Best and worst college football coaches in close games entering 2016

There’s a lot of things that go into being a good coach but being able to lead your team to victory in close games is at the top of the list New Georgia coach Kirby Smart came to his first SEC Media Days armed with a statistic: 42 percent of SEC league games in 2015 were decided by one touchdown or less. Smart had someone do the research after hearing Auburn’s Gus Malzahn discuss his team’s inability to win close games in 2015, a stark contrast to Malzahn starting his career by winning 12 of his first 13 games decided by one score.

“Usually it comes down in this league to two or three plays in these closes games,” Malzahn said, “and you got to find a way to make them and you got to have your guys prepared and you got to be able to execute.”

Welcome to life as a head coach, Kirby. Close games can happen when you least expect them. They’re the difference between a good season or a special season, a New Year’s Day bowl or a late-December bowl, a pay raise, or a pink slip.

Last season, Michigan State reached the College Football Playoff thanks to a 6-1 record in games decided by one touchdown or less, including a miraculous win over Michigan on a botched punt attempt. After starting his career 6-12 in one-score games, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio is 21-8 since 2010.

On the flip side, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson had won a respectable 57 percent of his one-score games during his first 18 years as a coach, including going 3-3 in 2015 while winning 11 games. Last year, Georgia Tech went 1-6 in one-score games and posted a miserable 3-9 record.

How flukey can these close game stats be? Nick Saban is a coaching giant, yet he’s only 17-14 in one-score games at Alabama. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen (.640 winning percentage in one-score games) has done better in this stat than Saban at Alabama (.548). (This could be due to how talented Alabama’s teams are and the only way to beat them is close. Saban has a .599 percentage in one-score games for his entire college career.)

Smart is about to enter a world where a couple of close games can make or break your season and career. Fifty-one percent of ACC league games in 2015 were decided by one score or less, tops in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The SEC was second at 42 percent, followed by the Big Ten (40 percent), Big 12 (38 percent), Pac-12 (36 percent), MAC (34 percent), Mountain West (31 percent), Sun Belt (30 percent), Conference USA (28 percent) and American Athletic Conference (20 percent).

Here’s a look at the top 10 coaches nationally based on winning percentage in one-score games (minimum 25 such games coached).

Coach, School Career Current School
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion 20-7 (.741) 20-7 (.741)
Urban Meyer, Ohio State 34-13 (.723) 13-2 (.867)
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame 78-38-2 (.669) 22-13 (.629)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati 60-31 (.659) 8-5 (.615)
Les Miles, LSU 46-25 (.648) 39-18 (.684)
Kyle Whittingham, Utah 34-19 (.642) 34-19 (.642)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State 16-9 (.640) 16-9 (.640)
Gary Patterson, TCU 43-25 (.632) 43-25 (.632)
Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe 24-14 (.632) New coach
David Shaw, Stanford 17-10 (.630) 17-10 (.630)

SEC league games have become more competitive lately. In 2011, when Alabama and LSU dominated the SEC and played for the national championship, only 30 percent of conference games were decided by one score. That increased to 39 percent in 2012, 40 percent in 2013, and 44 percent in 2014, before it dipped slightly to 42 percent in 2015. It’s still a far cry from the days with lower-scoring games. In 2006, 53 percent of SEC league games were decided by one score or less.

Still, as salaries increase and playoff appearances become the standard to judge many coaches, the pressure will only get ratcheted up to win these tight games. The five active coaches with a national title (Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Les Miles, and Bob Stoops) have a combined .642 percentage in games decided by one score. Active Power Five coaches are .557 in one-score games, while active Group of Five coaches is at .535.
These are the magic numbers to keep in mind when reviewing each conference’s best and worst FBS coaches in close games.


Best: Les Miles, LSU — Miles’ career winning percentage in one-score games (.648) ranks third among active Power Five coaches who have coached in at least 25 one-score games. Only Meyer and Brian Kelly (Notre Dame) have done better than Miles. Perhaps this explains why Miles has been so reluctant to open up LSU’s offense, even though a change is likely necessary for LSU to better compete with higher-scoring offenses.

Worst: Butch Jones, Tennessee — Normally this spot would be reserved for Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, but he may have turned a corner in 2015 by going 3-3 in one-score games to end an 11-game losing streak in such contests. Bielema even won a close game at Tennessee where Jones is 6-9 in one-score games and has lost too many close games that are really important. Jones is 1-6 in one-score games against Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma. Even when he won consecutive Big East titles at Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012, Jones was only 5-4 in one-score games. He will need to win more tight games to survive long-term in the SEC.

SEC Coach Career Current School
Jim McElwain, Florida 13-4 (.765) 5-1 (.833)
Gus Malzahn, Auburn 15-7 (.682) 12-7 (.632)
Les Miles, LSU 46-25 (.648) 39-18 (.684)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State 16-9 (.640) 16-9 (.640)
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt 5-3 (.625) 5-3 (.625)
Nick Saban, Alabama 42-28-1 (.599) 17-14 (.548)
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M 21-15 (.583) 11-8 (.579)
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss 13-11 (.542) 7-9 (.438)
Butch Jones, Tennessee 21-21 (.500) 6-9 (.400)
Bret Bielema, Arkansas 24-25 (.490) 3-10 (.231)
Will Muschamp, South Carolina 8-10 (.444) New school
Mark Stoops, Kentucky 5-7 (.417) 5-7 (.417)
Kirby Smart, Georgia First year
Barry Odom, Missouri First year

Big Ten

Best: Urban Meyer, Ohio State — Of all the impressive stats associated with Meyer’s career, how his teams fare in tight games often gets overlooked. Meyer is 34-13 in one-score games. Great talent certainly helps. Still, Meyer easily has the best record for any active Power Five coach with at least 25 career one-score games. The only coaches to beat Meyer in a one-score game since 2008 are Dantonio, Miles, Mullen, Dabo Swinney, and Houston Nutt.

Worst: Darrell Hazell, Purdue — Hazell is the only returning Big Ten coach who didn’t win a one-score game in 2015, losing all three to Bowling Green, Michigan State, and Northwestern. On one hand, it’s a positive that Purdue was even in those games with Michigan State and Northwestern. On the other hand, Hazell is now 6-12 for his career in one-score games. That’s the Big Ten’s second-worst mark and behind only Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, who is 7-18 overall in one-score games but at least went 3-5 in 2015.

Big Ten Coach Career Current School
Urban Meyer, Ohio State 34-13 (.723) 13-2 (.867)
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern 34-21 (.618) 34-21 (.618)
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State 33-22 (.600) 27-20 (.574)
Tracy Claeys, Minnesota 3-2 (.600) 3-2 (.600)
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan 18-15 (.545) 2-2 (.500)
Mike Riley, Nebraska 38-35 (.521) 3-6 (.333)
James Franklin, Penn State 13-13 (.500) 6-6 (.500)
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa 46-51 (.474) 41-45 (.477)
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin 8-12 (.400) 3-2 (.600)
Darrell Hazell, Purdue 6-12 (.333) 1-7 (.125)
Kevin Wilson, Indiana 7-18 (.280) 7-18 (.280)
DJ Durkin, Maryland First year
Lovie Smith, Illinois First year
Chris Ash, Rutgers First year


Best: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State — NC State’s Dave Doeren has a higher winning percentage, but Fisher has a larger body of work while winning nearly 70 percent of one-score games. Fisher’s streak of 12 straight wins in one-score games ended last season on Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal return for a touchdown as time expired. So as Fisher’s streak abruptly got snapped, the Yellow Jackets’ Johnson picked up his only one-score win of 2015. See, we told you this stat can be fluky.

Worst: Steve Addazio, Boston College — The Eagles went 1-5 in one-score games in 2015, dropping Addazio’s career record to 8-13. Addazio has lost seven straight one-score games against Power Five opponents, dating to a two-point win over Virginia Tech on Nov. 1, 2014. Even when Addazio had a 9-4 overall record at Temple in 2011, he was 1-3 in one-score games.

ACC Coach Career Current School
Dave Doeren, NC State 13-5 (.722) 4-2 (.667)
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State 16-7 (.696) 16-7 (.696)
Dino Babers, Syracuse 10-5 (.667) New coach
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh 5-3 (.625) 5-3 (.625)
Mark Richt, Miami 47-30 (.610) New coach
Bobby Petrino, Louisville 27-19 (.587) 12-10 (.545)
Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia 28-20 (.583) New coach
Dabo Swinney, Clemson 16-12 (.571) 16-12 (.571)
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech 44-39 (.530) 20-23 (.465)
David Cutcliffe, Duke 37-35 (.514) 19-19 (.500)
Larry Fedora, North Carolina 21-23 (.477) 12-9 (.571)
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest 28-34 (.452) 4-6 (.400)
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech 6-9 (.400) New coach
Steve Addazio, Boston College 8-13 (.381) 6-11 (.353)

Big 12

Best: Gary Patterson, TCU — For a while, the Horned Frogs relied on a stingy defense and won fairly convincingly. That changed in 2015 when, given all sorts of player injuries and suspensions, Patterson had to adapt and went 6-1 in one-score games. Over the past two years, Patterson is 9-2 in these games after going 4-7 in TCU’s first two Big 12 seasons.

Worst: Jim Grobe, Baylor — Let’s cut the Bears’ interim coach a break by remembering that he coached at Wake Forest and actually won an ACC championship there. Just being competitive with better ACC teams was often viewed as a win at Wake Forest. Still, numbers are numbers, and Grobe’s large body of work has produced only a 47-percent win rate in one-score games.

Big 12 Coach Career Current School
Gary Patterson, TCU 43-25 (.632) 43-25 (.632)
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State 23-14 (.622) 23-14 (.622)
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 33-22 (.600) 33-22 (.600)
Matt Campbell, Iowa State 13-9 (.591) New coach
Charlie Strong, Texas 14-10 (.583) 3-5 (.375)
Bill Snyder, Kansas State 50-38-1 (.567) 50-38-1 (.567)
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia 12-10 (.545) 12-10 (.545)
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech 5-5 (.500) 5-5 (.500)
Jim Grobe, Baylor 49-55-1 (.471) New coach
David Beaty, Kansas 0-2 (.000) 0-2 (.000)


Best: Kyle Whittingham, Utah — Given his larger body of work, Whittingham gets the nod over Jim Mora Jr., who has a higher winning percentage. Whittingham has a .642 mark and went 4-2 in these games in 2015. Over the past two years, Utah won tight games over traditional favorites USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Michigan plus a seven-point bowl win over rival BYU after Utah nearly blew a 35-0 lead. Hey, a win is a win.

Worst: Mike MacIntyre, Colorado — Poor Colorado. Four of its last six losses in 2015 were by a score or less to superior teams (Arizona, UCLA, USC, and Utah). Still, a loss is a loss. MacIntyre is 10-20 in one-score games for his career, including three years at San Jose State before three at Colorado.

Pac-12 Coach Career Current School
Clay Helton, USC 3-1 (.750) 3-1 (.750)
Jim Mora, UCLA 15-6 (.714) 15-6 (.714)
Kyle Whittingham, Utah 34-19 (.642) 34-19 (.642)
David Shaw, Stanford 17-10 (.630) 17-10 (.630)
Todd Graham, Arizona State 26-21 (.553) 7-8 (.467)
Chris Petersen, Washington 17-14 (.548) 3-6 (.333)
Mike Leach, Washington State 31-26 (.544) 12-11 (.522)
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona 44-39-2 (.529) 13-10 (.565)
Sonny Dykes, Cal 16-15 (.516) 8-7 (.533)
Mark Helfrich, Oregon 5-5 (.500) 5-5 (.500)
Gary Andersen, Oregon State 14-18 (.438) 0-1 (.000)
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado 10-20 (.333) 3-11 (.214)


Best: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame — Kelly is the second-best Power Five coach in one-score games, and it’s not just due to racking up wins at lower-profile jobs. Notre Dame won 53 percent of its one-score games from 1981 to 2009. Kelly has won 63 percent of one-score games in six years at Notre Dame, a better rate than Lou Holtz (56 percent). Kelly has also won 20 of his past 28 one-score games after starting 2-5 at Notre Dame.

Worst: Jeff Monken, Army — To be fair, Monken has one of the toughest jobs in America. Still, it’s pretty amazing that in two years at Army, Monken has already coached in 12 one-score games yet only won two of them (Bucknell and Buffalo). He even suffered a two-point loss in 2015 to Fordham.

Independent Coach Career Current School
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame 78-38-2 (.669) 22-13 (.629)
Mark Whipple, UMass 37-30 (.552) 19-17 (.528)
Jeff Monken, Army 15-19 (.441) 2-10 (.167)
Kalani Sitake, BYU First year


Best: Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati — Last year’s 2-3 record in one-score games was an anomaly for Tuberville. His .659 winning percentage ranks fifth among active FBS coaches who have been in at least 25 one-score games. Remember, Tuberville built up the bulk of his record in the SEC and then briefly in the Big 12. This is the coach, after all, who won a 3-2 game at Auburn.

Worst: Matt Rhule, Temple — An important qualifier is needed here. Rhule is 3-9 in one-score games in large part because he made Temple more competitive than it usually is in football. Rhule was 2-1 during Temple’s breakthrough 2015 season and the loss was to Notre Dame, but with a lot of new coaches in the American, Rhule’s numbers still stand out.

AAC Coach Career Current School
Tom Herman, Houston 3-1 (.750) 3-1 (.750)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati 60-31 (.659) 8-5 (.615)
Ken Niumatalolo, Navy 26-16 (.619) 26-16 (.619)
Willie Taggart, South Florida 16-11 (.593) 7-3 (.700)
Bob Diaco, Connecticut 6-5 (.545) 6-5 (.545)
Willie Fritz, Tulane 34-29 (.540) New coach
Philip Montgomery, Tulsa 1-1 (.500) 1-1 (.500)
Matt Rhule, Temple 3-9 (.250) 3-9 (.250)
Chad Morris, SMU 0-1 (.000) 0-1 (.000)
Mike Norvell, Memphis First year
Scott Frost, UCF First year
Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina First year

Mountain West

Best: Rocky Long, San Diego State — The only close conference game Long had to win in 2015 was a vital one: San Diego State’s three-point win over Air Force for the Mountain West championship. Long has won 62 percent of his one-score games in five years at San Diego State.

Worst: Bob Davie, New Mexico — On the surface, Davie’s .479 winning percentage in one-score games doesn’t look awful, but keep in mind that includes his time at Notre Dame, a powerhouse program. Davie went 15-12 at Notre Dame in one-score games.

MWC Coach Career Current School
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State 7-3 (.700) 7-3 (.700)
Bryan Harsin, Boise State 6-3 (.667) 3-2 (.600)
Rocky Long, San Diego State 43-38 (.531) 13-8 (.619)
Ron Caragher, San Jose State 17-15 (.531) 4-5 (.444)
Craig Bohl, Wyoming 27-24 (.529) 5-2 (.714)
Mike Bobo, Colorado State 3-3 (.500) 3-3 (.500)
Bob Davie, New Mexico 23-25 (.479) 8-13 (.381)
Troy Calhoun, Air Force 16-22 (.421) 16-22 (.421)
Matt Wells, Utah State 5-8 (.385) 5-8 (.385)
Brian Polian, Nevada 6-10 (.375) 6-10 (.375)
Tony Sanchez, UNLV 1-4 (.200) 1-4 (.200)
Nick Rolovich, Hawaii First year

Conference USA

Best: Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee — Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder has the better percentage in one-score games, including 7-2 since the Monarchs started playing C-USA teams. However, many of Wilder’s close wins came in the FCS and are less impressive than those from Stockstill, who edged 10-win Marshall by three in 2015. Stockstill is 14-5 in one-score games since 2012.

Worst: Ron Turner, Florida International — True, Turner is perennially at losing programs (San Jose State, Illinois, FIU), but his .475 winning percentage in close games is tough to ignore after all these years, as is FIU’s two-point home loss to Bethune-Cookman in 2014. At some point, you are what your record says you are in close games.

C-USA Coach Career Current School
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion 20-7 (.741) 20-7 (.741)
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee 23-15 (.605) 23-15 (.605)
David Bailiff, Rice 30-21 (.588) 23-14 (.622)
Doc Holliday, Marshall 14-10 (.583) 14-10 (.583)
Sean Kugler, UTEP 6-5 (.545) 6-5 (.545)
Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech 46-40 (.535) 4-6 (.400)
Jay Hopson, Southern Miss 8-7 (.533) New coach
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky 5-5 (.500) 5-5 (.500)
Ron Turner, Florida International 19-21 (.475) 2-6 (.250)
Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic 3-8 (.273) 3-8 (.273)
Brad Lambert, Charlotte 3-8 (.273) 3-8 (.273)
Seth Littrell, North Texas First year
Frank Wilson, Texas-San Antonio First year


Best: Frank Solich, Ohio — Solich gets the nod over Northern Illinois’ Rod Carey due to a larger body of work in the MAC. Solich has a .627 winning percentage at Ohio in one-score games. That’s a very good number for a solid but not spectacular program that hasn’t won a division title since 2011.

Worst: Paul Haynes, Kent State — Haynes just happens to be the current Kent State coach. If the coach had been someone else, it’s very possible his name would be here instead. Haynes is 4-7 in one-score games.

MAC Coach Career Current School
Rod Carey, Northern Illinois 10-4 (.714) 10-4 (.714)
Lane Leipold, Buffalo 14-7 (.667) 2-3 (.400)
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan 28-17-1 (.620) 1-2 (.333)
Frank Solich, Ohio 42-27 (.609) 32-19 (.627)
Terry Bowden, Akron 40-33-2 (.547) 6-11 (.353)
Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio) 13-12 (.520) 3-8 (.273)
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan 4-5 (.444) 4-5 (.444)
John Bonamego, Central Michigan 3-4 (.429) 3-4 (.429)
Paul Haynes, Kent State 4-7 (.364) 4-7 (.364)
Mike Neu, Ball State First year
Mike Jinks, Bowling Green First year
Jason Candle, Toledo First year

Sun Belt

Best: Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette — A rare down year in 2015 doesn’t prevent Hudspeth from being the choice. He has won 65 percent of his one-score games in five years at Louisiana-Lafayette and 55 percent overall.

Worst: Doug Martin, New Mexico State — Martin has the unenviable task of having coached at Kent State and New Mexico State. Yes, New Mexico State improved in 2015 to 2-3 in one-score games, but that just slightly improved an ugly stat. In his 10-year career, Martin is 10-24 in one-score games. That’s the worst percentage for any FBS coach who has worked in those many tight games.

The bottom line: Whether your name is Urban Meyer or Doug Martin, it pays to win your fair share of close games.

Sun Belt Coach Career Current School
Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe 24-14 (.632) New coach
Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette 24-20 (.545) 13-7 (.650)
Everett Withers, Texas State 8-7 (.533) New coach
Joey Jones, South Alabama 16-17 (.485) 15-14 (.517)
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State 5-6 (.455) 5-6 (.455)
Paul Petrino, Idaho 4-5 (.444) 4-5 (.444)
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State 1-2 (.333) 1-2 (.333)
Trent Miles, Georgia State 8-17 (.320) 2-10 (.167)
Doug Martin, New Mexico State 10-24 (.294) 5-6 (.455)
Neal Brown, Troy 0-3 (.000) 0-3 (.000)
Tyson Summers, Georgia Southern First year

Posted on: Aug 8, 2016, at 11:05 am ET

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