So there has been a whole lot of winning going on with Alabama, Michigan State, Clemson and Oklahoma of late. It should be no surprise they are here, glittering under the Klieg lights in advance of the national semifinals on New Year's Eve, programs that are the envy of many across the college football nation.
Yet life hasn't always been rainbows, puppy dogs and conference trophies. Each fan base should know that. Each coach surely does.
While Clemson's Dabo Swinney is no fan of the word "Clemsoning," it's a term that made the Urban Dictionary. Michigan State fans can sympathize. The "Sparty No!" meme is something that makes many rival fans guffaw. Even Alabama's Nick Saban invited national ridicule when his team went belly up against Louisiana-Monroe in 2007 and he compared the experience to Pearl Harbor.
What about Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, the coaching fraternity's elder statesman? Well, this headline appeared in the Tulsa World a year ago: "It's time for Bob Stoops to go."
So as this quartet absorbs the plaudits and its fans dream big, it seems reasonable to inject some perspective into the proceedings by recalling each team's last rotten season. It might offer some nostalgia for friend and foe alike. It might act as a cautionary tale. And it might offer hope to teams that are presently immersed in a rotten season (or two).
Alabama, 7-6, 2007: "Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event."
Over the years, Saban has defended the Crimson Tide's annual late-season game with a pastry cream puff, but there's a reason for that. His first season in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the pastry cream puff bit back when Louisiana-Monroe, a 24½-point underdog, beat Alabama 21-14.
"I think it was pretty embarrassing," Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson said after the game. "We let a lot of people down. We shouldn't have lost. We're Alabama."
Saban concurred, but he also allowed the laser-like focus for which he is so admired to get the best of him, with his after-the-fact analysis showing an impolitic lack of perspective.
"Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event," Saban said. "It may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II, and that was a catastrophic event."
The sports information department would try to smooth things out -- "[Saban] was not equating losing football games to those catastrophic events," it said in a release. Further, you could almost, quasi-seriously, note that Alabama's ardent fans knew at that moment they had their coach because he was just as obsessive about winning football games as they were.
The upset to Louisiana-Monroe would pair with the ensuing Iron Bowl loss to Auburn -- a record sixth consecutive defeat in the rivalry game! -- to give Saban four consecutive regular-season defeats to wind up a disappointing debut, one that also featured a number of off-field issues.
While the Crimson Tide's fan base, which months before viewed him as the high-priced savior for a struggling college football superpower, wasn't jumping off the bandwagon in significant numbers after Alabama finished 7-6, the honeymoon certainly ended quickly.
The marriage, however, has been pretty good since then. The Tide went 12-2 the next season and then went 14-0 and won the national title in 2009.
Michigan State, 6-7, 2009: "Sparty No!" Times five.
"Sparty No!" was born from Michigan State's curious ability to find creative ways to lose. Under Bobby Williams and then John L. Smith -- post Nick Saban -- the Spartans were typically a talented team that was so close but yet so far, and that distance seemed to be created by a propensity to step on a rake at critical times in games.
Choking is difficult to quantify, but this does it best: From 2002 to '06, Michigan State went 4-14 in games decided by one possession.
Enter Mark Dantonio. In his second season in 2008, the Spartans beat Notre Dame and Michigan and finished 9-4. Things looked like they were trending up decisively. But then 2009 happened.
Amid some embarrassing off-field issues, including several players being involved in a campus brawl, the Spartans would finish 6-7. In the second game of the season, they were embarrassed at home by Central Michigan in a vintage "Sparty No!" performance that involved the surrender of a seemingly won game. That was the first of five defeats in which they held a lead in the fourth quarter.
There was more than a little grumbling about Dantonio, about his handling of things on and off the field. The only redeeming part of the season was an overtime victory over Michigan.
Of course, things got better. In 2010, the Spartans finished 11-2. Since the struggles of 2009, Dantonio is 65-15 (.813) and just once won fewer than 11 games.
As for "Sparty No!" the Spartans are 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less this year, and a few of those -- "Wolvie No!" -- have been pretty darn dramatic.
Clemson, 6-7, 2010: So close yet still Clemsoning
When Dabo Swinney went from interim coach to full-time head coach after Tommy Bowden's resignation in 2008, most folks went, "Who the heck is he?" In Swinney's second full season in 2010, the Tigers recorded their first losing record in over a decade, and more than a few folks went, "He's a quirky good ol' boy who isn't ready to lead a big-time program."
Swinney could spin a yarn and recruit, but he seemed fully determined to maintain an unhappy Clemson tradition of falling short at inexplicable moments, aka "Clemsoning."
While one of the Tigers' losses during the 2010 season came in overtime to eventual unbeaten national champion Auburn, five of them came to teams that lost at least five games, and a sixth came to a four-loss Florida State team. There also was a sense that Swinney mishandled touted QB Kyle Parker, who regressed as a second-year starter.
Clemson lost back-to-back games to South Carolina for the first time since 1969, and concluded the season by giving USF its first bowl victory over a Power 5 team. The Tigers as a program seemed to be slipping from good but not great -- last 10-win season in 1990 -- to mediocre.
Even going 10-4 in 2011 didn't win over everyone, considering Clemson started 8-0. The Tigers lost a third straight game to South Carolina and were bludgeoned 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
But Swinney and Clemson found their groove thereafter. They are 45-7 over the past four seasons and are in position to win their first national title since 1981.
Oklahoma, 8-5, 2014: "All blame will be on Bob Stoops if Oklahoma flops again in 2015."
Bob Stoops has won 80 percent of his games coaching Oklahoma. He has won nine conference titles and one national championship in 17 seasons. He has never posted a losing season and 13 times has won 10 or more games. Before he took over in 1999, Oklahoma's last season winning more than eight games was a 9-3 campaign in 1993, and that also just happened to be the program's last winning season pre-Stoops during the post-Barry Switzer malaise of Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake.
It feels like we will be reaching just a touch here, as about half of the Power 5 teams would gladly take what we'll describe as Oklahoma's rotten year.
Yet after an 8-5 campaign in 2014, the Tulsa World announced, "It's time for Bob Stoops to go," noting a blowout loss to Clemson in the Russell Athletic bowl was "a painfully clear indication that whatever mojo Stoops had when he started at Oklahoma is long, long gone."
This preseason, a Fox Sports story on Stoops had the headline, "All blame will be on Bob Stoops if Oklahoma flops again in 2015." ESPN also got into the act with this headline: "Is it time for a change of scenery for Bob Stoops?"
Yet this wasn't insane media overreaction. Not entirely. More than a few Sooners fans believed the same, though not too many will own up to it today. There was a sense of stagnation for both team and coach. There was a sense that, in this day and age, an FBS coach, no matter how focused and intense, can't maintain the fire in his belly for nearly two decades in the same place.
Last year, the Sooners, ranked fourth in the preseason, lost close games -- TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State -- by a combined eight points. They couldn't close out games with clutch performances. And they got whipped -- 48-14 at home against Baylor and 40-6 in a bowl loss to semifinal opponent Clemson. They sometimes didn't even bother to show up. They lost three of their final five games and the team seemed blasé about the whole thing.
This year, the Sooners started out ranked a pedestrian 19th. Stoops had reshuffled his staff, bringing in 31-year-old Lincoln Riley from East Carolina to run his offense, which would be led by walk-on QB Baker Mayfield. In the spring, the campus and the football team were gripped in racial unrest after members of the SAE fraternity were caught on video singing horrifically racist songs. There also was the controversial return of tailback Joe Mixon, who'd been suspended for the 2014 season after striking a woman.
A lot was going on. Yet the Sooners overcame a shocking defeat to rival Texas on Oct. 10 and here they are, in position to win Stoops a second national title.