Potential Fallers in 2008

Yesterday, I explained the theory behind using performance in close games in one season to pick potential risers and fallers in the next season. Basically, it works off the assumption that if you get a lot of breaks one year, you won’t get them again the next year and vice versa. I also outlined the candidates for risers in 2008.

Today is time for the other side of the story – the potential fallers.

For these purposes, a “close game” is defined as a game where the final score is eight points or less – in other words, one touchdown and conversion could tie or swing the game. Teams that made the main list had at least three more wins than losses; teams on the watch list had two more wins than losses and played at least four close games.

Only BCS conference teams (including Notre Dame) were analyzed.

Arizona State Sun Devils, 10-3 overall, 3-0 in close games

Arizona State was a surprise in Dennis Erickson’s first year. It was picked to finish sixth in the conference, but instead the Sun Devils won ten games and had a conference record identical to USC’s mark.

Since Erickson generally has a great second year and he will have a senior returning to start under center, it would seem unlikely that ASU will fall off too much, but you never know.

Boston College Eagles, 11-3 overall, 3-0 in close games

Boston College was one of the milder surprises of 2007. The Eagles were picked second in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but they ended up winning the division and even spent a little time at #2 in the polls. Having the best quarterback in the conference definitely helped make that possible.

Matt Ryan especially helped in the close games, none more memorable than the win over Virginia Tech. He is gone now, and so are some other key players. The expectations have fallen with BC now projected fourth in its division, and a regression to a normal (near .500) success rate in close games would help make that prediction come true.

Kansas Jayhawks, 12-1 overall, 4-1 in close games

Kansas was definitely one of the big surprise teams of 2007. I would tend to doubt that anyone, even Mark Mangino, would have expected a 12-1 season. With them accounting for 25% of the Jayhawks’ total wins, close games were a big part of Kansas’ success last season.

Most people expect the Jayhawks to come back down to earth, similar to how Rutgers did in 2007 after its dream 2006 season. It’s hard to argue with that considering how almost no one gets that many breaks two years in a row.

Kentucky Wildcats, 8-5 overall, 4-1 in close games

Rich Brooks talked at SEC media days about having the best offensive line in his time at Kentucky. That will help since he’s breaking in a new starting quarterback. He also said he’ll have the best defense during his time at Kentucky. That is a little like Spinal Tap saying they are the loudest rock band in the world – it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Despite Brooks’ optimism, Kentucky almost certainly will fall off some. The Wildcats lost too many good players, and they probably can’t do so well in close games two seasons in a row.

Mississippi State Bulldogs, 8-5 overall, 4-0 in close games

Mississippi State was actually not all that much better in 2007 versus Sly Croom’s three previous seasons. Timely turnovers largely made the difference in going from three wins to going bowling.

At this point, Croom has begun building some quality and depth that did not exist when he started. Despite that fact, it will be very difficult to sweep all of the team’s close games again.

Northwestern Wildcats, 6-6 overall, 4-1 in close games

I’d bet that if you ask most college football fans if Northwestern was bowl eligible last season, most would say no. The Wildcats did in fact get to six victories on the back of four close wins.

This is a team that is trying to be on the rise under Pat Fitzgerald, and with a senior quarterback returning along with most of the team’s important offensive weapons, it could very well be. It will have to make its own luck though, since the fates will probably not be with them after the close game performance last season.
Oregon State Beavers, 9-4 overall, 4-0 in close games

Oregon State is a team that hasn’t really fit the Pac-10 stereotype that well over the past few seasons. The Beavers win with power running and defense, two excellent allies in close games.

The electric Sammie Stroughter will be back after missing last season, but with just 10 starters back and a banged up offensive line, it’s not clear that OSU can repeat its nine-win success of last season. All else being the same, falling to 2-2 in close games will put the Beavers at seven wins, which would be disappointing but not completely unexpected.

Virginia Cavaliers, 9-4 overall, 6-2 in close games

Virginia was definitely a surprise nine-win team, especially after the Cavaliers lost at Wyoming 23-3 to begin the season. Thanks to a lot of close wins, they obviously got things turned around.

However, there are many reasons to think that UVA will not see the same success. For one, Chris Long is gone, and then there’s the entire rest of Al Groh’s record at Virginia. It will be difficult to have the same success in close games, so Virginia will probably go back to the 5 to 7 win range that has been the norm under Groh.

The Watch List

UConn Huskies, 9-4 overall, 3-1 in close games

LSU Tigers, 12-2 overall, 4-2 in close games

NC State Wolfpack, 5-7 overall, 3-1 in close games

Texas Longhorns, 10-3 overall, 4-2 in close games

Wisconsin Badgers, 9-4 overall, 4-2 in close games

Postscript

Here is the order of conferences in terms of average number of close games per team in 2007. It reflects the competitiveness of the SEC, the parity of the Big East, and the demise of defense in the Big 12.

  1. SEC – 5.08 close games per team
  2. Big East – 5.00
  3. Big Ten – 4.73
  4. ACC – 4.42
  5. Pac-10 – 4.40
  6. Big 12 – 3.25

The team with the most close games was Alabama with ten; the team with the fewest close games was Baylor with zero.

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3 Responses to Potential Fallers in 2008

  1. Crazy Joe says:

    FYI…Randy Walker died two years ago (heart attack) – Pat Fitzgerald (former NU linebacker on the Rose Bowl team) has been the head coach the past two seasons.

  2. year2 says:

    Thanks. I knew it was Fitzgerald and I can’t believe I did that.

  3. O-town Gator says:

    I’d also add Illinois to your list of potential fallers. The Big Ten was a weak conference last year; testament of that being Zook getting the Illini to the Rose Bowl only to get a dose of reality thrown back in his face. Their win over Ohio State was not only a close one, it was also a fluke.

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