debut season must have felt downright cathartic after Chad Morris’ run, which produced four wins in two seasons. Morris didn’t win an SEC game during his time. Pittman beat No. 16 Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee by early November of Year 1. Five of the Hogs’ losses were to teams ranked in the top 13 at the time of the game. If you’re really looking for the program’s nadir, look to the entire run of Pittman’s predecessor.
Baylor (2-7): The Bears were a yo-yo from 2019-21, posting 11-plus wins and going to the Sugar Bowl in both ’19 and ’21, Matt Rhule’s final season and Dave Aranda’s second. But in between was this transition year, when Baylor beat only the two Kansas schools as Aranda got the lay of the land as a first-time head coach.
Florida State (3-6): The pandemic season came at a bad time for first-year head coaches, as Mike Norvell can attest. The Noles had an unsettled quarterback spot, among other issues, and finished 13th in a division-less ACC. They were likely spared a beatdown by Clemson and another tough game against Wake Forest because of cancellations. Remove this weird season and you have to go back to 1975 for the last time the Seminoles had a sub-.400 winning percentage — the year before Bobby Bowden arrived.
Houston (3-5): The Cougars canned Major Applewhite after two years and brought in Dana Holgorsen, whose debut season in 2019 was a dud, despite decent expectations thanks to quarterback D’Eriq King, who threw for 36 touchdowns in 2018 before suffering a knee injury. Four games into 2019, King shut it down to preserve his redshirt. Initially, he planned to return to Houston, but he ended up transferring to Miami. The Cougars followed the 4-8 campaign in 2019 with a 3-5 mark in the abbreviated 2020 season before breaking through to 12-2 last year.
Illinois (2-6): Lovie Smith’s final year in Champaign wasn’t a memorable one. The Illini beat only Rutgers and Nebraska and were spared having to play No. 4 Ohio State when the game got canceled. Smith was fired seven games into the season, finishing with a 17-39 record and one bowl appearance in five years. Two years later, Bret Bielema got the Illini ranked for the first time in 11 years.
Louisville (4-7): The good vibes of Scott Satterfield’s 8-5 debut season were wiped away with a pretty big step back. A top-30 offense headlined by Malik Cunningham, Javian Hawkins, Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick couldn’t get the Cardinals over the hump. They lost four ACC games by a touchdown or less.
Mississippi State (4-7): We can hear Bulldogs fans already saying, “YOU play an all-SEC schedule and see how it goes!” And that’s a fair point. Mike Leach’s group did still finish this year with an Armed Forces Bowl win against No. 24 Tulsa. It felt like MSU fans got the full Leach experience in short order, though, with a rousing 44-34 win against defending national champ LSU in the opener, a head-scratching 24-2 loss to Kentucky two weeks later and Leach going into full player-blaming mode, talking about the need to purge “malcontents.” We’ll say this: It’s never boring with Leach as your coach.
Rutgers (3-6): This actually represented progress for Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights, who’d won just three games the previous two years under Chris Ash and Nunzio Campanile. Rutgers’ three conference wins against Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland tied for its most in Big Ten play since joining the league in 2014.
South Carolina (2-8): Why was Will Muschamp given a second chance in the SEC so quickly again? The Gamecocks cut bait with Muschamp with three games left in a season that started 2-5. Muschamp’s final three games were losses to LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss in which the Gamecocks gave up 159 points. Interim coach Mike Bobo went 0-3 down the stretch and South Carolina turned to Shane Beamer as its next coach. Two years later, the Gamecocks briefly got back in the Top 25 and upset No. 5 Tennessee.
Syracuse (1-10): The low point of the Dino Babers era came in a season when the Orange beat only a 3-7 Georgia Tech team. Babers’ once fast-paced, high-scoring offense ranked 125th nationally and 21 or fewer points in eight games. ’Cuse has managed to turn it around, though, with 11 wins in the past two years.
Tennessee (3-7): Whatever momentum seemed to be building from an 8-5 season and Gator Bowl win in 2019 came to an abrupt end as Jeremy Pruitt went down in flames. The Vols lost seven of their last eight, then got rid of Pruitt in January following an internal investigation into recruiting violations. With athletic director Phil Fulmer stepping down too, the Vols stumbled into a Josh Heupel hire and Hendon Hooker transfer that brought the program back to life. They were in the Playoff hunt until last week.
Maryland (3-9): The Terps won their first two games against Syracuse and Howard by a combined score of 142-20, then lost eight of their next nine in Mike Locksley’s first season. Maryland’s QB curse continued, with Virginia Tech transfer Josh Jackson the latest in a long line of starters to get hurt. Taulia Tagovailoa came in the next year as an Alabama transfer and finally settled the position.
NC State (4-8): A 4-2 start ended with a six-game losing streak and a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division with a 1-7 mark — State’s worst since an 0-8 record in Dave Doeren’s first year. Doeren, who’d flirted with Tennessee after the 2017 season, shook up his staff, hiring five new assistants, including turning over both the offensive and defensive coordinator positions. The Wolfpack have won 24 games in the three seasons since.
Ole Miss (4-8): Every program has a bad year. But the Rebels are the only one to have one punctuated by a player pretending to urinate on the field like a dog after scoring a touchdown, which led to a 15-yard penalty, a missed extra point and an embarrassing loss in a rivalry game. That’s precisely what happened to the Rebels. Receiver Elijah Moore was the fake urinator. Mississippi State won the Egg Bowl 21-20. And Matt Luke was fired four days later, ushering in the Lane Kiffin era — and a butterfly effect across the sport.
Purdue (4-8): The Boilermakers played in only six games during a 2-4 season in 2020, so we don’t count that as a dud. But they weren’t great in 2019 after back-to-back bowl seasons under Jeff Brohm. (Though that was still pretty good compared to his predecessor Darrell Hazell, who maxed out at three wins.) It was mostly a blip. Since the COVID-19 year, Brohm’s gone 16-8.
Texas Tech (4-8): Matt Wells’ tenure didn’t get off to a great start, with the Red Raiders taking a step back from even the middling records of Kliff Kingsbury. The residual effects of the Kingsbury years were there, with Tech having the 11th-ranked offense nationally and the 127th-ranked defense. The Red Raiders went 2-7 in Big 12 play, ahead of only Kansas in the standings.
UCLA (4-8): There was plenty of skepticism about Chip Kelly 2.0 when the Bruins followed up his 3-9 debut season by only winning one more game. UCLA lost five of its first six and had its lowest home attendance in 37 years, when it first moved into the Rose Bowl. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson first started to show signs of what was to come, though, with 2,701 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.
North Carolina (2-9): Larry Fedora began the year in hot water, imprudently questioning links between football and CTE at the ACC’s media days, and ended it without a job after losing seven consecutive ACC games. It was his second 1-7 season in a row in the ACC and not coincidentally his second year in a row of not figuring out his quarterback situation. Fedora got canned in November, opening the door for Mack Brown’s triumphant return to Chapel Hill.
Oregon State (2-10): With Gary Andersen leaving a mess from the previous year (1-11), new coach Jonathan Smith was very much starting from scratch. He managed to win one more Pac-12 game than Andersen did in his final year, even if it was an overtime victory against a not-great Colorado team. The Beavers allowed 536.8 yards per game, 92 yards worse than anybody else in the league.
BYU (4-9): After a decade of stability under Bronco Mendenhall and a strong Year 1 under Kalani Sitake, the Cougars fell back to the pack in a season that included a seven-game losing streak early on as the offense struggled under offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, BYU’s former Heisman winner. It was BYU’s first four-win season since the Gary Crowton era and only its second since 1971.
Cincinnati (4-8): Luke Fickell had a rebuild on his hands after things deteriorated at the end of future U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville’s run. The Bearcats doubled their AAC wins from one to two in Fickell’s first season, beating Tulane and UConn. One year later, Fickell had Cincinnati 11-2 and ranked 24th in the final AP poll, the start of an incredible run.
Florida (4-7): The end of the Jim McElwain era resulted in the Gators’ second four-win season in five years. McElwain got fired seven games in, with Florida sitting at 3-4 and on a three-game losing streak punctuated by a 42-7 beatdown by Georgia. Randy Shannon went 1-3 as the interim down the stretch. Who would have thought having to deny he was the naked man posing on top of a shark in a viral photo would be the second worst thing to happen to McElwain that year?
Iowa State (3-9): Matt Campbell took a year to get things ramped up in Ames, going just 2-7 in Big 12 play and finishing ahead of only Kansas in the standings. It wasn’t an unusual mark for the Cyclones, though. They’d won eight total games in Paul Rhoads’ final three years. Campbell had ISU ranked and took it to bowls in each of the next five seasons, including its first top-10 finish ever in 2020.
Michigan State (3-9): Coming off a berth in the College Football Playoff, the Spartans bottomed out in an odd hiccup during Mark Dantonio’s run. Michigan State won 13, 11 and 12 games the previous three seasons and 10 in 2017 but had a rough 2016 after quarterback Connor Cook and other key pieces departed. It was the only year the Spartans didn’t go to a bowl under Dantonio and was their fewest wins since 1991.
Missouri (4-8): It wasn’t smooth sailing in the Tigers’ first year post-Gary Pinkel. Barry Odom was promoted to head coach from defensive coordinator and struggled to a last-place finish in the SEC West, two years after Mizzou played in back-to-back SEC championship games. A bright spot? The Tigers finished 13th in total offense behind quarterback Drew Lock and first-year coordinator Josh Heupel.
Notre Dame (4-8): Brian Kelly’s year from hell started with a top-10 preseason ranking and ended with the Irish’s second-most losses in the past 60 years. It began with a 50-47 loss in the “Texas is back!” Bowl, one of seven one-possession losses. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder got the boot after four weeks and OC Mike Sanford Jr. left after the season for Western Kentucky, opening up positions for Mike Elko and Chip Long. Those changes and strong recruiting classes put Notre Dame back on a path to the Playoff by 2018.
Oregon (4-8): The Ducks’ worst season of the past 30 years brought an end to Mark Helfrich’s head coaching stint two years after they played for the national title. Oregon started the season ranked 24th but fell out amid a five-game losing streak. The Ducks, who gave up 41.4 points per game, went 2-7 in Pac-12 play, resulting in Helfrich’s dismissal. It started a three-year period with three coaches, with Willie Taggart and Mario Cristobal up next in quick succession.
Virginia (2-10): It was a total teardown to the studs in Bronco Mendenhall’s first season in Charlottesville following the disappointing Mike London era, with the Cavaliers beating only Central Michigan and Duke. UVa couldn’t score and didn’t stop many people, a bad combination that was punctuated by a 52-10 loss to rival Virginia Tech in the finale. Mendenhall had UVa bowl eligible every season after, though, winning the ACC’s Coastal Division just three years later.
Boston College (3-9): Steve Addazio sandwiched this stinker amid five seven-win seasons. After offensive coordinator Ryan Day left for an NFL assistant job, the Eagles’ offense collapsed, the worst in the Power 5 at just 275 yards per game. BC went 0-8 in ACC play for the first time since joining the league, scored 10 or fewer points five times and didn’t top 17 points in any game against FBS competition.
UCF (0-12): Proof that you’re only a year and a coach away from something special. The Knights went winless in George O’Leary’s final season, something they also did in O’Leary’s first year in 2004 when UCF was in the MAC. Scott Frost came in the next season and won six games, then took the Knights to a 13-0 record and No. 6 ranking in 2017, with self-proclamations of a national championship that irk SEC schools to this day.
Wake Forest (3-9): The Demon Deacons went 3-9 in each of Dave Clawson’s first two seasons. Was that simply a part of the rebuilding process or did the Wakeyleaks scandal have a profound effect? Wake scored just 17.4 points per game. Clawson had a pretty good staff in place, though. Elko was his defensive coordinator and Warren Ruggiero, the architect of the Deacons’ successful slow-mesh scheme, ran the offense. Clawson got Wake to a bowl the next year in 2016 and has made one every year since.
Washington State (3-9): It took Mike Leach a while to get the Air Raid rolling in Pullman, with this his second three-win season in his first three years. The Cougars had the nation’s top passing offense, with Connor Halliday throwing for 430.3 yards per game and 32 touchdowns. But Wazzu also allowed 38.6 points a game, giving up 40-plus five times. Leach won eight or more games each of the next four seasons.
California (1-11): Somewhat surprisingly, the Bears haven’t been outright terrible in a while, despite making only three bowl appearances in the past decade. This came in Sonny Dykes’ first year after taking over for Jeff Tedford. Cal didn’t beat a single FBS opponent, gave up 45.9 points per game and lost to Stanford by 50, their largest margin of defeat in the history of The Big Game.
Kentucky (2-10): Mark Stoops’ first-year record was the same as Joker Phillips’ last in 2012, though he’d steadily improve the Wildcats each of the next five seasons to 10 wins in 2018. Year 1 was rough, though. Kentucky beat only Miami (Ohio) and Alabama State and had seven losses by double digits.
TCU (4-8): Two years after a run of four consecutive double-digit-win seasons, Gary Patterson’s crew stumbled to eight losses. The Horned Frogs started the year ranked 20th but struggled offensively. The slump was short-lived, as TCU went 12-1 and won a share of the Big 12 title in 2014, just missing the first College Football Playoff.
West Virginia (4-8): Dana Holgorsen saw his win total dip from 10 in 2011 to four in 2013 as the Mountaineers transitioned to the Big 12. This was easily his worst offense in Morgantown, the only one that ranked outside the top 25 in total yardage (63rd), with Clint Trickett and Paul Millard getting most of the snaps at quarterback after the loss of Geno Smith.
Auburn (3-9): Two short years after winning the national championship with Cam Newton, Gene Chizik was shown the door after the Tigers’ first winless SEC season in 32 years. They had the SEC’s worst offense and second-worst defense, a rare double dip that led Auburn to pay Chizik $7.5 million to go away. Gus Malzahn came in and got the Tigers back to the national championship game the next year, a never-ending roller-coaster ride that seems to have been perfected on the Plains.
Iowa (4-8): Even a steady hand like Kirk Ferentz has a really bad year every now and then. The Hawkeyes lost six in a row to finish the season in a last-place tie with Minnesota in the Big Ten’s Legends Division. You won’t believe this, but Iowa’s offense, under Greg Davis’ direction, was bad that year (117th nationally). It’s the only year besides Ferentz’s first two at Iowa in 1999 and 2000 that the Hawkeyes had a losing regular-season record.
Minnesota (3-9): Did you expect to see the Gophers this low on the list? Neither did we. This was Jerry Kill’s first season of digging out from the Tim Brewster mess. Minnesota went just 2-6 in Big Ten play, though that did include a 22-21 win against Iowa to claim Floyd of Rosedale for the second consecutive season. Other than the COVID-19 years, the Gophers have had just one season with fewer than six wins since.
Arizona State (4-8): The struggles associated with the end of the Herm Edwards era have been a departure from the norm for the Sun Devils, who hadn’t lost eight games in the previous 12 seasons. It goes back to Dennis Erickson’s third year in Tempe, one that ended with six consecutive losses. It was close to going the other way, though. Four of ASU’s losses were by five points or less.
Michigan (3-9): Rich Rodriguez got off to the worst start imaginable in the Maize and Blue and never truly recovered. Quarterback Steven Threet was a bad fit for Rodriguez’s spread option attack and the Wolverines’ once-stout defense fell to the middle of the pack. A lowlight was a 48-42 loss to four-win Purdue that put up 522 yards. It was the first time Michigan missed a bowl in 33 years, and the Wolverines’ nine losses were the most ever in a season for a program that began playing football in 1879.
Texas A&M (4-8): Before this year, the Aggies’ last disaster of a season was Mike Sherman’s first in College Station after taking over for Dennis Franchione. Texas A&M was especially bad on defense, fielding the nation’s 114th-ranked unit. The Aggies gave up 40 or more points seven times and allowed 156 combined points to Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas to close out the season.
Oklahoma State (4-7): Mike Gundy was a young man, only 38, in his first season in Stillwater, promoted from offensive coordinator after helping Les Miles take the Cowboys to three consecutive bowls. His first year was rough, though, and he suspended nine players in a culture cleanup. With an offense directed by Larry Fedora that lost running back Vernand Morency to the NFL, Oklahoma State dropped from 32.2 points per game in 2004 to 20.2 in 2005. It’s the latest time the Cowboys missed a bowl.
Kansas State (4-7): At first glance, you’d think this was part of the ill-fated Ron Prince era, but it’s not! It’s actually Bill Snyder’s second to last season during his first run in Manhattan. After winning nine or more games in 10 of the previous 11 seasons, Snyder finally had a clunker. (Though Darren Sproles did run for 1,318 yards and 11 touchdowns.) The Wildcats’ two conference wins were their fewest since their Big 8 days in 1992.
Penn State (4-7): It felt like Joe Paterno had lost his way by the early 2000s, with a four-win season coming on the heels of a 3-9 year in 2003. The Nittany Lions lost six consecutive games for the second consecutive season and won only four games in 2004 even though a stingy defense didn’t allow more than 21 points in a game all season. (The low point: a 6-4 loss to Iowa.) JoePa turned it around in short order, winning 11 games and finishing No. 3 in 2005. He won 51 games from 2005-09 before his career’s ignominious end.
Alabama (4-9): Yes, Alabama was once mortal before Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide were mired in NCAA sanctions, banned from bowls and limited in scholarships in 2002 and ’03 for a scandal in which boosters were accused of paying recruits. (How quaint!) Mike Shula succeeded Texas A&M-bound Dennis Franchione in 2003 and, after getting into the rankings early in the season, won just two SEC games. Shula would get the Tide to 10-2 and in the Cotton Bowl by 2005, though Bama later had to vacate those wins due to … wait for it … NCAA sanctions.
Utah (4-7): Before Kyle Whittingham and Urban Meyer were Utah head coaches, there was Ron McBride, who led the Utes when they transitioned from the WAC to the Mountain West. This 2000 team featured future NFL All-Pros in receivers Steve Smith and offensive tackle Jordan Gross, plus a top-10 defense, though it didn’t win very much. McBride won 88 games in 13 years at Utah. This was tied with his debut season for his worst year.
LSU (3-8): Things came to a head with coach Gerry DiNardo, who won 19 games in 1996 and ’97 but fell off to a 4-8 mark in 1998. He didn’t last through a ’99 season in which the Tigers lost eight consecutive games. QB Josh Booty threw seven touchdowns and 19 (!!) interceptions. DiNardo got the axe after a mid-November home loss to Houston. Hal Hunter beat Arkansas in the finale as the interim coach before LSU brought in some guy named Saban to right the ship.
Clemson (3-8): The Tommy West era came to an end after the Tigers went 1-7 in the ACC and tied Maryland for last place, Clemson’s only last-place finish post-1976. West went 31-28 with the Tigers, getting to two Peach Bowls and one Gator, though he topped seven wins just once, with an eight-win 1995. The quarterback on that ’98 team? Current Clemson offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter, who threw for 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Pitt (2-9): Only twice have the Panthers posted double-digit wins since this year, but they’ve never truly bottomed out since Walt Harris won just two games in his second season. The Panthers beat only I-AA Villanova (barely) and Akron, going 0-7 in the Big East — with losses to Rutgers and Temple. Receiver LaTef Grim (906 yards, 9 TDs) was one of the few bright spots.
Oklahoma (4-8): The Sooners were suffering through the worst of the John Blake era, finishing 2-6 in Big 12 play and getting embarrassed by No. 1 Nebraska 69-7, the worst loss in Oklahoma history. OU had plenty of problems that year, not the least of which was an offense looking for an identity a couple of years after the failed one-year Howard Schnellenberger experiment. The Sooners’ starting quarterback part of that year was future Memphis and Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente. His stats in a run-based offense featuring tailback De’Mond Parker weren’t great — two touchdowns and eight interceptions. Only three years later, though, Bob Stoops had the Sooners back as national champs.
Texas (4-7): The John Mackovic era went south quickly, going from the Sugar Bowl in 1995 to the Fiesta Bowl in ’96 to out of a coaching job after the Longhorns’ worst season in nearly a decade. Texas was ranked 12th to start the season but nosedived, losing five of its last six, despite junior running back Ricky Williams starring with a 1,893-yard, 25-touchdown season. The Horns didn’t play much defense, giving up 33.3 points a game. Mack Brown was hired late that year and immediately went on one of the great runs in school history. Williams took the Heisman in 1998, Texas averaged 10.6 wins over the next 12 years and Vince Young won the Longhorns a national championship in 2005.
Virginia Tech (2-8-1): If there’s a lesson in giving coaches enough time, it’s at Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer had struggled his first six years in Blacksburg, going 24-40-2, bottoming out in a rough 1992 season when the Hokies led or were within a touchdown in the final five minutes of seven games that they didn’t win. Athletic director Dave Braine kept Beamer for a seventh season, though there were staff changes aplenty. The result was a Hall of Fame career. The Hokies started their 27-year bowl streak in 1993, made the national title game in 1999 and had nine top-15 finishes under Beamer.
Georgia (4-7): The Bulldogs struggled in the post-Vince Dooley years, with Ray Goff mostly unable to get things rolling. Though he’d win 19 games from 1991-92, the 1990 season was a rough one. Georgia beat Alabama that year but few other decent teams, losing six of its last seven, with five of those losses coming to ranked teams. Running back Garrison Hearst, the star of the next two years, ran for 717 yards as a freshman, but the Bulldogs had the nation’s 101st-ranked offense (out of 106 teams), failing to break 20 points in eight games.
Wisconsin (1-10): Barry Alvarez beat exactly one team in his debut season with the Badgers: Ball State. The rest of the year was a slog, Wisconsin’s only winless Big Ten season since 1968. Alvarez had the unenviable task of digging UW out of a hole from three years under Don Morton, who’d gone 6-27 as head coach. Future NFL star safety Troy Vincent was on the ’90 team, though the biggest work Alvarez and his staff did was that winter, signing the recruiting class that would become the backbone of a team that won the Big Ten just three years later in 1993.
Miami (3-8): “The U” hasn’t been back in a while, but it hasn’t been really bad in a while either, last losing eight games in a season during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Miami’s coach back then was a Saban — Lou Saban, who was a coaching vagabond in a two-year stint in Coral Gables. Future NFL running back Ottis Anderson ran for 782 yards that year, and the Canes somehow handed Bobby Bowden and Florida State one of their only two losses, but it was a forgettable season in a wayward decade for Miami, one in which the school nearly dropped football altogether. It’d still be two years before Howard Schnellenberger got to Miami and turned the program into a national powerhouse.
Ohio State (3-5-1): The most recession-proof program in college football, the Buckeyes haven’t finished with a sub-.400 winning percentage in 63 years and counting. (They were close in 1988, going 4-6-1 in John Cooper’s first season, but didn’t quite dip below.) Ohio State started 1959 ranked No. 7, with Woody Hayes in his ninth season, just two years removed from his second Rose Bowl win and a No. 2 final ranking. The Buckeyes lost three of their first five, though, to No. 11 USC, No. 20 Illinois and No. 12 Wisconsin, beating No. 6 Purdue in between.
OSU’s problem was it couldn’t score, despite future College Football Hall of Famer Bob Ferguson taking over a starring role from fullback Bob White, who finished fourth in the 1958 Heisman voting. The Buckeyes’ 9.2 points per game ranked last in the Big Ten. They were shut out three times. It was the only time from 1957-61 Ohio State didn’t finish in the top 10.
College football has changed just a bit since then.
(Top photo: Gene Sweeney / Getty Images)