In the comments of the MLB close wins post, Justin Morgan proposed doing similar analysis for NCAA football. How do close wins in college football impact final standings? Do the national champions just get lucky and eek out close wins? Do certain coaches/programs have better luck over time in close wins?

To answer this, I picked out programs to analyze over the past 10 years. I chose all the national champions since 2002, and threw in Boise State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Washington (because that’s the team I’m stuck with) just for fun. The data set included all games by these 13 teams over the past 10 years.

I considered a “close game” as any game decided by 3 or fewer points. Not scientific, but generally games settled by 3 or fewer points are toss-ups which hinged on field goal or less. Do “successful” programs get more wins than their fair share via close games?

Win % vs. Close Game Win %

First of all, these teams (excluding Washington) are very successful. Five have win %s above 80% in the last 10 years.

But how does their “Close Game” win % compare? It’s much lower.

These teams do benefit from a better-than-average win % in close games, but at 56%, it’s only slight advantage. Based on 248 games in the last 10 years for these teams settled by 3 or fewer points, it’s a advantage of 1 game per team over 10 years. A 0.1 win-per-year advantage. Barely detectable.

Further, there’s no correlation between win % and “close game” win %.

With an R-squared of 0.004, it’s pure noise. Overall, there’s no advantage for these teams from close games, but for some individual teams, they did benefit from a better-than-fair share of close game wins…

Team-by-Team Basis

In the graphs above, Texas and Auburn have an extreme win % in close games (89% and 79%). How much of an advantage has this been?

Auburn and Texas have both benefited from 7 extra wins over the past 10 years had their win % been 50% in close games. In this day and age of 14-game seasons for top teams, it means that their win % has improved by ~5% based on these games. Not extreme, like I’ve observed in MLB, but it matters.

National Championship Seasons

What about teams in their National Championship seasons? Did they benefit from lucky seasons? Surprisingly, other than Auburn, the answer is no.

No team other than Auburn has more than 2 close wins in their entire National Championship campaigns. I was most shocked about Ohio State, who some felt have had underwhelming seasons over the past decade despite their stellar record. But in their championship season, they did not win 1 game by fewer than 3 points (although they had 2 overtime wins). Even in their 2006 and 2007 seasons when they lost in the championship, they had 1 win in both seasons combined by fewer than 3 points.

What lead matters?

So what lead matters? For these 13 teams, their wins over the past 10 years have been fairly evenly distributed for 1-point and 2-point games. But in 3-point games, a difference emerges.

So there you have it. 1-point and 2-point wins are bogus. They’re evenly distributed even for the best teams in football, including all the recent national champions. But a 3-point lead is special. It is deserved. Whether it’s talent, kicking, or coaching, good programs separate themselves from the pack in these types of wins.

In 2011, I’ll be watching teams that win games by 1 or 2 points. These teams got lucky, and may not have what it takes down the stretch.

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