Berry’s college football buffet: Want to win big? Avoid close games

Berry’s college football buffet: Want to win big? Avoid close games

The best teams don’t necessarily win close games as much as they avoid them. 

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 22, 2023, 10:15am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 22, 2023, 10:15am CST

Lincoln Riley’s last OU team went 6-1 in close games (eight points or less) and thus had a standard Sooner season: 11-2.

Brent Venables’ first OU team went 0-5 in close games and thus had a disastrous season by Sooner standards: 6-7.

Now Venables’ second OU squad is 3-2 in close games, which means the mathematicians and sports brainiacs are standing tall. Regression to the mean rules.

Of course, some things help in close games. Like clutch kickers and coaches who know their way around clock management. But basically, teams that want to fool around and play close games generally can expect to win about half those games over a decent amount of time.

Look at the 2023 Sooners. Give them Lincoln luck — a flag here, a play call there — and OU might be 11-0 and ranked somewhere around third nationally. Give them Venables’ fortune,  and OU might be 6-5 and dreading entry into the Southeastern Conference.

Venables, like most coaches, isn’t too hip on the Pythagorean theorem.

“You gotta be good at what you’re doing,” Venables said. “I don’t think it’s just luck. I really believe that. I think it’s confidence in those stressful moments.”

You can’t blame coaches. Giving in to the notion that teams are cosmically bound to hover around .500 in close games over the long haul? That removes control and responsibility, to a coach’s way of thinking.

“Sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it, and they were a little bit better at it than you were,” Venables said. “That’s the game of football. But for us … you want to be well above .500, and whether or not it works itself out through time, that’s never OK for us. I can promise you.”

These Sooners lost heartbreakers at Kansas and OSU. They won an all-time thriller against Texas, survived Central Florida by stopping a late 2-point conversion, and then escaped with their life at Brigham Young.

Venables listed a bunch of things that go into close-game success, but truthfully, most of them are related to any-game success.

Coaches putting players in a position to be successful. Players making plays. Be more physical. Be precise. Detailed. Awareness. Turnovers. Penalties.

Certainly, those help win 24-21 games. They also help games become 52-7.

“Everything matters,” Venables said. “Coaching matters. Having good players matters. Being physical matters. Being sure of yourself matters. The fundamentals, the details, the precision, the anticipation, everything matters.”

“So we’re a little (actually a lot) better than what we were. We were terrible a year ago. I was terrible. It’s all terrible, it’s all bad.”

The best teams don’t necessarily win close games as much as they avoid close games. 

I went through the Power Five conferences and eliminated victories against lower-level opponents.

Fifteen teams have played at least seven non-close games, defining close as eight points margin or less.

Five of those 15 are Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida State and Oregon, all ranked among the top six by the College Football Playoff committee, with a combined record of 35-0 in those games.

That’s the key to success. Don’t play with fire.

Heck, in some ways, gauging a team’s record in non-close finishes is a clearer picture of a team’s actual potential.

In the Big 12, Texas and Kansas State each are 5-0; OU is 4-0. OSU is 4-2. And that seems about right. The Cowboys appear poised to reach the Big 12 Championship Game, not because they’re dominant, but because they’ve skated through some hairy situations.

The true potency of some teams is crystalized. Southern Cal and Tennessee each are 2-4 in non-close games. Not good.

Teams that are the opposite? Penn State is 7-1, Washington 5-0, and Alabama and North Carolina 5-1 in non-close games. Some of that is related to ease of schedule (we’re looking at you Penn State).

But take the case of Texas A&M and Louisville, each 4-1 in non-close games against legitimate foes. But the Aggies lost close games and fired Jimbo Fisher. The Cardinals have won close games and are having a magical season. Texas Christian and Louisiana State each are 4-2 in non-close games, but TCU lost close games and is under .500, while LSU is ranked 14th by the playoff committee.

Close games can go either way. Avoid them if you want an ultra-successful season.

Committee faces big decision on Florida State

Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis went down with a gruesome leg injury Saturday against North Alabama, and the unbeaten Seminoles’ national championship opportunity hopes immediately were placed in jeopardy.

Not FSU’s national title hopes. FSU’s opportunity at a national title.

Such is life with the College Football Playoff committee, which is very much like its basketball counterpart and has a god complex. In addition to not following its procedures.

In what for now is a crowded field of contenders for the four-team playoff, Florida State’s misfortune is seen as an avenue for a once-beaten Georgia (should the Bulldogs lose to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game) or the Ohio State-Michigan loser to crack the playoff field.

Florida State finishes the season at Florida on Saturday, then the Atlantic Coast Conference title game against Louisville in Charlotte.

The Seminoles seem to be poised to win both games with backup QB Tate Rodemaker, but the theory for some is that such a feat would not be enough.

Over the years, the playoff committee has declared that part of its mission is to select the four best teams, and the loss of a key player, particularly a quarterback, could impact that decision-making.

But here’s the problem. The committee all season says it doesn’t project. Then it gets to season’s end and projects? What kind of sense does that make?

If the committee penalizes Florida State because Jordan Travis is injured, the decision rests on the logic that the committee knows what kind of quarterback is Rodemaker. And that’s just silly.

College football is full of backup quarterbacks who answered the call and came through in the clutch. Cardale Jones quarterbacked Ohio State to the 2014 national title, even though his first start came in the Big Ten Championship Game that year, in place of the injured J.T. Barrett. Tua Tagovailoa relieved Jalen Hurts at halftime of the 2017 national title game and produced an Alabama victory. Charles Thompson took OU to the 1987 national championship game with a victory over Nebraska in Game of the Century II, his second start.

The idea that the committee can play fortune teller is beyond arrogant. The committee’s job is to gauge what teams have done, not what someone thinks they will do.

Don’t punish Florida State for what you think they will do. Judge Florida State on what it has done.

Let’s get to the rankings:

  1. Washington (11-0): What a résumé, and it keeps getting better. And that’s with non-conference foes Boise State and Michigan State having sub-standard seasons.
  2. Georgia (11-0): The Bulldogs’ winning streak is at 28. But after Georgia Tech this week, Georgia’s schedule is loaded. The winning streak could be in jeopardy. Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Back-to-back playoff games. Clemson in Atlanta to open the 2024 season.
  3. Ohio State (11-0): The Buckeyes are sort of overlooked, with all the Michigan scandal going on.
  4. Florida State (11-0): The Seminoles are in the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2014.
  5. Texas (10-1): The Longhorns aren’t winning impressively, but they are winning.
  6. Alabama (10-1): The Crimson Tide’s schedule isn’t as tough as we thought. Still rather tough, just not as tough as we thought.
  7. Michigan (11-0): The Wolverines are playing a two-game schedule. At Penn State, home vs. Ohio State.
  8. Oregon (10-1): Here’s a question — if the Ducks win out vs. Oregon State and Washington, would they trump the Ohio State-Michigan loser? The answer is, they should. But will they?
  9. Missouri (9-2): The Tigers could be bound for the Cotton, Peach or Orange bowls. Mizzou’s last major bowl came from its 1969 team.
  10. Oklahoma (9-2): Why no Louisville? OU’s two losses (Kansas and OSU) are better than the Cardinals’ one (Pittsburgh).

Coaches on the hot seat: Sonny Dykes & Matt Rhule

Big 12: Dykes is not on the lose-your-job hot seat. He’s on the lose-your-momentum hot seat.

Eleven months ago, Dykes was the toast of college football, leading TCU to a 51-46 thriller over Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl.

But since then, the Horned Frogs have struggled. Blown out by Georgia in the national title game. Upset by Colorado in the big-stage season opener. Staggered to a 3-5 Big 12 record.

Now TCU concludes its regular season with a Thanksgiving Friday game at OU, needing a victory to be bowl eligible.

Who goes from the national championship game to a losing record? Well, in 2010 Texas did it, but that’s another story and sort of the point — that season launched the Longhorns into an era of mediocrity from which they only now are recovering.

In the soon-to-come 16-team Big 12, the big dog status is open. Utah? OSU? Kansas State? Upstart Arizona? Deion’s Colorado? 

TCU was near the top of that list in August when the Pac-12 expatriates signed on. Now? Not so much.

Beating OU and making a bowl would restore some luster to a TCU program that did great things in the calendar year 2022 but not much since.

National: Matt Rhule is an excellent coach and I assume Nebraskans know it. But you can’t be too careful.

Rhule’s first Cornhusker squad has had its ups and downs. Nebraska overcame some early-season disappointments — losses to Minnesota and Colorado — and beat three straight Big Ten mediocrities (Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue) to reach 5-3.

Nebraska’s streak of six straight losing seasons appeared over. But the Huskers are back on the losing track. Three straight losses — 20-17 at Michigan State, 13-10 vs. Maryland and 24-17 in overtime at Wisconsin — have dropped Nebraska to 5-6.

Now the Huskers host Iowa on Friday, needing a victory to get bowl eligible. The Hawkeyes aren’t pretty, but they win. Iowa is 9-2, despite averaging just 18 points a game.

Rhule is the real deal as a coach, but another losing season would plant the seeds that the losing cycle remains in Lincoln and would squelch the momentum of such a quality hire.

Ranking the Big 12: Pollsters got some things right

The Big 12 preseason poll last summer was met with great revelry, because of the fresh faces. And because an old face, Texas, was atop the poll, for the first time in 13 years.

So how did the pollsters do? Rather well, I’d say.

Texas was picked No. 1 and is going to finish No. 1, either alone or in a tie.

Kansas State was picked second, and a win at Iowa State on Saturday guarantees the Wildcats no worse than a tie for second.

OU was picked third. A win over Texas Christian on Friday makes the Sooners no worse than a tie for second, with a possible tie for first.

Texas Tech was picked fourth, and if the Red Raiders upset Texas on Friday, they could finish anywhere from a tie for second (unlikely) to fifth (probable). Lose to Texas and Tech likely ties for sixth.

TCU was picked fifth, and the Horned Frogs will do no better than ninth.

Baylor was picked sixth, and the Bears must beat West Virginia to forge a tie for ninth. A tie for last place is possible.

OSU was picked seventh, but the Cowboys get no worse than a tie for second by beating Brigham Young on Saturday.

Central Florida was picked eighth; if the Knights beat Houston on Saturday, a tie for ninth is likely. Not too far off.

Kansas was picked ninth, and the Jayhawks will do no worse than a tie for fifth by winning at Cincinnati on Saturday.

Iowa State was picked 10th, and the Cyclones could tie for fifth by winning at Kansas State on Saturday, though they likely fall to a tie for sixth with a loss.

BYU was picked 11th. The Cougars are in a four-way tie for 10th headed to Stillwater, so spot on.

Houston was picked 12th, and the Cougars are in a four-way tie for 10th. Again, very close.

Cincinnati was picked 13th, and the Bearcats are dead last, 14th.

West Virginia was picked 14th, and the Mountaineers are 5-3, tied for fifth in the league. Big whiff.

Here are the conference rankings going into the final week:

  1. Texas (10-1, 7-1): The Longhorns go into Thanksgiving weekend with a shot at not only the Big 12 championship but a College Football Playoff berth. That’s a wildly successful season in Austin.
  2. Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2): Beat TCU, and the Sooners reach 10 wins, which is exactly what most of us thought OU should do in 2023 against a historically weak schedule.
  3. Oklahoma State (8-3, 6-2): The Cowboys are like a rollercoaster in more ways than one. You have no idea how it works, but what a ride.
  4. Kansas State (8-3, 6-2): The Big 12’s most consistent team, and it’s not even close. The Wildcats have beaten the teams they’re superior to and lost to the teams about on their level.
  5. Kansas (7-4, 4-4): The only way to be more impressed with KU’s perseverance would be to make up a new word that trumps impressive.
  6. West Virginia (7-4, 5-3): Take away Houston’s Hail Mary and the Mountaineers would be in a four-way tie for second place. So see, Big 12, it could be even worse with all the tiebreakers.
  7. Iowa State (6-5, 5-3): Just like OSU came back from South Alabama, the Cyclones came back from losing to Ohio U. and had a solid season.
  8. Texas Tech (6-5, 5-3): The Red Raiders will finish no worse than 5-4 in the Big 12, giving the conference eight teams with a winning record, provided KU beats Cincinnati. The Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference, both 14-team leagues like the Big 12, could have as few as four plus-.500 teams.
  9. Central Florida (5-6, 2-6): UCF ended up with a tough conference schedule. No Texas, but every other good team in the league — OU, OSU, K-State, KU, West Virginia, Tech.
  10. Brigham Young (5-6, 2-6): From the fire dancers to the setting to the incomparable hospitality, Big 12 fans will enjoy trips to Provo for years to come.
  11. TCU (5-6, 3-5): The Frogs sure would like to have back that Colorado season opener.
  12. Houston (4-7, 2-6): The Cougars always will have the Hail Mary vs. West Virginia.
  13. Baylor (3-8, 2-6): The Bears didn’t do what OSU did. Rebound quickly from a debilitating loss to a mid-major (Baylor lost to Texas State, OSU to South Alabama).
  14. Cincinnati (3-8, 1-7): A season of hope, after the Bearcats won at Pittsburgh, turned into a season of transition. It happens.

Ranking the national games

  1. Ohio State at Michigan, 11 a.m. Saturday, Fox: Former Sooner Sherrone Moore will be center stage, as Michigan’s acting head coach in place of Jim Harbaugh, for college football’s game of the year to this point.
  2. Washington State at Washington, 3 p.m. Saturday, Fox: Michael Penix Jr.’s Heisman campaign, the Huskies trying to make the College Football Playoff and the final Apple Cup as conference brothers. Lots going on in Seattle.
  3. Florida State at Florida, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: It’s not just that the Seminoles need to win, it’s almost as if being undefeated isn’t enough and they need to impress with Rodemaker.
  4. Oregon State at Oregon, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Fox: Beat Oregon State and then Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and the Ducks are quite likely to be in the College Football Playoff.
  5. Texas Tech at Texas, 6:30 p.m., ABC:  Tech has won two of its last four games in Austin, so don’t count out the Red Raiders ruining the Longhorns’ playoff hopes.
  6. Alabama at Auburn, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: The Tigers almost always put up an Iron Bowl fight, especially at home, but coming off a 31-10 loss to New Mexico State? 
  7. Texas-San Antonio at Tulane, 2:30 p.m. Friday, ABC: The Cotton Bowl will be pulling for Tulane. The winner advances to the American Conference championship game, and if Tulane wins the American, it figures to get a New Year’s Six bowl berth — probably the Peach. The Cotton Bowl would prefer not to have a mid-major for the second straight season.
  8. Brigham Young at Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: The last time the Cowboys played at Boone Pickens Stadium, they won Bedlam, and the goal post was dragged to Theta Pond. This time, more celebration could be in order, since a Big 12 Championship Game berth is on the line.
  9. San Jose State at Nevada-Las Vegas, 2 p.m. Saturday, Mountain West streaming: Barry Odom, the pride of Maysville and Ada, is putting himself in position for a Power Five job, after turning around UNLV in a solitary year. The Rebels lead the Mountain West and can host the league title game with a victory over San Jose State.
  10. Kentucky at Louisville, 11 a.m. Friday, ABC: The 10-1 Cardinals have played themselves into a New Year’s Six bowl, but they could play themselves out, with a loss to UK.

Upset specials: Cincinnati & Florida

Big 12: Few teams have played with as much fire in the face of adversity as the Jayhawks.

Star quarterback Jalon Daniels has missed most of the season with an injury. Backup quarterback Jason Bean has been fantastic in relief, but he suffered a concussion and missed most of the loss to Texas Tech and all of the loss to Kansas State, games that KU took to the wire.

Plus, Kansas has played probably the Big 12’s toughest schedule: Texas, OU, OSU, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, UCF.

But a team can stand up only so long. The Jayhawks are out of contention for Arlington but safely in the bowl rotation. 

Cincinnati won’t stir the passions of KU. The Jayhawks seem like the classic example of a team ready to relax. Kansas is a 6½-point underdog, but let’s go with the Bearcats in the upset.

Big 12 upset special record: 7-5

National: It’s hard for the new generation to understand just how much the Floridian schools dominated college football in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Miami won national titles in 1983, 1989, 1991 and 2001. Florida State won national titles in 1993 and 1999. Florida won the 1996 national title. For good measure, the Gators won again in 2006 and 2008, and FSU won in 2013.

Over 31 years, the three Floridian programs won 10 titles.

But in this century, they all have a nasty habit of slumping. Miami for lo these many years. Florida State for a time before and after Jimbo Fisher’s 2013 title. And Florida for much of the last decade.

Only the Seminoles are on top of their game now. Miami is 6-5; the Hurricanes have reached 10 wins only once since 2003. Florida is 5-6 and flirting with its third straight losing season.

Which brings us to Saturday, when the Gators host the unbeaten Seminoles. Florida State is without Travis. But the Seminoles have a lot more talent than does Florida.

Besides, the Gators will be playing without quarterback Graham Mertz, who suffered a fractured collarbone last week at Missouri.

Still, there is something nagging about Florida State. The Seminoles opened the season with a rousing victory over Louisiana State and have been mostly coasting since.

Meanwhile, the Gators showed they still had grit, almost winning at Missouri last week. The Seminoles are 6½-point favorites, but let’s go with Florida in the upset.

National upset special record:  3-9.

Ranking the Big 12 games

  1. Texas at Texas Tech, 6:30 p.m. Friday, ABC: The last scheduled Longhorn game against a Texas school currently in the Big 12. No Tech, no Baylor, no TCU, no Houston. 
  2. BYU at Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Cowboy tailback Ollie Gordon now is tied for the national rushing lead. Both he and North Carolina’s Omarion Hampton have 1,414 yards. If you go strictly by yards, Gordon has a big edge, since he figures to get an extra chance (the Big 12 title game) that Hampton won’t get.
  3. TCU at Oklahoma, 11 a.m. Friday, Fox: OU is 57-15-2 in regular-season Friday games, including 9-6 since World War II. But before the postseason, the Sooners have played on a non-Saturday only twice in the last 30 years — Nebraska in 1994 (Friday) and Houston in 2019 (Sunday).
  4. Iowa State at Kansas State, 7 p.m. Saturday, Fox: The Wildcats have been rather fortunate. They have faced a team’s preferred starting quarterback in three of eight conference games. KSU missed Kansas’ Bean (that’s not even counting Daniels), Texas’ Quinn Ewers, Texas Tech’s Tyler Shough, UCF’s John Rhys Plumlee and TCU’s Chandler Morris.
  5. Houston at Central Florida, 11 a.m. Saturday, Fox Sports1: A win makes UCF bowl eligible.
  6. West Virginia at Baylor, 6 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports1: Since beating Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl 23 months ago, the Bears are 9-15, with two of the wins over Long Island and Albany.
  7. Kansas at Cincinnati 6:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2: Only series meetings were a home-and-home in 1995 and 1997, but in 1983, KU hired away Cincinnati’s head coach, Mike Gottfried.
Share with your crowd
Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

The latest from Sellout Crowd

  • Dec 28, 2023; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jackson Arnold (10) throws a pass against the Arizona Wildcats at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

    The Georgia roots behind Jackson Arnold’s new uniform number

  • Feb 8, 2024; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Doug Gottlieb on the Fox Sports set on radio row at the Super Bowl 58 media center at the Mandalay Bay resort and casino. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Doug Gottlieb’s passion might be just what OSU basketball needs

  • Feb 25, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) shoots the ball during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

    Chet Holmgren lifts the Thunder to statistically signficant win in Houston

  • Fourth-ranked Iowa gave No. 2 Oklahoma State its first loss of the season Sunday afternoon. The 22-9 defeat is the first dual OSU has lost in Gallagher Iba Arena since a loss to Minnesota in 2022. (Mitch Alcala for The Oklahoman/USA Today Network)

    How Iowa’s losses led to Oklahoma State first wrestling defeat

  • Feb 24, 2024; Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Javian McCollum (2) shoots the ball over Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Jamyron Keller (14) to win the game in overtime at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

    Javian McCollum’s buzzer-beater downs OSU, hands OU crucial tournament boost