College Football Misery Index: We’re Gonna Roll It

“This plane is definitely crashing!!!!”

That is not the tagline for Flight, though it’d be cooler if it were. It’s actually a lyric from Modest Mouse’s “Shit Luck.” Even if that’s still a little too outré for Robert Zemeckis, you’d figure they’d use it anyway considering how far the movie goes to make everything else as blatantly obvious as possible. You basically know half the movie just from watching the trailer, and it is also a film about flying named Flight. Beyond that, cocaine highs are soundtracked by Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright,” heroin addicts shoot up to “Under the Bridge,” and alcoholics are so raging about their habits that if it weren’t for Budweiser explicitly asking their name to be removed from the movie, you’d think they took part in a Casino Royale–style gambit of extravagant product placement.

It was released in theaters earlier this month and certainly deals with enough emotional, physical, and property damage to inspire more than a few words in the College Football Misery Index during any given week. I just didn’t realize an airplane hurtling toward certain doom would be an apt metaphor for the entire sport in light of almost every contender flaming out and conference realignment once again having everyone reach for their oxygen masks. So we’re strictly dealing with the big topics in this week’s Misery Index — all BCS contenders and conference carpetbaggers, and much like the alcoholic Denzel Washington plays, their self-destruction hurts us just as much as it does them.

SEC: Alabama

Threat Level: Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington)
Both Alabama and Denzel begin their respective journeys clearly on top of their game. Of course, they differ greatly in terms of enviable resources at their disposal. The Crimson Tide probably has the second-best defense in the AFC South at this very moment and a sturdy, flawless offense. Hotshot pilot Whip Whitaker, on the other hand, has the dregs of his Miller Lites, presumably decent cocaine, and a panoramic view of Nadine Velazquez’s sturdy and flawless body. Likewise, both of their initial challenges are ones they seem accustomed to be handling in their sleep: in Alabama’s case, a game against Michigan, in Denzel’s, a call from his ex-wife for child support.

They both also get through an initial bump that only goes to demonstrate their unflappable nature under pressure — Alabama escapes LSU with a heroic, daredevil drive, Denzel escapes a terrible storm with a heroic, daredevil flight plan. And then a combination of human error and divine intervention throws everything off course. This comparison was made assuming we have College Station readers who agree that Johnny Manziel is an act of God. When it’s all said and done, they’ve somehow survived in a better position than ever. And while everything returns to some sense of normalcy, everyone wants to know how the lead somehow got out unscathed.

Because they’re good at what they do. But also defiant. Yeah, they had a bad day, but Whitaker’s defense against accusations of him being too drunk to fly is the following: “NO ONE ELSE COULD’VE LANDED THAT PLANE!” Well, isn’t that something Nick Saban might say, in those exact words? That Alabama’s already back at no. 2 underlines what everyone was thinking during the week after Texas A&M — no one knows who’s actually going to win the BCS Championship, but Alabama seems like the least likely to lose. In turn, judging by the critical hosannas granted to Denzel’s performance, the SEC is to the BCS Championship what drunks and drug addicts apparently are to the Oscars.

Big East: Rutgers

Threat Level: Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly)
It’s initially unclear how each of these two play into the larger picture; all you can really ascertain is that neither have had the best run of luck lately. Rutgers entered 2012 as the same long-suffering and borderline irrelevant program they’d been before the arrival of Greg Schiano, who always fell shy of reaching the promised land before leaving to take a gig at the NFL version of Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were basically UNLV, only with Ray Lucas and James Gandolfini as their preeminent dual-threat QB/innumerable-threat heavy combo rather than Randall Cunningham/Suge Knight. Meanwhile, in the grand scheme of realignment, they appeared to be the one school that everyone figured belonged in the Big East, painfully New Jersey, unwanted by the Big Ten and ACC while remaining geographically inaccessible to everywhere else.

As for Nicole, I don’t want to say she’s of the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype because there’s a point when she clearly turns down sex for money and drugs. But she’s not one for whom the future holds a lot of promise based on the present — we see her slump back to her shit hole apartment in Georgia, where she’s paying presumably $600 a month for a spot where she can park her dumpy car, have cartons of food strewn about and listen to Cowboy Junkies albums — so apparently, my life in Athens as a 22-year-old closely resembled that of a heroin addict.

And yet, catastrophe allows each to turn their lives around in a way that seems way too convenient. Because we’re led to believe that god allows their inner beauty and potential to win out over their circumstances. It’s something of a mixed lesson in the case of Nicole, seeing as how every male character who wants to help her also makes it abundantly clear they want to have sex with her. So she’s given photography as a vocation to show a window to her humanity, since photographers always have poetic souls — meaning that whoever wrote the script for Flight hasn’t been on Instagram.

As far as Rutgers, that sort of “inner beauty” is more or less the same kind of long-standing, erroneous assumption, i.e., that they can pull in the “New York market,” because I certainly can’t swing a dead cat in Manhattan without hitting some dude in Rutgers gear. Frankly, you wonder why the Big Ten didn’t go after Syracuse considering they have quite literally the biggest media influence in college sports and if you’ve ever attended a Rutgers viewing party for any sport, feel free to chime in.

ACC: Maryland

Threat Level: Skeezy Landlord (played by unknown)
I’d prefer not to get too deep with this one — otherwise I’d probably end up just cursing a blue streak and throwing batteries like a drunken Terrapins fan. So I’ll just helpfully point out that Skeezy Landlord runs the dumpy apartment complex where Nicole lives and will take any necessary action to get his money, whether it’s threatening a woman with a baseball bat or their own genitalia. More importantly, they’ll take a humiliating ass-kicking if it results in them getting paid up front.

Pac-12: Oregon

Threat Level: Hugh Lang (played by Don Cheadle)
“To err is human” — many screenwriters take that as a license to believe that the best way to demonstrate a character’s humanity is to make their flaws as glaringly obvious as possible. Flight is certainly guilty of that, which is why Don Cheadle is actually the most believable guy in the movie — he’s not given an immediately identifiable demon like some sort of WWE heel, he’s just a criminal lawyer who does supposedly lawyer-like things. He’s not a guy you would want to have a drink with (or in Denzel’s case, a Budweiser in the car), but he’s always on point. It’s the way most people talk about Chip Kelly, although Cheadle’s snazzy business suits are a bit more conservative than the outfitting of the Ducks.

The obvious parallel between these two perfectionists is that all sorts of prior game-planning and strategizing aren’t going to mean shit when the final result comes down to whether or not these tragically flawed human beings under their orders are going to crack under pressure. And without getting too much into the plot of Flight, both Kelly and Cheadle just need their fragile charges to hit a chip shot and walk away. I suppose Oregon’s loss to Stanford is supposed to demonstrate some larger truth about college football, about how the human element can make scoring three points more difficult than scoring 59. That’s the problem: Everyone always assumes you want a moral lesson, not the inspiration to leap out of your chair and high-five the guy on the screen.

Big Ten: Ohio State

Threat Level: Harling Mays (played by John Goodman)
We can all acknowledge that John Goodman murdered Ben Affleck in Argo. He can almost certainly coast through the next decade playing some variation on that quick-witted scene-stealer. His role in Flight is not one of them. It feels like we’ve fast-forwarded straight to Al Pacino caricature territory, as Goodman plays quite possibly his first truly unlikable character since that asshole coach in Revenge of the Nerds.

Best described as a combination of the worst attributes of Ralph and Walter Sobchak and also someone who never shuts up whenever he’s on screen, he just so happens to be Whip Whitaker’s best friend, and perhaps that’s meant to convey the utter emptiness of an alcoholic’s existence that admittedly narcotized sex with Kelly Reilly and airline stewardesses can’t quite convey. As far as the plot of Flight, he’s more of a combination coke fairy/deus ex machina than an actual human being, which means he reemerges the very moment you start to think, “Wow, I really hope that’s the last we’ve seen of him.”

And so, an unlikable John Goodman character feels about as incongruous as an Ohio State team we’re forced to not care about — but an undefeated Ohio State team? Granted, the B1G Ten may very well have timed their hostile takeover of Maryland and Rutgers to overshadow how Nebraska vs. Wisconsin might turn out to be less inspiring than the ACC championship, but still, going undefeated is really hard, and this is the first time since Auburn in 2010-11 that we’re being told to look away in a sport that’s proven time and again it’s “about eyeballs on a screen.” Sad to think we won’t get Ohio State–Notre Dame utterly decimating the Hate-Watch Index of even last year’s BCS Championship.

Big 12: Kansas State

Threat Level: Ken Evans (played by Brian Geraghty)
At the outset, the co-pilot is given the controls to the plane with the dint of benevolence, “you’re ready.” In reality, Whitaker just wants to wake up when it’s over, similar to how the SEC will just show up to the BCS title game with one loss because, well, you got any better ideas? And while he belongs there, it’s clear he is simply not built for the spotlight the moment things get out of hand — and in this case, the plane’s in a dive that’s so beyond his control, you’d think it was attached to Lache Seastrunk.

And that’s Kansas State for you — actually, it’s more of a stand-in for Collin Klein, right down to how the concussions aren’t played for laughs, but the god-fearing nature of him and his comically chaste wife are.

Non-BCS: Louisiana Tech

Threat Level: Gaunt Young Man (played by James Badge Dale)
To be honest, I’m not worried about getting cancer. I mean, if it happens, it happens. What I am worried about is the message sent by characters like Gaunt Young Man, whom Whitaker and Nicole meet in a hospital staircase for a cigarette. While my friends found his appearance a necessary bit of comic relief and emotional guidance, I found him to be a grim reminder of how Hollywood continues to set up my family for major disappointment in the likelihood that I’d rather watch marathons of Ace of Cakes during chemo rather than dole out spiritual epiphanies about living for the day and whatnot.

He provides an important pivot for Flight even if it isn’t clear whether or not we’ll see him again, and Louisiana Tech gave a similarly heartening if ultimately doomed run. By the end, you wish they’d just focus more on them. Much like it never being said that Gaunt Young Man had X amount of months to live, Louisiana Tech wasn’t exactly licked in the BCS buster race having only dropped one game to the same team that beat Alabama. And unlike the Crimson Tide, they only lost to Texas A&M by two. Add a couple of wins against BCS cannon fodder Virginia and Illinois, and you figure they at least deserve better than to be an SEC fill-in in the Independence Bowl, even if beating a bunch of cupcakes and a couple of BCS cannon-fodder teams is how most SEC teams actually end up in the Independence Bowl (fun fact: onetime no. 25 Mississippi State has won a single game against a team with a winning record — Middle Tennessee State). Unfortunately, they had their own chance meeting with the star-crossed Utah State. You might remember then from 2011’s most heartbreaking non-upsets, and they’re a mere five points away from being undefeated themselves. But I guess that demonstrates the way the bigger picture sees BCS teams and non-BCS teams. The former are like addicts, always deemed capable of getting back on their feet even though they can clearly not be trusted around money. Non-BCS teams, well they’re figurative cancers … they can occasionally give everyone else something to smile about while they suffer a slow, painful death.

Filed Under: College Football