Playing a lot of close games can be good or bad depending on your perspective. If you’re planning on being a top team, it could be bad since you’re not blowing out as many teams as you thought you would. If you’re an up-and-coming team, it could be good because that means you’re competitive in many games.
To win a lot of close games, it takes some skill and a lot of luck. You have to get some breaks in order to prevail, no matter how skilled you are. Some times you get them, some times you don’t.
Things tend to even out in college football in regards to winning close games. If you get a lot of breaks one year, you don’t tend to get them the next, and vice versa. Following that line of thinking, it is possible to use how a team does in close games in one season to pick out candidates for risers and fallers for the next season.
For instance, Rutgers and Wake Forest were big surprise teams in 2006 when they went 3-0 and 5-1 in close games. By that measure you’d expect them to fall off some, and they did, going from 11-2 and 11-3 in ‘06 to 8-5 (2-2 in close games) and 9-4 (3-2) in ‘07. On the other side of the coin, Missouri went 0-3 in close games in 2006 on the way to going 8-5, but it went 12-2 in 2007 thanks in part to being 2-0 in close games.
It is an inexact science of course. Teams get better and worse, their schedules change, players come and go, coaches and coordinators change, and so on. This is a list of teams that have the potential for rising; you must engage your brain from here on out to decide how well these teams will do.
For these purposes, a “close game” is defined as a game where the final score is eight points or less - in other words, one touchdown and conversion could tie or swing the game. Teams that made the main list had at least three more losses than wins; teams on the watch list had two more losses than wins and played at least four close games.
Only BCS conference teams (including Notre Dame) were analyzed.
Maryland Terrapins, 6-7 overall, 1-5 in close games
Maryland has languished in mediocrity since winning 10+ games from 2001-03. Ralph Friedgen probably needs a good season or else he could be on his way out. His team posted one of the three worst records in close games in 2007, so either his team was really close or it had poor execution.
Maryland was picked 5th in its division in 2007, precisely where it ended up, and it’s picked to do the same in 2008. If the Terps can catch some breaks though, which they apparently couldn’t a season ago, they could surprise a lot of people.
Michigan State Spartans, 7-6 overall, 2-6 in close games
Mark Dantonio was almost universally praised for the job he did in his first year in East Lansing. After three straight losing seasons, he got them above .500 and competitive in all six losses. Sparty could be set for a breakout season in 2008.
Minnesota Golden Gophers, 1-11 overall, 1-6 in close games
Minnesota’s season was a disaster last year, especially on defense. Tim Brewster has proven to be a pretty good recruiter, and he has lots of optimism for the future. And why not? Despite the poor defensive play, seven of the Gophers’ twelve games were close.
Then again, one of those close losses was to North Dakota State. Caveat emptor.
UCLA Bruins, 6-7 overall, 0-3 in close games
I would hazard a guess that most UCLA fans would attribute the poor record in close games to mismanagement by Karl Dorrell.
This team is a probably a case where the record doesn’t indicate a turnaround - the coaching staff has changed, the top two quarterbacks are hurt, and it’s debatable how much talent is on the sidelines in Westwood. Then again, Rick Neuheisel is known for quick turnarounds.
North Carolina Tar Heels, 4-8 overall, 2-6 in close games
In Butch Davis’ first year, UNC was very competitive for a 4-8 team. Only two of its eight losses were by more than one score, and that’s what you’re looking for in an up-and-coming team.
Many people are already expecting big things out of the Heels in 2008, with them having been picked second in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Their record in close games in 2007 would seem to back up those expectations, as long as things regress to the mean in Chapel Hill.
Vanderbilt Commodores, 5-7 overall, 0-3 in close games
For the second time in three seasons, Vanderbilt finished one win away from being bowl eligible for the first time since 1982. Two seasons ago the five wins came on the back of star QB Jay Cutler. Last season the five wins came despite great upheaval at the quarterback position, and the ‘Dores had three good chances to get that sixth win anyway.
Could 2008 be the season that Vandy finally breaks through? Perhaps, but lets not forget that scaring the big boys by losing close games is one of the things that defines Vanderbilt over the past couple decades.
Washington Huskies, 4-9 overall, 0-5 in close games
Ty Willingham has been working his way through a bad situation in the post-Neuheisel era. His many critics probably would attribute the 0-5 mark in close games to poor coaching and execution. Others might attribute it to having a young team and starting a freshman quarterback.
The pressure is definitely on Willingham to have a good season. If another year goes by with a poor record in close games, the folks on the “poor coaching and execution” side of the argument will probably win out.
The Watch List
Alabama Crimson Tide, 7-6 overall, 4-6 in close games
Arizona Wildcats, 5-7 overall, 2-4 in close games
Cincinnati Bearcats, 10-3 overall, 1-3 in close games
Louisville Cardinals, 6-6 overall, 3-5 in close games
Mississippi Rebels, 3-9 overall, 2-4 in close games