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Who Were the Most (And Least) Clutch Teams in College Football?

“Is ___ clutch?” is one of the worst cliche sports arguments in existence. It’s an unprovable premise that is almost always propped up by anecdotal evidence. A basketball player is clutch because you just saw them hit a buzzer-beater, a pitcher is not because they just gave up a walk-off home run, etc. On an individual level, it’s pointless. On a team-wide level, it’s a different story. Football is a game of inches, where a handful of plays can determine the outcome of an entire season. Some teams were better at making those kinds of plays than others. I decided to take a look at the most and least clutch teams of the 2021 college football season. To do this, I turned to Bill Connelly, aka the father of college football analytics.

Bill has a stat called “Postgame Win Expectancy,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It takes the final box score of a game, runs it through an algorithm, and determines how likely it was that team won the game. PWE is the best way to filter out those handfuls of plays that drastically change who wins and who loses a game. I decided to use it the other way around, to see which teams were the best and worst at making these game-winning plays. To do this, I took each team’s average PWE and subtracted it from their actual winning percentage. It’s admittedly a tad rudimentary, but the results speak for themselves.

Least Clutch

5. Toledo

2021 was yet another disappointing season for Toledo. Despite being by far the most talented team in the MAC, they haven’t won their division in 5 years. This is shown through in their PWE, which says they should’ve finished 10-2 and easily won the MAC. Instead, the Rockets finished 7-5. When they won, they won easily, but when they lost, it was usually because they did something stupid. Their last loss of the regular season to EMU was the cherry on top, as they ended the game with a PWE of 90%. Head coach Jason Candle is headed into 2022 on a very warm seat.

4. Miami (OH)

Another MAC team, another blown lead to EMU. Just like Toledo, the RedHawks didn’t pull any wins from out of nowhere, but they sure did manufacture some losses. Miami’s PWE says they should’ve ended the year 9-3 with a big road upset win over Minnesota. Instead, they went 6-6, blowing their chance to win the division and play for a conference championship.

3. Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers are by far the most successful team on this list, finishing as the runner-up in Conference USA. It could’ve been so much more though. Four of their five losses were by 8 points or less, wasting quarterback Bailey Zappe’s record-breaking season. The close loss at home to Indiana looks particularly ugly in hindsight.

2. Colorado State

Steve Addazio’s team being poorly prepared in big moments? Color me shocked. The Rams blew halftime leads against Iowa (understandable) and Vanderbilt (yikes). However, nothing summed up their season better than their loss to Utah State, when everyone on the field was clearly lost rushing onto the field to kick a last-second field goal when there was still enough time on the clock to run multiple plays. It’s amazing Addazio lasted as long as he did.

1. Nebraska

The fact that Nebraska finished first validated my entire methodology. It’s a meme that they were the best 3-9 team in history, but the numbers back it up, sort of. At -31.6%, the Cornhuskers had by far the largest gap between their average PWE and actual win percentage. However, they still only should’ve finished at 4-8 according to these same numbers. The disaster against Purdue was the only game they technically should’ve won, with most of their other losses being close to toss-ups.

Most Clutch

5. Iowa

Iowa is a bit of an outlier in this group. Their PWE accurately reflected the outcome in every game but one: their ¡El Assico! win over Iowa State. I think the discrepancy mainly comes from their relatively low PWE in wins, an average of 75.56%, and their absurdly low PWE in losses, an average of 6%. Overall, I think this number says more about the quality of the team than their “clutch-ness.”

4. Wake Forest

Wake Forest was one of the best stories of the season. After being picked to finish 5th in their division, the Demon Deacons won the Atlantic and ended up playing for a championship. As fun as they were to watch, there was a stretch in the middle of the year where it was obvious the undefeated run was doomed to end. They pulled out close wins against Louisville and Syracuse, but the magic had to end. They couldn’t mount a comeback in the bizarre non-conference ACC game against UNC, and then got smoked by Clemson. Sandwiched between that, though, was another clutch win over NC State. Either way, the Deacs were an amazing team to watch all year.

3. Northern Illinois

It’s not a surprise that the most competitive conference has the most teams on this list. The Huskies were the biggest turnaround in the nation, going from winless in 2020 to winning their conference. Four different times this year, they ended the game with a sub 50% PWE and still pulled it off. It was well known that they didn’t play a single normal game all season, and the numbers prove it.

T-1. Utah State

Yet another unexpected turnaround, the Aggies were picked to finish 5th in their division and ended up winning the whole thing. They pulled out multiple close wins, including that aforementioned disaster against Colorado State. Those early season upsets clearly built the team’s confidence, a wave that they rode to a strong finish to the year.

T-1. UTSA

The Roadrunners were arguably the best story in college football this year. The team that didn’t exist 11-years ago started out 11-0 and won their conference championship. The path to that championship had some bumps, but UTSA weathered almost all of them, including the conference championship game, by being the most clutch team in the country. Meep Meep.

(Photo Courtesy of @BucketProblem)

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