Maybe Close Games Aren’t Random
One of the basic tenets of my football philosophy is that teams that win a disproportionate share of close games are “lucky.” Ohio State 2002 didn’t have some sort of magical clutchiness; they just benefited from a series of fortunate events en route to becoming the weakest national champions of the decade. I’m not sure if it was the LSU game on Saturday or the Falcons game yesterday, but I’m starting to reevaluate my beliefs. Part of the reason why the notion of certain teams being clutch is silly is that the sample sizes are inevitably too small. But then let’s think about how consistently LSU has won close games under Les Miles. Saturday’s late win over Ole Miss pushed the Tigers to 25-9 under Miles in games decided by one score. For college football purposes, that’s a reasonably large sample size.
So how can we explain this consistent success? Let’s come back to the Falcons game yesterday. Every set of downs seemed to follow the same pattern. Mike Mularkey would send Michael Turner plodding into the line for a couple yards. Then, when the team really needed yards, Matt Ryan would find Roddy White for nine yards to move the sticks. That’s how a team ends up going 10-17 on third downs. (Yes, Turner did end up with a good stat line in the game, but his line was 25 carries for 86 yards before the final drive in garbage time.) The Falcons are 8-2 despite the fact that they don’t always play to their strength on offense, which is Ryan throwing the ball. The Falcons are 5-1 in games decided by one score. (Over Mike Smith’s tenure, the number is 15-7.) To a certain extent, this is the result of good fortune (hi, Garrett Hartley!), but it’s also because the team is forced to play to its strength at the end of a close game. So in a strange way, the team’s success in close games is actually a criticism of its approach. If Mularkey called plays as if every possession were the final possession of a close game, then the Falcons wouldn’t be in so many close games in the first place.
Can we describe LSU in the same way? Not exactly. After all, a team with a dreadful passing game like the Tigers shouldn’t be criticized for relying heavily on the run. Rather, LSU’s success in close games speaks to Gary Crowton’s incoherence as a playcaller. There are a lot of good criticisms of Crowton; one of the best is that he doesn’t have a defined style, but instead calls a pastiche of plays that don’t fit together. At the end of a tight game, he’s forced to go away from the grab bag and instead call the plays that work the best. Voila, LSU can move the ball when their backs are against the wall.
Maybe this approach was taught on Bo Schembechler’s staff in the 1980s, because Lloyd Carr had the same pattern. Over 13 seasons, Carr went 46-27 in games decided by one score, including a perfect 4-0 in overtime. Michigan fans often joked that Carr’s repeated mantra that the game would be decided in the fourth quarter was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The 1999 team is the best example of this phenomenon. With fifth-year senior Tom Brady throwing to David Terrell, Marquise Walker, and Aaron Shea and protected by an offensive line featuring Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus, and Maurice Williams, Michigan went 7-2 in games decided by one score because whenever Michigan really needed points, they would throw for them. When they didn’t really need points, they would run Anthony Thomas between the tackles.
So here’s the modification of my theory. In some instances, a team wins a lot of close games because they are lucky and the small sample size of success in tight games doesn’t tell us anything. In other instances, a team that plays in a lot of close games and wins a high percentage of those games is underutilizing its talent. Thus, it ends up in close games repeatedly and then wins those close games because the coaches stop dicking around in the last five minutes.
Remember in October when the final minutes were ticking off in Columbia and Gary Danielson remarked that Alabama would need to go undefeated to have a shot at the national title. At the time, I found the statement odd because Danielson will never miss an opportunity to pimp a one-loss SEC team for a spot in the title game. Sure enough, the drumbeat started on Saturday night when Danielson was extolling the difficulty of beating Ole Miss (yes, the same Ole Miss team that lost to Jacksonville State) and opining that a one-loss SEC champion should get to play in Glendale. Yes, Gary, a one-loss LSU team that (according to Sagarin) would be a 15-point underdog against Oregon, a 14-point underdog against Boise State, and a ten-point underdog against TCU should go to the national title game over at least two unbeaten teams. And what measure could possibly lead you to conclude that LSU is more deserving for a spot in the title game than Stanford is, seeing as how Stanford has the same record, they’ve played a better schedule in an equivalent conference, and the Cardinal have destroyed all comers without requiring 13 men on the field or a magical lateral bounce to a running kicker to get where they are?(Actually, I think he’s setting up a soapbox moment in the SEC Championship Game in the event that Auburn loses on Friday.) Maybe you should also explain to us how the Spread offense is receding … during the Iron Bowl that Auburn enters unbeaten because of its offense.
Everything is Coming up Boise
Boise State beat Fresno State 51-0. Nevada got to the end of its schedule at 10-1, which means that Boise will be able to send voters to the polls with a win over a legitimate team on Friday. (If the Broncos don’t win, then this is all moot.) Virginia Tech hasn’t lost since dropping a game against the Broncos and then having a hangover special the following week against James Madison. Meanwhile, TCU had to survive against San Diego State and its big non-conference win over Baylor has been devalued over the past several weeks. We can only assume that Auburn is facing another week of Cam Newton allegations in the lead-up to playing Bama in Tuscaloosa. All that leads to the conclusion that we are going to end up with an Oregon-Boise State national title game that will cause a rash of suicides in Bristol, Connecticut. In a 1789 season, that would be a fitting conclusion.