The Best Way for Good Teams to Win Close Games

It’s Friday, the SEC Championship game is tomorrow, football talk is in the air, and time for me to unburden myself of something that has bugged me for a week. Time for Friday fun.

Birmingham News reporter Kevin Scarbinsky wrote in Sunday’s News:

As good as he is, as much as he’s done, Saban still has to prove he can win a great majority of his games when he doesn’t have a decided edge in talent.

This season, in games decided by a touchdown or less, Alabama is 1-2. During his four years in Tuscaloosa, that record is 10-8.

Now look at Gene Chizik’s Auburn record under the same parameters. This year, the Tigers are 6-0 in close games. In Chizik’s two years, they’re 8-3.

This was a small part of a larger article, but someone at the News made it a bigger deal by putting a teaser on the front page above Sunday’s masthead, “In close games, Saban only average.”

Folks, it just doesn’t follow that great teams will necessarily have great records in close games. When really good teams win games, they tend to win by bigger margins – because they are really good teams. When really good teams lose games, they tend to lose by smaller margins. Very good teams tend to have good won-loss records, but their records in close games tend to be not as good.

Just for the fun of it, I looked up the scores of Crimson Tide football games in the 1970′s, a decade in which the Tide won over 100 games (103-16-1). Their record in games decided by 7 points or fewer was 13-9-1 for a winning percentage of 58.7% in those games. In contests decided by more than 7 points the Tide won a stellar 92.8% of the time with a 90-7 record. Was the team lacking because its record in close games was worse than its overall record by such a wide margin (a difference of 34 percentage points)? Of course not.

Scan the baseball standings from season’s end and you’ll see that teams that finished first or second in their divisions tend to have worse records in one-run games relative to their overall records. Teams that finish last tend to have better winning percentages in one-run games than in their records overall. (You can see that here. You’ll have to click on “1-run” at the top of the page for the standing to show teams’ records in one-run games.) The lowly Baltimore Orioles finished 30 games behind Tampa Bay in the American League East. Not only did Baltimore’s record in one-run games (29-21) surpass their woeful performance overall (they won just 41% of their games), but it was better than Tampa Bay’s record in one-run games (29-27), the team with the best winning percentage in the league.

A obvious caveat here is that college football teams’ schedules can vary widely in the quality of opponents, so comparisons of margins of victory are useful only to a point. Still, the point remains that the best way for really good teams to improve their winning percentages in close games is to win by narrower margins.

Auburn is going to Atlanta, we’re headed to the special session, and I hope you are off to a wonderful weekend

14 comments to The Best Way for Good Teams to Win Close Games

  • anonymous

    I’m an AU guy but Scarbinsky is a world-class moron. He stated somewhere in that article something to the effect of “Saban has not proven that he’s a good coach, just a good recruiter.”

    Earth to Scarbinsky: since the AP poll began in 1936, precisely one coach has ever won consensus national championships at 2 different schools. That one coach is Nick Saban. I think he can coach a hit there Scarbo.

  • RepubReform

    Danny – great post! I wholeheartedly agree with you.

    I find all of Kevin Scarbinsky’s articles to be terrible. He brings shame to the world of true “reporters.”

  • Michael

    “Folks, it just doesn’t follow that great teams will necessarily have great records in close games.”

    Ah, but a great team, a truly great team, finds a way to finish a game.

  • Common Sense

    Saban is a great coach; one of the best. His one weakness is his in game coaching. Sometimes he is slow to make adjustments or makes the wrong one. If your team is not far superior in terms of talent, those kinda things lose games.

  • I hope your team wins today.

    Unless, of course, your team is not my team.


  • Mr. Conservative

    I am an Auburn fan, but agree that Saban is a great coach. Chizik is awfully good as well, at least so far. Every coach has his strengths and weaknesses. The fact that Saban has won an NC at two different schools shows he is able to make up for his weaknesses (and his teams)and win on a consistent basis. I respect Saban but would not trade him for Chizik. Chizik is a better fit at Auburn (as Saban is for Bama). We are blessed to have them both in our state and so many high quality coaches in the SEC. Beat SC!

  • SamfordDem

    Common Sense, you miss the point. Ideally, a great coach doesn’t have his team in close games to begin with. Scarbinsky has tried way too hard the last couple of seasons to play provocateur; this article was just another example. He’s the sports equivalent of Dick Morris or Keith Olbermann.

  • Just curious Mr Conservative, were you happy to have Chizik as your head coach around this time two years ago? Two of the greatest things I experienced from my days of living in Alabama were watching Auburn fans nearly have a nervous breakdown two years ago when Chizik rode into town and of course the other one was the day Saban was hired and the bammers took their normal level of obsession and sheer stupidity to a whole new level that day in early January. Oh and btw GO VOLS!

  • ivan swift

    dan t’s point about the chizik choice is relevant — great players to be, great artists to be — lots never make it because the breaks don’t happen for them. superbowl qb mvp kurt warner got a call from the rams while stacking groceries only because rams had no qb’s health left. chizik was a loser at iowa state. the list is endless. saban is really a good recruiter — other bama coaches are crucial. putting up a statue to him in tuscaloosa was a psychological huge mistake. wrong for the team. why kill yourself when the coach already is immortalized? bama had aheisman one year, now weak sister running back. if saban coaches another national championship do we rename the university after him? go in a house where owners — while successful — barely made in through the intellectual travails of high school, and there’s a life size figure of bear in the living room alongside the hundred thousand inch tv.

  • anonymous

    I like Chizik, but I think I could win games coaching number 2.

  • [...] Ohio Attorney General’s website. And it was also published in a Dec 3, 2010 blog titled "The best way for good teams to win close games." It was also published in a Dec 6, 2010 blog titled "Scoreboard: The Weekend in Seattle [...]

  • Steve

    Way to point out that Baltimore had a better record in 1-run games than the Rays. Just ignore that all the other first place teams had much better records in 1-run games than the last place teams in their divisions.

  • Steve, you seem to have missed the point being made which was that very good teams tend to have worse records in close games (compared to their overall record) and bad teams tend to have better records in close games (compared to their overall record).

    The records of the division winners and last place teams bear that out.

    Of the eight teams that went to the playoffs last years, six of them (Tampa Bay, NY Yankees, Minnesota, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta) had a lower winning percentage in one run games than they did overall. Texas and Philadelphia were the exceptions.

    All of the last place teams but one (Baltimore, Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Arizona with Washington being the sole exception) had a better winning percentage in one-run games than they did overall.

    Baltimore and Tampa Bay greatly illustrated the point because the last place Orioles’ record in one run games was surprisingly better than even the division winning Rays’ winning percentage in one run games. But the fact that other division winners had better records in one-run games than the other last place teams really has no bearing on the points made here that “Very good teams tend to have good won-loss records, but their records in close games tend to be not as good,” and “[baseball] teams that finish last tend to have better winning percentages in one-run games than in their records overall.”

  • [...] General’s web site. And it was also published in a Dec three, 2010 blog titled &quotThe finest way for great teams to win close games.&quot It was also published in a Dec 6, 2010 blog titled &quotScoreboard: The Weekend in [...]

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