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Hot Reads: A Quick Discourse on Close Games

June 02, 2020

There are four Power 5 teams in college football that have been in more one-score games than Nebraska has over the past two seasons––Arizona State, Texas, North Carolina and TCU. 

Let's go back to December of 2017 for a second. It's hiring-and-firing season and Nebraska is being lauded by many for making the hire of that cycle with Scott Frost. Arizona State, meanwhile, is getting crushed for hiring Herm Edwards. Two years later, the Edwards hire looks like a great decision and the Sun Devils are viewed as trending up after going to back-to-back bowls. Arizona State made those two bowl games in part because it went .500 in 16 one-score games. That's the most close games over that span and the Sun Devils performed exactly to expectations––won half, lost half.

Texas started last season in the top 10. The Longhorns were coming off a 10-win season, and an impressive bowl win over Georgia, but the lofty preseason ranking never added up for me precisely because Texas had gotten to double-digit wins by going 6-3 in one-score games in the 2018 regular season and getting another one in the Sugar Bowl. Last year came with a more realistic 3-3 record in those games, Texas went a decent 8-5 and finished the season on the fringe of most top 25s.

Like Texas, North Carolina is drawing a little preseason buzz ahead of Mack Brown's second season, and, like Texas again, has been in 15 one-score games since 2018. TCU has played in 13 such games over that stretch. Then you get to Nebraska, which, along with six other teams, ranks fourth among Power 5 teams with 12 one-score game. That's an entire season of coin flips, spread over two seasons.

The Huskers, however, have the fewest wins and lowest winning percentage of any team to play in at least 12 one-score games since 2018.

California 8 4 .667
Texas 9 6 .600
Pittsburgh 7 5 .583
Arizona St 8 8 .500
Kansas St 6 6 .500
USC 6 6 .500
TCU 5 8 .385
Purdue 4 8 .333
Miami 4 8 .333
North Carolina 4 11 .267
Nebraska 3 9 .250

I look at numbers like this each year when preparing our annual Yearbook. That's why I'm writing about these number now; I was pulling a bigger group of things together for something else. And, while we often have a sense of things like this without necessarily knowing the exact numbers, it's always amazing to see just how much of college football is being decided on a handful of plays.

The team Bill Moos oversees is 3-9 in one-score games and people are surprised with the lack of on-field progress at Nebraska fter two years under Frost. Ben Moos, Bill's son, plays for California. The Bears are 8-4 in one-score games the last two seasons and people are generally impressed with the job Justin Wilcox continues to do at Cal. Both sentiments are based in the reality of the past two seasons, and they are nearing opposite ends on some sort of extremely satisfied-to-extremely dissatisfied scale. But there's really a pretty thin margin between the two.

Make Cal 6-6 in those games and Nebraska 6-6 and you have two different conversations. You could probably get there by changing the outcomes of a combined 30 plays. You can't just wave a magic wand and do that, of course. The Bears still won 'em and the Huskers still lost 'em. I suppose in an alternate universe Cal and Nebraska might be in exact opposite spots, but in this one, it is what it is.

Anyway, that's it. Just a short discourse on close games, which continue to be fascinating. On its own, this may not be proof that Nebraska is “close” except in the most literal sense.

Then again, it might be.

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