Thursday, December 29, 2005
Last night, during Michigan's final offensive drive, well, the one before the Stanford Band Play, Mike Tirico asked Kirk Herbrstreit if Michigan's having played in so many close games helped them in the tight situation they found themselves in, yet again. Herbstreit stated that it did, that it would give the Wolverines some comfort and experience to draw upon. This belief is often used as a way to question teams that steamroll over everyone. "Wait until they get into a close game and we'll see how good they are." I remember this being said about the 1999 St. Louis Rams who beat everyone by about 50 points in the regular season. But they won two tight post-season games, including coming back to win on their final drive in the Super Bowl.
I don't think having experience in close games necessarily helps you when you play another one, particularly if that experience is due to every one of your games being close. Basically, in a close game, your chances of winning are 50-50, maybe slightly higher if you're a good team since we can assume you have better talent. The superb NBA analyst Doug Collins has pointed out that a team's record in close games isn't the measure of how good they are. It's their record in blowouts, because the top teams will win more of those games. Coaches that say "Just get me to the 4th quarter with an opportunity to win" are just being arrogant. I'd rather have a team that is running out the clock with a 30-point lead in the fourth quarter. Your best opportunity to win is in the first three quarters.
How does this relate to Michigan football? The Wolverines played an incredible eight close games this season. I'm defining close as within one score. Obviously, a game that ends up 28-17 because the winning team returned an interception for a TD with 10 seconds left won't be counted as close when it should, but the same goes the other way - a 27-24 final where the losing team scored a meaningless TD on the last play will be counted as close. The Wolverines went 3-5 in those eight tight games. Disappointing, since, with their talent, you would expect them go at least 4-4 or maybe 5-3. But you couldn't reasonably expect them to be any better than that. Now I know that college football is more competitive than it was in the '70s. The Big Ten is pretty solid top to bottom, and playing Notre Dame adds an extra tough game. But eight close games sounded high, so I checked the results from the top ten teams to see how many close games they played in and their records in those games.
USC - 2 (2-0. W-ND, Fresno)
Texas - 1 (1-0. W-Tosu)
Penn State - 3 (2-1. W-Tosu, NW, L-Michigan)
Ohio State - 3 (1-2. W-Michigan, L-Texas, PSU)
Oregon - 4 (4-0. W-Fresno, Arizona, Cal, Wash St.)
Notre Dame - 4 (2-2. W-Michigan, Stanford, L-Sparty, USC)
Auburn - 2 (1-1. W-UGA, L-LSU)
Georgia - 5 (3-2. W-SC, Arkansas, Ga. Tech, L-Fla., Auburn)
Miami - 4 (3-1. W-Clem., Ga. Tech, UVa, L-FSU)
LSU - 6 (5-1. W-ASU, Fla., Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, L-Tennessee)
That makes 34 close games for the top ten teams which, you don't have to be an actuary to figure out, is 3.4 per team. Michigan played more than double that many close games this year. The total record for these teams was 24-10, which is much higher than 50-50, but since we're only looking at teams in the top ten, that's to be expected. Plus, it's somewhat skewed by LSU and Oregon's stellar records. Also, note how both Penn State and Ohio State - who basically played the same schedule as Michigan - only had three close games each. That's why they were 1-2 in the conference.
My point in all of this is that great teams aren't great because they win the close ones. They're great because they avoid the close ones. Once you get into a tight game it's a crap shoot. Teams that aren't as good as you only need one breakdown to take advantage of you and beat you (are you listening, Minnesota?). Michigan was simply involved in way too many close games in 2005. It exposed the weakness in the defense of not being able to make a stop when they needed it. It exposed the inability of the offense to pick up a first down to close out a game. But that's what close games do - they expose your weaknesses. If a coach really wants an opportunity to win a game, he should avoid having his weaknesses exposed in the first place.
Posted by Benny Friedman at 12:08 PM