Some teams can handle close games, others can't

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

There's nothing more exhilarating than your favorite team winning a close game.


The flipside: Sometimes, it's easier to deal with a three-touchdown loss than a three-point setback. After all, when one play can decide the outcome, that play tends to be remembered for a week – or a month – or 32 years, as Florida alums can attest ("Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!").
Kansas State, Texas A&M, South Florida and Vanderbilt were among the schools that spent life on the edge last season (we're defining "edge games" as those decided by seven or fewer points). But as you will see from our list, some teams were mighty lucky last season and some got poked in the eye with a stick.

[Pat Forde: Conference realignment comes down to blaming others, passing checks]


We've broken down the list in three categories: schools that won numerous close games, teams that could've had huge seasons had they won a few more close games and teams that suffered because of close losses.


Should've gone to Vegas


Kansas State
Overall: 10-3
Record in 'edge games': 8-1
Buzz: The Wildcats were 101st in total offense and 72nd in total defense, but they were money in close games. The biggest reason: They forced 27 turnovers, had a plus-12 turnover margin for the season and simply didn't make mistakes, especially in crunch time. The passing attack was a joke (just 151.5 yards per game), but QB Collin Klein was a big-time running threat and always seemed to be able to get the needed yard. Klein returns, but he will be running behind a line that has three new starters. The biggest issue, though, is the secondary, which was routinely torched last season and lost two starters. A mediocre secondary generally isn't a good thing in the pass-happy Big 12.
This season: Bill Snyder will go down as one of the best coaches in college history (K-State has won double-digit games nine times in its history, and eight of those seasons are under Snyder), but the Wildcats are due to take a step back unless the passing attack and the pass defense are noticeably better this season.



Penn State
Overall: 9-4
Record in 'edge games': 5-1
Buzz: The Nittany Lions' modus operandi last season was a familiar one – I they won with defense and a strong rushing attack. That formula didn't work late in the season, and given that the offensive line and defense must be rebuilt, it doesn't seem likely to work this season. New coach Bill O'Brien and his staff seem likely to rev up the offense, but are there enough playmakers other than TB Silas Redd? Quarterback play has been mediocre for a few seasons, but last season's defense was stout enough to overcome that (the Nittany Lions won four games in which they scored 16 or fewer points, and held nine opponents to 18 or fewer points). The defensive performance was even more impressive when you consider that the Nittany Lions had a turnover margin of just plus-one. This season, there will be an all-new secondary and two key defenders will be coming off major knee injuries that cost them all or most of last season.
This season: This is going to be a transition season for Penn State, in more ways than one; the Nittany Lions don't seem equipped to win a lot of close games this fall.



Virginia
Overall: 8-5
Record in 'edge games': 5-1
Buzz: The Cavs were one of the nation's biggest surprises last season, and their ability to squeak out wins (four by three or fewer points) was a reason. Coach Mike London had a veteran team and they generally responded in key situations. The offense looks fine this season, but a rebuilt defense seems likely to pose problems. The linebackers look OK, but the line and secondary must be rebuilt.
This season: One weird anomaly: UVa had a minus-seven turnover margin last season, but still prevailed in close games. There will be more pressure on the offense, both to score and avoid turnovers, than there was last season. It's hard to see this Cavs team challenging for a Coastal Division title, as they did last season.



Northern Illinois
Overall: 11-3
Record in 'edge games': 5-2
Buzz: It was all about the offense for the Huskies last season, as they ranked 85th in scoring defense and 88th in total defense. They were 12th in scoring offense and 11th in total offense. In their three losses, the Huskies averaged 30.0 points per game; alas, the defense gave up 47.3 ppg in those contests. NIU scored at least 40 points nine times last season but should be a bit uneasy about this season: Seven offensive starters are gone, including star QB Chandler Harnish (the only player in the nation last season to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000), four-fifths of the line and starting TB Jasmin Hopkins. This season's team will be counting on a defense that lost just two fulltime starters. Obviously, the hope is that the experience gained last season leads to a much better performance this fall.
This season: There are too many offensive holes to expect a repeat MAC title. Still, the Huskies should be able to contend for the MAC West title.




What might have been


Utah State
Overall: 7-6
Record in 'edge games': 5-5
Buzz: The Aggies were the ultimate edge team last season, playing more games decided by seven or fewer points than anyone. Each of their final seven games last season was close, and they played three games decided by one point and eight decided by four or fewer. In short, had one scoring play per game happened different, Utah State's 7-6 record easily could have been 12-1. Just as easily, obviously, it could've been 2-10 (the Aggies wouldn't have gone to a bowl in that scenario, so 12 games, not 13).
This season: The Aggies finished tied for second in the WAC last season, and while defending champ Louisiana Tech will be favored to win the crown again this season, Utah State should be a solid challenger. It helps the Aggies, of course, that the league has been weakened overall by the defections of Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada. Utah State has issues at tailback, linebacker and wide receiver, but a better record should be expected – with fewer close games – because the conference competition should be much easier.



Notre Dame
Overall: 8-5
Record in 'edge games': 3-3
Buzz: Turnovers killed the Irish last season. In their three close losses, the Irish committed an astounding 13 turnovers; that was almost half their season total of 29. (In its five losses, Notre Dame committed 19 turnovers.) Fewer turnovers and Notre Dame could have been sitting at 10-2 entering the postseason; a 10-2 record would have gotten the Irish a BCS bid.
This season: The Irish received spotty quarterback play last season, and that could be the case again this fall. The starter won't be determined until fall camp, and coach Brian Kelly could have a quick hook because the "contestants" seem relatively evenly matched. The defense will be fine this season; the offense is the question.




Will bad times repeat?


Texas A&M
Overall: 7-6
Record in 'edge games': 1-5
Buzz: The Aggies have reason to bite their nails this season. First, they're moving to a tougher league (the SEC from the Big 12). Second, they struggled in close games last season despite having a senior quarterback and an experienced receiving corps. Third, a senior-dominated defense did a lot of second-half collapsing (A&M was outscored by 37 points, 204-167, in the third and fourth quarter last season). A&M committed 24 turnovers, which, truthfully, isn't that high a number. But the Aggies forced just 15, leading to a minus-nine turnover margin. And 12 of A&M's 15 interceptions came in the six losses.
This season: A&M is counting on a new quarterback and a rebuilt defense in a tougher, defense-oriented league. It seems doubtful they'll play that many close games again, mainly because it seems likely they'll lose by larger margins.



Vanderbilt
Overall: 6-7
Record in 'edge games': 1-5
Buzz: Coach James Franklin did an excellent job getting the Commodores to a bowl in his first season. Still, this is not a program that is used to winning, which means it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Commodores suffered a lot of close losses. Vandy's two losses came by a combined score of 55-3. But in their other five losses, the Commodores were outscored by 26 points. The defense did its job, finishing 18th overall. But the offense, as usual, was anemic (98th overall). And while the defense forced 29 turnovers (tied for 19th-most nationally, one behind Oregon and the same number as Michigan and Oregon), the Commodores coughed it up 28 times (tied for 12th-most nationally). This season: The offense did make strides late last season, lending some hope for this fall. QB Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's brother) and TB Zac Stacy have some talent, but questions remain about the line. Defensively, a solid secondary lost three starters, though the front seven looks OK. Has Vandy really turned the corner? We'll know that has happened when the Commodores prevail in close games.


USF
Overall: 5-7
Record in 'edge games': 1-5
Buzz: The only close game the Bulls won all season was the opener, when they won at Notre Dame after the Irish imploded. After that, the Bulls shot themselves in the foot time and again in crunch time. Statistically, the Bulls had the look of a seven- or eight-win team: They were 30th in total offense, 39th in total defense and had a plus-two turnover margin. But they simply couldn't make a big play when it was needed. In addition, 18 of their 24 turnovers came in the seven losses.
This season: USF is going to have one of the best defenses in the Big East, and the linebacker corps should be especially strong. But there is no established feature back or go-to receiver, and QB B.J. Daniels never has shown much consistency. If the Bulls can get it together offensively and cut down on turnovers, they can win the Big East. At the least, a senior quarterback in his fourth season as the starter should mean they will be better in close games.



Ohio State
Overall: 6-7
Record in 'edge games': 2-6
Buzz: The defense did its job last season, but the offense didn't follow suit. The Buckeyes were sitting at 6-3 in early November, then lost four consecutive games to close out the season - each by seven or fewer points. There was no passing game to speak of, and opponents eventually just stacked the line and dared the Buckeyes to throw. Ohio State finished with a plus-five turnover margin, and while the offense committed just 15 turnovers, 10 came in the seven losses. The one aspect where the defense was underwhelming was forcing turnovers; Ohio State opponents committed 20, and nine of those came in the first five games.
This season: The defense will be even better than it was last season. The problem is that the offense could be worse. There is a scheme change on that side of the ball, along with an alarming lack of proven playmakers. The defense is championship-caliber, meaning there should be numerous low-scoring games. Can the Buckeyes win the close ones this time around? Because of the offensive issues, this team looks to have a ceiling of eight wins.



Miami
Overall: 6-6
Record in 'edge games': 2-5
Buzz: Some of the issues last season can be attributed to the growing pains associated with a new coaching staff, as there were scheme changes on both sides of the ball. Overall, the defense was more consistent than the offense, but that side of the ball suffered critical breakdowns at inopportune times. One issue was that the defense simply didn't force many turnovers (just 15, tied for 10th-fewest nationally); UM forced just nine turnovers in the five close losses, and four of those came in one game (Boston College).
This season: Miami was hit hard by early entrants to the NFL, and there are questions at running back, wide receiver along the offensive line and at safety. But the players should be well-acclimated to the coaches and schemes, and UM certainly doesn't lack talent. Consistent play at quarterback is a key, as the defense should be good enough to keep the Hurricanes in every game.



Louisville
Overall: 7-6
Record in 'edge games': 3-5
Buzz: In the Cardinals' six losses last season, the largest margin was nine points. The tough thing: In the five close losses, the Cardinals allowed just 21.4 points per game, meaning the offense just couldn't come up with enough big plays. The offense as a whole was lackluster, finishing 103rd nationally overall and 98th in scoring.
This season: Last season's struggles actually bode well for this season. Louisville had a true freshman quarterback and an extremely young defense last season, and still managed to get to a bowl. Normal growth on both sides of the ball should mean more success in close games this fall. Plus, the departure of West Virginia means the Big East race is wide open, and Louisville should be squarely in the hunt.



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