The premise is simple: Close games are often decided by good fortune as much as good play. Therefore, a team that loses a lot of close games one season is likely to add wins the next season as its bad luck evens out.
Last year’s Nebraska team was the perfect example. In 2015, the Cornhuskers (6-7) lost seven games, all by 10 points or less – including six one-possession games.
In 2016, Nebraska improved to 9-4, going 3-1 in one-possession games.
Using Football Outsiders’ S&P metric, which takes into account play-by-play and drive data, we can also spot some teams that left a win or two on the table in 2016. Second-order wins project how many games a team would have been expected to win based on how it played.
And it helps to have an experienced team with lots of returning starters.
Six teams that have profiles suggesting better results in 2017.
Iowa State (3-9)
4 one-possession losses and a 10-point loss to Oklahoma.
4.2 second-order wins.
21 returning starters (11 offense/10 defense).
The Cyclones first season under coach Matt Campbell went much like the last three under Paul Rhoads – if you just look at the record. After stumbling out to 0-3, Iowa State was pretty competitive the rest of the way. Having only four Big 12 home games this season will be tricky, but all those players returning with starting experience should set up the Cyclones to make a bowl run.
North Carolina State (7-6)
4 one-possession losses.
8.5 second-order wins.
16 returning starters (8 offense/8 defense), including 11 returning senior starters.
The Wolfpack was a chip-shot field goal away from beating Clemson in Death Valley and they lost by four to Florida State. They also lost one-score games to East Carolina and Boston College. NC State was a strange team. Coach Dave Doeren returns a loaded defensive line led by Bradley Chubb, who put off the NFL to play as a senior. The schedule will be tricky with eight bowl teams, plus Notre Dame in South Bend, but if ever the Wolfpack was set up to have something of a breakthrough season, this is it.
Michigan State (3-9)
3 one-possession losses.
5.0 second-order wins
9 returning starters (4 offense/5 defense)
Last season was just so bad for the Spartans, the bar for a bounce back is pretty low. Michigan State will have to rebound with an inexperienced team, but having a bunch of returning starters last year didn’t do much good. Maybe new blood will provide a boost. And, really, can coach Mark Dantonio have another team that bad? Seven home games, plus a trip to Rutgers, should be enough for Michigan State to at least double its win total from last year.
Notre Dame (4-8)
7 one-possession losses.
7.2 second-order wins.
15 returning starters (8 offense/7 defense), including four senior offensive linemen.
Luck of the Irish was buzzards luck in 2016. Almost every game that could have gone either way went against Notre Dame. Of course, fans don’t want to hear about how a play here or there and the season could have been drastically different. And maybe if coach Brian Kelly would have fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder BEFORE the season instead of during Notre Dame wouldn’t have started 1-3 while averaging 38 points in September. Kelly enters 2017 in need of a big turnaround, with a revamped coaching staff (new defensive, offensive and special teams coordinators) and new starting quarterback (Brandon Wimbush).
5 one-possession losses.
6.8 second-order wins.
17 returning starters (8 offense/9 defense).
Part of why Charlie Strong’s flameout at Texas was so excruciating and protracted was because there were so many painfully close losses. A little better luck would help the Longhorns, but there is also something to be said for creating your own luck with more efficient and disciplined play. Part of Herman’s task is to create some luck. Another part is to make sure Texas avoids playing so many games that could go either way. Especially against Kansas.
4 one-possession losses, plus one by 9 points and another by 10.
5.9 second-order wins
13 returning starters (7 offense/6 defense), including nine seniors.
The Bruins probably have only one more season of quarterback Josh Rosen and need to make it a big one. Last season was a disaster and things really got away from UCLA at the end when Rosen was injured. But the Bruins were also a couple of plays from starting 5-0 with wins against Texas A&M and Stanford. Coach Jim Mora brought in Michigan assistant Jedd Fisch to be offensive coordinator and unearth Rosen’s star potential.
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