For my story on myajc and Monday’s story about what Georgia Tech’s narrow win over Georgia Southern means, I mentioned a few other teams this season who had either snuck out wins over teams from non-power conferences or had lost. Georgia Tech is hardly alone, but joining this list isn’t quite like getting approved for membership at Augusta National.
Others who have won narrowly over teams from lesser conferences thus far: Oregon State (beat Hawaii 38-30), Illinois (beat Western Kentucky 42-34), North Carolina (beat San Diego State 31-27) and Arizona (beat UT-San Antonio 26-23 and Nevada 35-28). The most prominent team is No. 12 UCLA, which beat Memphis 42-35 in Los Angeles. Virginia Tech, which was ranked No. 19 when it lost Saturday to East Carolina, is another.
I thought a more informative analysis (and I use that word lightly. Actually, "informative" also) would be to look at teams who either barely beat teams from non-power conferences or lost (I think it is reasonable to assert that Tech could well have lost Saturday) from previous seasons and see how their seasons unfolded. For the sake of making it as apples to apples as I could, I included all games between ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC teams against non-power conference or FCS teams, which renders some of the results a little useless. Two years ago, for instance, that included Louisville, and last year it included Central Florida, which beat Penn State and later won the Fiesta Bowl.
I looked at the first three weeks of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A close loss was defined as eight points or fewer (one possession).
The results are not the most encouraging for Tech, though not reason enough to call off the season. Of the 19 teams that narrowly won (Minnesota, Washington State and Wisconsin all won two such games), 11 finished under .500.Two won seven games and three won eight.
The most successful three: Last season, Nebraska won nine games, including a 37-34 win over Wyoming. In 2012, Northwestern beat Syracuse on the road 42-41 (Syracuse was still in the Big East at that point) and Stanford won the Pac-12 after surviving a San Jose State team that went on to win 11 games.
Of the 22 teams that lost – two teams, Colorado and Kentucky, lost two such games – 14 finished under .500. Five teams won eight games and three won seven.
First, 19 games isn't a preponderance of data and the circumstances in each game were different, as were the schedules for each of the teams for the remainder of the season. Plus, it's hard to say Saturday's game was a typical case of a team struggling to get past a seemingly lesser opponent and giving indication that rough waters are ahead. The latter may still be the case, but the score was 35-10 at halftime. To me, it was not an easy game from which to draw conclusions.
I'd guess some of the teams listed below lost because they were not very good. I'd say Tech had to rally to beat Georgia Southern in large part because it lost focus in the second half and didn't match Georgia Southern's urgency. Not a good sign, but more correctable than not being very good.
The game may have been most like Wisconsin's 26-21 win over Northern Iowa in 2012. The Badgers led 19-0 and 26-7 before the Panthers rallied and reached Wisconsin territory on its last possession before losing the ball on downs. It led Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to say, "Hopefully, our guys learn, hey, you've got to put people away when you can."
That Wisconsin team went on to play in the Rose Bowl, although the Badgers reached the Big Ten championship game because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the postseason. The team finished 8-6 the same season that Tech finished 7-7 and played in the ACC title game due to Miami (as well as North Carolina) taking itself out of postseason play due to its NCAA investigation.
But, there's a lot of results to reach a conclusion that doesn't startle - a team that has trouble against lesser-resourced teams is often bound for more trouble against its peers. Some more thoughts below the charts.
(A record-keeping matter: There were some teams that were on one list or both lists more than once. If they were on the same list - close wins or losses - I counted their records only once. I also didn’t include BYU as a non-power conference team, if you’re wondering.)
First, not all close wins or losses on the list are equals. It’s one thing to lose to Utah State, which plays out of the Mountain West and has gone to bowl games the past three years, or to a ranked Louisville team in 2012.
It’s quite another to lose to Indiana State, a weak FCS team. For that end, and out of curiosity, I included the final record of the opponents. It’s reasonable to project that Georgia Southern, which narrowly lost to N.C. State and Tech, is set for a strong run in the Sun Belt. For many teams that pulled off upsets in the past two years or just missed them, though, that was often the high point of the season.
UNLV fans must have been excited in 2012 after the Rebels nearly pulled upsets over Minnesota and Washington State. However, UNLV finished 2-11 (the Rebels played a 13th game due to an NCAA rule that gives teams an extra game if they play at Hawaii to have a chance to make up travel costs).
William and Mary lost 7-6 to Maryland in 2012 and still ended up with a 2-9 record at the FCS level. (That Maryland team was the one that lost all of its quarterbacks and ended up playing with a linebacker at quarterback.) The topper is Indiana State, which almost beat Purdue last season but lost all of its games except for its lone win over a Division II team. And that team, Quincy (in Illinois), itself was 2-9.
The gap between power conferences and the rest of Division I is clearly closing and with some teams, it’s non-existent. Under Chris Petersen, Boise State was a much better team than a lot of power-conference teams, for example, and the team's 17-13 loss to Michigan State really doesn't fit. Regardless, given the way the system is set up, power-conference teams should largely beat teams from the Sun Belt or the WAC. After the game, Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz said that no player on his roster had been offered a scholarship by Georgia Tech. (I suppose it should be made clear that Tech did actually win the game.)