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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Nick Saban's One-Score Magic

January 9, 2018
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Football season is over, the final polls are out (sorry, UCF) as are the way-too-early polls for 2018.

Those too-early top 25s are fine. They give the next season the most basic sense of structure in the way that when you open a new deck of cards you know they’ll be in order by number and suit. The first thing you do is shuffle those cards, but I guess there’s some comfort in knowing where it all was at the start. 

These rankings are all basically a tally of returning starters, a glance at the schedule and a heaping scoop of what just happened in season before it. If they’re more than just a click hole, maybe they venture into over- and under-valued-team territory, and the most common way to do that is through turnovers and close games. I’ll probably look at those things as soon as I get my end-of-season spreadsheets built.

But for today I just want to focus on one team and its close games — the national champions, Alabama. Since 2007, Nick Saban is 127-20 in Tuscaloosa. Take out that first year, the building year and also one in which the Tide had to vacate wins resulting in a 2-6 record officially, and Saban is 125-14 (.899) at Alabama with five national titles.

That’s impressive enough on its own, but it only gets more impressive the closer you look. As Alabama, which was down 13-plus points at halftime for just the second time in the Saban era, engineered its comeback last night, survived a missed field goal for the win and followed up a bad play in overtime with an unbelievable game-winner on the next play, I wondered what the Tide had done under Saban in one-score games.

Those games are sort of coin flips, and this is basically the principle behind the Pythagorean wins calculation. Win a bunch of close games one season and things should even out eventually. Same goes for losing a bunch of them.

Unless you’re Saban apparently. Since 2008, his record in one-score games (8 points or less) is 17-9 (.654). There are a couple of ways to look at that. One, nine of the Tide’s 14 losses over the past 10 seasons were one-score losses. Two, just 18.7 percent of Alabama’s games over that stretch were decided by a touchdown or less and the Tide went 108-5 in those contests.

That makes three the real takeaway here: If you’re a team that can play close with Alabama – not many can – the Tide is probably still going to beat you two-thirds of the time. Last night’s game was perhaps the best example of that yet.

Georgia controlled the game for about 40 minutes, still had a great shot to win at the 55-minute mark and then lost over the final 5 minutes plus overtime. Maybe 30 years from now they’ll say, “that’s what it was like to play Alabama during that time.”

But that would be mostly inaccurate. The vast majority of teams never got that close to the Tide. The good teams were the ones that got to have their hearts ripped out. Most of the time. A lot of the time relative to what’s expected in games decided by a touchdown or less.

And that is actually the best representation of Alabama’s greatness. It wasn’t challenged often, but when it was it won nearly twice as often as it lost.

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