Nothing swings a season in college football like a close game.
Every time a national championship contender wins by a touchdown or a field goal over a lesser opponent, like clockwork the talking heads say every champion has a game like that through the season, mainly because it’s true. Notre Dame had five of them leading into the national championship game. Alabama gutted out wins over LSU and Georgia and lost a close one to Texas A&M.
On the other side, a sure-fire way to lose a job as a head coach is to lose a string of close games. Jeff Tedford’s Cal teams lost five games decided by one score in a row. Arizona State’s Dennis Erickson finished his tenure going 3-13 in one-score games over his final four seasons. Skip Holtz lost eight of his last 10 at USF before being shown the door.
Indeed, the heartbreaking loss or out-of-nowhere upset make up the fabric of college football. They influence athletic directors’ decision-making and fan and perception. Here, though, are the raw numbers. We decided to look at every major conference program, their coaches and how they’ve fared in close games over the last five seasons.
A few things to consider:
1. Close games are considered to be one-score games (i.e. games decided by eight points or fewer).
2. Unless noted, all records are from the last five seasons (since 2008).
3. Our research focused on teams in the six major conferences and active coaches at those programs.
4. We didn’t spend much time considering why the game was close — did a lesser team put a scare in a more highly ranked team? Did an elite team play down to an opponent? Over the span of five seasons, these close games more or less balanced out.
Here’s what we learned:
BEST WIN PERCENTAGE
1. Kansas State
T4. Oklahoma State
T4. Penn State
WORST WIN PERCENTAGE
1. Arizona State
2. Ole Miss
FEWEST CLOSE GAMES
MOST CLOSE GAMES
MOST CLOSE WINS
MOST CLOSE LOSSES
ACTIVE COACHES (min. 10 games)
1. Bill Snyder, Kansas State
2. Brian Kelly, Cincy/Notre Dame
3. David Shaw, Stanford
4. Dave Doeren, NIU/NC State
5. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
6. Urban Meyer, Florida/Ohio State
T7. Bronco Mendenhall, BYU
T7. Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia
9. Les Miles, LSU
T10. Steve Sarkisian, Washington
T10. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
T10. Nick Saban, Alabama
WORST WIN PERCENTAGE
1. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
2. Charlie Weis, Notre Dame/Kansas
3. George O'Leary, UCF
4. David Cutcliffe, Duke
5. Jerry Kill, NIU/Minnesota
6. Todd Graham, Tulsa/Pitt/ASU
7. Brady Hoke, Ball St/SDSU/Michigan
T8. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
T8. Jim Grobe, Wake Forest
T8. Paul Pasqualoni, UConn
• Brian Kelly’s 4-0 record in one-score games at Notre Dame last season was no fluke. The Notre Dame coach is 19-5 in games decided by eight points or less in the last five seasons, dating to his days at Cincinnati. And once Kelly is entrenched, the better success rate he has. Notre Dame has won eight of its last nine one-score games, and Cincinnati won nine in a row before Kelly left for South Bend.
• At what point should Lucky Les Miles shed the “lucky” tag? There has to be a skill to winning close games, right? LSU is 19-9 in one-score games in the last five seasons. Miles’ 11-4 mark in 2009-10 alone included more close games than Alabama has played in five seasons (8-4). The opponent who has played LSU the closest hasn’t been Alabama or Auburn as one might expect: LSU has split its four one-score games against Arkansas the last five years.
• Kansas State’s record in close games is staggering. The Wildcats are 19-5 in one-score games in the last five seasons for a 79.2 win percentage, by far the best in the major conferences. Kansas State has gone 17-4 in those games under Bill Snyder. But the Collin Klein era was another level: With Klein as the starting quarterback in 2011-12, Kansas State went 10-1 in one-score games.
• Arizona State is the anti-Kansas State. The Sun Devils are 4-15 in one-score games over the last five seasons. Dennis Erickson may have won two national titles at Miami, but he was 3-13 in close games in his final four seasons at Arizona State. That was more than enough to cost Erickson his job. The Sun Devils hired Todd Graham, whose record is a bit better, but not great: 9-13 in the last five seasons at Tulsa, Pittsburgh at ASU.
• The biggest surprise among teams on the right side of the ledger in close games is Utah. Aside from K-State, the Utes are the only other team to win more than 70 percent of their one-score games. Utah is 14-5 in close games the last five seasons, doing most of that damage as a Mountain West member at 10-2.
• Jim Harbaugh built Stanford into a contender, but David Shaw knows how to win the tight games. Shaw is 10-3 in one-score games as the Stanford coach; Harbaugh finished his tenure on a 6-7 note.
• Washington fans may be getting bored with seven win seasons, but Steve Sarkisian is winning when his back is against he wall. The Huskies won 10 one-score games before back-to-back losses to end the 2012 season (31-29 to Washington State, 28-26 to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl).
• Looking for another Brian Kelly, whose close game turnaround indicates a big season? Try Al Golden and Charlie Strong. In his final three seasons at Temple, Golden in close games went 2-5, 3-1 and 4-1. In that case, the last two seasons should be a bellwether for Golden at Miami. The Hurricanes went 2-6 in close games in 2011 and 3-2 in 2012. Meanwhile, Louisville went 5-11 under Strong in such games early. The Cardinals went 6-1 with their backs against the wall last season.
• If you’re looking for other teams trending in the right direction, Florida has won five of six one-score games dating back to the 2011 Gator Bowl against Ohio State. And further illustrating the point that opponents in close games even themselves out, two of those close games in 2012 were against Texas A&M and LSU; the others were Missouri and Louisiana-Lafayette. Another impressive turnaround has been Nebraska: The Huskers went 5-10 in close games in the first four seasons under Bo Pelini before going 4-1 last year.
• Wisconsin is 14-14 overall in close games in the last five seasons, but the Badgers have lost 10 of 13 dating back to the 2011 Rose Bowl against TCU. Wisconsin, though, hired a coach in Gary Andersen who won eight of his last 10 one-score games at Utah State, one of those loses coming in Camp Randall.
• Michigan State and Iowa get the most attention for playing close games in the Big Ten. But they don’t play the most, and they don’t have the best success rate. That belongs to Northwestern, which is 19-16 in one-score games the last five seasons (albeit 0-3 in bowl games). Michigan State is 16-11, padded by an 8-1 mark in 2011. Iowa is 12-16 with a 6-12 mark the last three seasons.
• Bob Stoops is taking his lumps at Oklahoma, but the Sooners are 11-4 in one-score games since the 2009 Sun Bowl win over Stanford.
• Let’s give credit to Dabo Swinney for being able to avoid the heartbreakers. Tommy Bowden finished on a 1-7 skid in one-score games at Clemson. Swinney has won has last five one-score games.
• TCU is a strange case, aided by the Horned Frogs defensive dominance of the Mountain West. The Frogs have played only 16 one-score games in the last five seasons. Five have come in bowl games (TCU is 3-2), six came in the first year in the Big 12 (3-3).
• BYU is 14-6 in close games, which is mighty impressive. But consider that Bronco Mendenhall and the Cougars won 14 consecutive one score games from 2007-10.
• New Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz is a strange case. He went 10-4 in one-score games in his last two seasons at East Carolina in 2008-09. Then, he won six of his first nine close games at USF. But the Bulls squandered second-half lead after second-half lead to lose eight of their last 10 close games in 2011-12. That skid doomed Holtz at USF, but he’s still 18-15 overall in one-score games in the last five seasons.
• With its triple option offense, it’s not shocking Navy has played more close games than most, going 18-12 under Ken Niumatalolo in those games. Niumatololo’s predecessor, Paul Johnson, has gone 15-12 in one-score games at Georgia Tech, also running the option.