Perhaps we should have seen the signs for Auburn’s turnaround from winless in the SEC in 2012 to conference champions in 2013.
In only his first season as a head coach, Gus Malzahn had an unblemished record in close games at Arkansas State the year before he arrived at Auburn. He was 4-0 in one-score games with the Red Wolves, but Auburn already may have an idea of Malzahn’s composure under pressure.
In 2010 and 2011, Malzahn’s final two seasons as offensive coordinator, Auburn was 10-0 in one-score games.
Going by numbers like that, Malzahn could make a case to be the most clutch coach in the country.
Indeed, Malzahn’s 11-1 record in one-score games as a head coach gives him the best win percentage in the nation the last five years. No other coach wins more than 90 percent of his games in one-score situations the last five years. Only three coaches who have presided over 10 or more one-possession games have won three-quarters of those matchups.
Granted, two of Malzahn's most dramatic wins — the Prayer on the Plains against Georgia and the Kick Six against Alabama last season — had little to do with great Xs and Os acumen. Even disregarding those two finishes, he remains the only coach who has won 90 percent of his close games the last five seasons, and his only loss came by three points to an otherwise dominant Florida State team in the national title game.
Athlon Sports decided to take a look at how every program and every active coach has fared in one-possession games during the last five seasons, i.e. games decided by eight points or less.
While simply looking at scoring margins does not exactly reflect how close a game was — garbage time touchdowns could skew are metrics — this still gives us an idea of how coaches and teams fare in close games. Our method also doesn't account for games that go out of reach within the final minutes, for example, a team going up — or falling behind — by six points in the final five minutes with a field goal in the final two for a more decisive final margin.
Here’s the data we found for coaches:
• Malzahn is the gold standard here with an 11-1 record in one-possession games in just two seasons as a head coach. Consider this: Malzahn has won as many one-possession games the last two seasons as Alabama has played (6-5) during the last five years.
• Steve Spurrier’s 15-5 record is impressive enough, but he’s 11-3 in the last three seasons in one-possession games as the Gamecocks have finished in the top-10 each year.
• Brian Kelly started his Notre Dame tenure with a 2-5 record in his first seven one-possession games. The Irish are 14-3 since, including 11 wins in a row.
• Penn State also would be advised to be patient with some heartbreaking losses. Vanderbilt started 1-6 in close games under James Franklin before he finished 6-1.
• Another lesson in the patience category: Louisville went 9-2 in one-possession games in the final two seasons under Charlie Strong after starting 5-10. Granted, one of those losses was a 38-35 home loss to UCF that cost the Cardinals an undefeated season and an AAC title.
• Are we noticing a trend? Washington went 10-4 in close games in the final four seasons under Steve Sarkisian, now the coach at USC.
• Will Muschamp is combustible enough as it is. This might not help. He went 4-0 in close games in 2012 and 0-4 in 2013.
• Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen has a nice record (11-8), but it’s probably not a stat he wants people to examine closely. Those close wins have included Troy, Louisiana Tech, UAB, Wake Forest, Bowling Green, Kentucky and Ole Miss (twice).
• Want to know why Ball State’s Pete Lembo and UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth will be hot commodities for Power 5 programs? Lembo is 13-4 in one-possession games in three seasons, including two wins over Toledo, two over Indiana, one over USF and another over Arkansas state in a bowl. Hudspeth is 9-3 with two of those losses at Arizona and at Florida.
• Kevin Sumlin is 12-11 in one-possession games during the last five years. His record is skewed by an 0-4 performance in such games in 2010 at Houston, the year quarterback Case Keenum missed with injury.
• Dave Doeren may be the strangest name in the best win percentage column, considering his first NC State team went winless in the ACC. Still, he went 9-3 in one-score games at Northern Illinois.
• Three coaches have presided over 30 one-possession games the last five years, tied for the most in the country: Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Navy’s Ken Niumatalo (17-13 each) and UCF’s George O’Leary (16-14).
• Three coaches have won 80 percent of their one-possession games but didn’t meet our 10-game threshold: UTSA’s Larry Coker (7-1), Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter (5-1) and Boise State’s Byran Harsin (4-1 at Arkansas State).
And here’s the other side of the equation:
• Kevin Wilson has lots of what-ifs in that 2-11 mark. Those losses include two to Ball State, two to Navy and one to North Texas.
• This makes sense: There are very few coaches with dismal records in close games. Most of the coaches with poor records in close games end up getting fired before putting up a truly lopsided number.
• Wake Forest traded a coach who was 11-17 in close games (Jim Grobe) for one that is 5-14 (Dave Clawson at Bowling Green).
• Among the lowlights for former coaches: Dennis Erickson (4-11 at Arizona State), Derek Dooley (2-7 at Tennessee) and Houston Nutt (2-6 at Ole Miss).