Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: close games

Here are links to other posts I’ve written this month as the 2021 fall campaign approaches:

I’ve often stated that marginal improvement in various statistical categories can make an outsized difference in a team’s success, and lead to winning more games. For example, in my post about havoc rates, I wrote:

…one play — a forced fumble, a big tackle for loss, an interception — could well be the difference between a win or a loss. After all, just think about how many close games The Citadel has played in the conference in recent years.

This is certainly true, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually researched just how many close games the Bulldogs have played over the past few seasons. It was time to change that oversight.

Thus, I created a spreadsheet (of course). This one includes all Southern Conference games played between 2011 and the 2021 spring campaign for every league team which played during the period. That is ten seasons of data.

I am defining close games by the more-or-less standard definition, matchups decided by eight or fewer points — in other words, one-score games. That obviously includes all overtime contests.

Close games in the SoCon, 2011-S2021

The chart includes three teams no longer in the conference (Appalachian State, Elon, and Georgia Southern) and all of the current league members, including two teams (ETSU and VMI) that rejoined the conference since the 2011 season.

As mentioned, only conference games are listed. I’ve also noted the total number of league games played each year.

Since 2011, 44.81% of all SoCon contests have been close games. The rate has been quite consistent over the years; the highest percentage of close games during that time was last season (55.17%), while the lowest was in 2014 (32.14%). If you combine those two campaigns, the average comes out to 43.86%, right near the mean — and the other years are all between 41%-50%.

A few random observations:

  • Not counting Appalachian State or Georgia Southern (both of which left the SoCon after the 2013 season), the team with the best record in one-score games has been Wofford, while the unluckiest team in that respect has been VMI. 
  • In its five seasons since rejoining the conference, East Tennessee State has played by far the highest percentage of close games (68.42%).
  • Conversely, Western Carolina has the lowest rate of close games (26.32%).

The Citadel has played 78 league games since 2011. In 39 of those contests — exactly half — the Bulldogs have been involved in a one-score game. 

In all SoCon matchups over the period, The Citadel has a record of 41-37, so the Bulldogs have a slightly better record in games that are not close (22-17) than in games that are (19-20).

What does it all mean? Does it mean anything at all?

Generally speaking, over time a team’s record in one-score games should be right around .500, and that is the case for The Citadel. When it comes to close contests, the program has not been a statistical outlier from a historical perspective (which might comes as a surprise in some quarters). 

One takeaway, then, might be that instead of hoping small advancements will lead to a better record in close games, the actual intended results should be for fewer close games, with the difference being several more decisive victories.

Regardless, odds are that at least three of the Bulldogs’ league matchups this season will go right down to the wire. As always, critical plays have to be made in those key moments.

The fans have to be ready, too…

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