Let’s say you’re riding a bicycle up the steep incline of an enormous mountain.
Your progress is slow, dogged, painful. You deposit sweat in buckets, your drenched T-shirt sticking like Velcro to your skin. Little by little, your fellow bicyclists fall back, beaten. Your legs burn; they beg you to reconsider. But you don’t. You can’t. The summit beckons, growing larger, a lighthouse blinking dimly from the edge of a stormy sea.
You make it. Finally. Mercifully.
But though the climb is gradual, the descent is all too swift.
“The ride up the mountain is very difficult at times,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said following his team’s home loss to BYU last weekend, “and that ride down sometimes … is very quick.”
In the midst of Michigan State’s first three-game losing streak since 2009, Dantonio knows this.
But he isn’t the only one.
Look at Oklahoma, LSU, Stanford and Notre Dame. All four teams entered the season in the top 10 of the Associated Press’ preseason poll. Six weeks later, each has at least two losses, LSU has relieved longtime head coach Les Miles and Notre Dame has fired third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Look at the supposed prides of Los Angeles: UCLA and USC. Both programs greeted the season with top 25 records, and both are currently 3-3, relegated to the Pac-12’s mediocre middle.
Look at Oregon, for gosh shakes. On Jan. 12, 2015, the delirious Ducks met Ohio State in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas.
Right now, they’re 2-4, losers of four straight, having just surrendered 70 points at home to clearly superior Washington.
At the middle point of the 2016 season, nine contemporary powers that were nationally ranked prior to the season opener — Oklahoma (No. 3), LSU (5), Stanford (8), Notre Dame (10), Michigan State (12), UCLA (16), Georgia (18), USC (20) and Oregon (24) — own a combined record of 24-25. A season ago, those same programs went 89-30.
If misery really does love company, then the bottom of the mountain is the place to be.
“To me, it comes down to a couple of things,” said former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, now a color commentator and analyst for Fox. “There’s more parity in college football today than ever, and it’s all about the quarterback scenario. If you don’t have one, you’re in trouble.
“Look at every one of those schools you listed. You can make the case that Notre Dame had DeShone Kizer coming back but unfortunately they had the quarterback battle and that kind of took away from their ability to be more prepared for week one when they went against Texas. They started with two quarterbacks, so they made a switch at quarterback, like Oregon did. Stanford has played two. Look at Michigan State. Connor Cook was the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history. He moves on. Tyler O’Connor comes in (and has struggled).
“With almost all of those teams, they’ve had a change at quarterback or they have a guy that won a battle or is a true freshman starting. That’s kind of where we are in college football nowadays, probably now more so than ever. With how many touches they get with the up-tempo offenses and how spread out it is, that guy has to be a difference-maker.”
On Saturday night, Notre Dame (2-4) hosts Stanford (3-2) in a match up with starkly different stakes than a season ago. Back then — on Nov. 28, 2015, which suddenly seems like the good ‘ole days for both programs — the Cardinal and Irish met in Palo Alto with a Pac-12 championship berth on the line for one team and a playoff spot hanging delicately in the balance for the other.
Fast-forward to the pitiful present, and Notre Dame ranks 124th nationally in sacks, 92nd in rushing offense, 88th in tackles for loss, 84th in rushing defense, 78th in scoring defense and 75th in both passing defense and total defense, with those defensive statistics having been positively skewed by the effects of Hurricane Matthew.
In its current two-game slide, Stanford is allowing an average of 43 points and 441 total yards per game. Despite the continued presence of Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey, who is questionable for Saturday's game with an unspecified injury, the Cardinal are rushing for just 140.8 yards per game, which ranks 100th nationally and is bafflingly out of character.
“Stanford, because of their academic restrictions, kind of has to play a certain style of football,” Quinn said. “All of a sudden, if you lose two of your cornerbacks like they did last week, you’re going to get torn apart.
“If they don’t get out in front of teams — and they play more of a bend but don’t break defense — they’re going to have a hard time coming back.”
In Saturday night’s game, there will be no College Football Playoff implications. No shortcuts back to the summit.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen (off their bikes).