Best and worst college football coaches in close games entering 2016

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 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, SchoolCareerCurrent School
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion20-7 (.741)20-7 (.741)
Urban Meyer, Ohio State34-13 (.723)13-2 (.867)
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame78-38-2 (.669)22-13 (.629)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati60-31 (.659)8-5 (.615)
Les Miles, LSU46-25 (.648)39-18 (.684)
Kyle Whittingham, Utah34-19 (.642)34-19 (.642)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State16-9 (.640)16-9 (.640)
Gary Patterson, TCU43-25 (.632)43-25 (.632)
Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe24-14 (.632)New coach
David Shaw, Stanford17-10 (.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 are at .535.

These are the magic numbers to keep in mind when reviewing each conference's best and worst FBS coaches in close games.

SEC

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Jim McElwain, Florida13-4 (.765)5-1 (.833)
Gus Malzahn, Auburn15-7 (.682)12-7 (.632)
Les Miles, LSU46-25 (.648)39-18 (.684)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State16-9 (.640)16-9 (.640)
Derek Mason, Vanderbilt5-3 (.625)5-3 (.625)
Nick Saban, Alabama42-28-1 (.599)17-14 (.548)
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M21-15 (.583)11-8 (.579)
Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss13-11 (.542)7-9 (.438)
Butch Jones, Tennessee21-21 (.500)6-9 (.400)
Bret Bielema, Arkansas24-25 (.490)3-10 (.231)
Will Muschamp, South Carolina8-10 (.444)New school
Mark Stoops, Kentucky5-7 (.417)5-7 (.417)
Kirby Smart, GeorgiaFirst year
Barry Odom, MissouriFirst 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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Urban Meyer, Ohio State34-13 (.723)13-2 (.867)
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern34-21 (.618)34-21 (.618)
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State33-22 (.600)27-20 (.574)
Tracy Claeys, Minnesota3-2 (.600)3-2 (.600)
Jim Harbaugh, Michigan18-15 (.545)2-2 (.500)
Mike Riley, Nebraska38-35 (.521)3-6 (.333)
James Franklin, Penn State13-13 (.500)6-6 (.500)
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa46-51 (.474)41-45 (.477)
Paul Chryst, Wisconsin8-12 (.400)3-2 (.600)
Darrell Hazell, Purdue6-12 (.333)1-7 (.125)
Kevin Wilson, Indiana7-18 (.280)7-18 (.280)
DJ Durkin, MarylandFirst year
Lovie Smith, IllinoisFirst year
Chris Ash, RutgersFirst year

ACC

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Dave Doeren, NC State13-5 (.722)4-2 (.667)
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State16-7 (.696)16-7 (.696)
Dino Babers, Syracuse10-5 (.667)New coach
Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh5-3 (.625)5-3 (.625)
Mark Richt, Miami47-30 (.610)New coach
Bobby Petrino, Louisville27-19 (.587)12-10 (.545)
Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia28-20 (.583)New coach
Dabo Swinney, Clemson16-12 (.571)16-12 (.571)
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech44-39 (.530)20-23 (.465)
David Cutcliffe, Duke37-35 (.514)19-19 (.500)
Larry Fedora, North Carolina21-23 (.477)12-9 (.571)
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest28-34 (.452)4-6 (.400)
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech6-9 (.400)New coach
Steve Addazio, Boston College8-13 (.381)6-11 (.353)

Big 12

Best: Gary Patterson, TCU -- For a while, the Horned Frogs relied on a stingy defense and winning 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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Gary Patterson, TCU43-25 (.632)43-25 (.632)
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State23-14 (.622)23-14 (.622)
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma33-22 (.600)33-22 (.600)
Matt Campbell, Iowa State13-9 (.591)New coach
Charlie Strong, Texas14-10 (.583)3-5 (.375)
Bill Snyder, Kansas State50-38-1 (.567)50-38-1 (.567)
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia12-10 (.545)12-10 (.545)
Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech5-5 (.500)5-5 (.500)
Jim Grobe, Baylor49-55-1 (.471)New coach
David Beaty, Kansas0-2 (.000)0-2 (.000)

Pac-12

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Clay Helton, USC3-1 (.750)3-1 (.750)
Jim Mora, UCLA15-6 (.714)15-6 (.714)
Kyle Whittingham, Utah34-19 (.642)34-19 (.642)
David Shaw, Stanford17-10 (.630)17-10 (.630)
Todd Graham, Arizona State26-21 (.553)7-8 (.467)
Chris Petersen, Washington17-14 (.548)3-6 (.333)
Mike Leach, Washington State31-26 (.544)12-11 (.522)
Rich Rodriguez, Arizona44-39-2 (.529)13-10 (.565)
Sonny Dykes, Cal16-15 (.516)8-7 (.533)
Mark Helfrich, Oregon5-5 (.500)5-5 (.500)
Gary Andersen, Oregon State14-18 (.438)0-1 (.000)
Mike MacIntyre, Colorado10-20 (.333)3-11 (.214)

Independent

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame78-38-2 (.669)22-13 (.629)
Mark Whipple, UMass37-30 (.552)19-17 (.528)
Jeff Monken, Army15-19 (.441)2-10 (.167)
Kalani Sitake, BYUFirst year

American

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Tom Herman, Houston3-1 (.750)3-1 (.750)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati60-31 (.659)8-5 (.615)
Ken Niumatalolo, Navy26-16 (.619)26-16 (.619)
Willie Taggart, South Florida16-11 (.593)7-3 (.700)
Bob Diaco, Connecticut6-5 (.545)6-5 (.545)
Willie Fritz, Tulane34-29 (.540)New coach
Philip Montgomery, Tulsa1-1 (.500)1-1 (.500)
Matt Rhule, Temple3-9 (.250)3-9 (.250)
Chad Morris, SMU0-1 (.000)0-1 (.000)
Mike Norvell, MemphisFirst year
Scott Frost, UCFFirst year
Scottie Montgomery, East CarolinaFirst 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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State7-3 (.700)7-3 (.700)
Bryan Harsin, Boise State6-3 (.667)3-2 (.600)
Rocky Long, San Diego State43-38 (.531)13-8 (.619)
Ron Caragher, San Jose State17-15 (.531)4-5 (.444)
Craig Bohl, Wyoming27-24 (.529)5-2 (.714)
Mike Bobo, Colorado State3-3 (.500)3-3 (.500)
Bob Davie, New Mexico23-25 (.479)8-13 (.381)
Troy Calhoun, Air Force16-22 (.421)16-22 (.421)
Matt Wells, Utah State5-8 (.385)5-8 (.385)
Brian Polian, Nevada6-10 (.375)6-10 (.375)
Tony Sanchez, UNLV1-4 (.200)1-4 (.200)
Nick Rolovich, HawaiiFirst 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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion20-7 (.741)20-7 (.741)
Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee23-15 (.605)23-15 (.605)
David Bailiff, Rice30-21 (.588)23-14 (.622)
Doc Holliday, Marshall14-10 (.583)14-10 (.583)
Sean Kugler, UTEP6-5 (.545)6-5 (.545)
Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech46-40 (.535)4-6 (.400)
Jay Hopson, Southern Miss8-7 (.533)New coach
Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky5-5 (.500)5-5 (.500)
Ron Turner, Florida International19-21 (.475)2-6 (.250)
Charlie Partridge, Florida Atlantic3-8 (.273)3-8 (.273)
Brad Lambert, Charlotte3-8 (.273)3-8 (.273)
Seth Littrell, North TexasFirst year
Frank Wilson, Texas-San AntonioFirst year

MAC

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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Rod Carey, Northern Illinois10-4 (.714)10-4 (.714)
Lane Leipold, Buffalo14-7 (.667)2-3 (.400)
Chris Creighton, Eastern Michigan28-17-1 (.620)1-2 (.333)
Frank Solich, Ohio42-27 (.609)32-19 (.627)
Terry Bowden, Akron40-33-2 (.547)6-11 (.353)
Chuck Martin, Miami (Ohio)13-12 (.520)3-8 (.273)
P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan4-5 (.444)4-5 (.444)
John Bonamego, Central Michigan3-4 (.429)3-4 (.429)
Paul Haynes, Kent State4-7 (.364)4-7 (.364)
Mike Neu, Ball StateFirst year
Mike Jinks, Bowling GreenFirst year
Jason Candle, ToledoFirst 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 CoachCareerCurrent School
Matt Viator, Louisiana-Monroe24-14 (.632)New coach
Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana-Lafayette24-20 (.545)13-7 (.650)
Everett Withers, Texas State8-7 (.533)New coach
Joey Jones, South Alabama16-17 (.485)15-14 (.517)
Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State5-6 (.455)5-6 (.455)
Paul Petrino, Idaho4-5 (.444)4-5 (.444)
Blake Anderson, Arkansas State1-2 (.333)1-2 (.333)
Trent Miles, Georgia State8-17 (.320)2-10 (.167)
Doug Martin, New Mexico State10-24 (.294)5-6 (.455)
Neal Brown, Troy0-3 (.000)0-3 (.000)
Tyson Summers, Georgia SouthernFirst year
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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