Close, but No Cigar

I am not going to be the first person to tell you that Scott Frost has struggled in one score games at Nebraska. Unfortunately, I likely will not be the last one either. Frost is quickly rising on the leaderboards in two bad coaching categories of the modern era of football. While losing a one possession game can often come down to a stroke of bad luck – a tipped pass, awkward bounce, or a bad call – leaving your team vulnerable to a single unfortunate event falls on the coaches.

For this analysis, I am looking at coach-team combinations since 1970. During this time, there have been 1167 coach-team combinations. About two thirds of those, 869 times, has a coach had at least ten games at his program decided by eight or fewer points. I will only be looking at coaches who had a minimum of ten one score games at a program. Unfortunately, I only have coaching data on the season, not game, level. I assume the coach who coached the most games at a program for a given year, coached all the games for that season. Because of this, not all win percentages will be exact. However, a coaches approximate ranking among all coaches should still paint a good picture of where a coach stands historically.

Among the 869 coaches with at least ten one-score games at a program, Scott Frost at Nebraska is tied for 841st at a win percentage of 25%. The only power five coaches with a worse one possession win percentage than Frost since 2000 are Ted Roof at Duke, Tyrone Willingham at Washington, Darrell Hazell at Purdue, and Matt Luke at Ole Miss. Mike Riley is the only other Nebraska coach with at least 10 one-score games and a losing record in those games.

Among these 869 coaching tenures, 76 ended below the 30 percent winning mark in close games. Frost is quickly approaching the average tenure of these staffs – 4.17 years. Bobby Johnson at Vanderbilt, 8 years, and Jim Dickey at Kansas State, 7 years, are the two longest tenured power conference coaches below the 30% threshold. Despite Nebraska’s recent struggles, expectations for the football program remain higher than those of Kansas State in the 80s or Vanderbilt in the 2000s.

Not only is the rate at which Frost loses one possession games alarming, the rate at which he’s led Nebraska to one possession is as well. Among coaches who have coached 25 total games at a program, Frost at Nebraska ranks fifth for the percentage of one possession games coached – 20 of 37 total games. Frost’s predecessor, Mike Riley, ranked 35th since 1970 while at Nebraska with 18 of 38 games decided by 8 points or fewer.

This post was inspired by the Blake Lawrence tweet above. I certainly did not play college football so I will agree with him that losing one possession games is usually bad luck. And in the long run, luck will balance out and Frost would finish around 50/50 in these types of games. But in college football, limits don’t approach infinity, they approach the end of a fan base’s patience. The Huskers took the game out of luck’s hands against Buffalo weathering some bad calls on the way to an easy win. Scott Frost needs to find more ways to win like that rather than waiting for luck to be in his favor.

3 thoughts on “Close, but No Cigar

  1. I think you counted the Holiday Bowl after Pelini was fired. I have him 17-12. Devaney at 24-9-2, which would top the list. Good read though!

    1. Good eye on that. You’re correct. My coaching data doesn’t have game by game coaching data. So it would only say that Bo was 9-3 for 2014 and Barney Cotton was 0-1 that year. Instead of manually matching games for any midseason coaching changes, I decided to attribute all games to the coach who had the most games coached that season. For example, I attributed all of 2013 games to Ed Orgeron who coached 8 games after Kiffin was fired before letting Clay Helton coach the bowl game. Once, I applied the minimum games requirement for a coach-program pair, Coach O’s USC stats were not included. Its admittedly not a perfect solution but I think it approximates a coaches place in history well.

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