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Taking a look at BYU's odd knack for close games

With the most difficult part of BYU’s football schedule in the books, let’s pause to acknowledge, if not appreciate, the sheer oddity of what we have seen so far.

It’s uncanny. Seven of eight games were decided by margins of 2, 1, 3, 3, 2, 7 and 1. The lone exception was BYU’s surprising 17-point road win over Michigan State. Given the endless variables of a football game — the tipped passes, fumbles, penalties, interceptions, extra points and so forth — what are the odds that after 60 minutes of action that so many games would go to the wire or that the Cougars would be so evenly matched with another team with such regularity.

Six of BYU’s eight games were decided by 1-3 points; another game by 7 — after ending in a tie at the end of regulation and extending into double overtime.

In eight games, it’s BYU 224 points, Opponents 204, an average score of 28-25.5. Throw out the Michigan State game and it’s BYU 193, Opponents 190, an average score of 24.13-23.75

It didn’t matter if the opponent was a struggling team such as UCLA (now 3-5), Arizona (2-6) or Mississippi State (3-5), or a nationally ranked team such Utah (7-2), Boise State (7-1) or West Virginia (6-1); it didn’t matter if the game was on the road or at home or at a neutral site, or even if it was played on blue turf. It didn’t matter if it was high scoring or low scoring. It didn’t matter if the opponent was from the Pac-12 or the SEC or the Mountain West. It didn’t even matter if the Cougars collected five or six turnovers and returned some for touchdowns. None of that mattered — the games were all evenly matched. They ended with made or blocked field goals, an interception at the goal line, a failed Hail Mary attempt and a failed two-point conversion.

What are the odds of BYU collecting six turnovers against Utah — and a one-point loss? What are the odds of BYU collecting five turnovers against Boise State — returning two of them for touchdowns — and another one-point loss? Deseret News beat writer Jeff Call noted an ESPN study that showed that since 2000, teams that scored two defensive touchdowns and had a plus-five turnover margin advantage had gone 23-0. That was before BYU lost to Boise State.

There is no standard statistic that can truly quantify what has occurred at BYU. Scoring margin doesn’t really work. It simply consists of the total number of points scored by Team X and the total points scored by its opponents. It doesn’t necessarily reflect the closeness of the games. As NCAA statistician Jeff Williams notes, “You could have a 3-3 team whose losses were by 20 points and whose wins were by 20 points.”

BYU’s average scoring margin of +2.5 ranks 50th nationally — 12 teams have smaller scoring margins. Clearly, this is no measure of the closeness of the games. Williams offered to do some research and discovered that BYU and Kent State are the only teams to play more than four games that have been decided by five or fewer points (BYU has played six and Kent State five). California, Utah and Georgia have each had four games decided by five points or less. It should be noted that Utah and Kent State have played nine games, one more than BYU.

When you consider the number of games that have been decided by three points or less, it’s BYU 6, Georgia 4.

It’s worth noting that six of Utah’s nine games have been decided by a touchdown or less. The difference between Utah and BYU is that Utah has won four of those games, decided by 1, 4, 5 and 7 points.

What does it all mean? It seems apparent that BYU plays up or down to the competition. It’s a risky habit, this business of going to the wire each week, and it seems entirely fitting that it adds up to four wins and four losses. BYU’s final four games are considerably easier than the first eight games, so maybe we’ve seen the end of the close games. Then again, you know what they say about breaking old habits.

Email: drob@deseretnews.com