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The College Football Nail-biter Directory

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The games that make you dream of missed field goals for nights on end.

Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Depending on your vantage point, a blowout is cause for celebration (fans of the winner), dejection (fans of the loser), or changing the channel (neutral parties). Wherever you fall in that spectrum, however, a blowout gives you time to process that feeling during the game itself.

Tell me Wazzu Popcorn Guy hasn’t moved all the way to acceptance by the time he finishes his snack!

We’ve already catalogued the numbers on the last 30 years of blowouts, so now it’s time to look at its dramatic opposite: the nail-biter. For these purposes, we’re applying that term to any game decided by fewer than three points. Games with a higher point differential can still be nail-biters – the final score of the Kick Six was 34-28 – but these are the outcomes that unquestionably deserve the title. While blowouts per season have grown steadily over time, nail-biters are more like a stock you wasted your time investing in.

(A note: These statistics don’t include ties, which the NCAA eliminated after the 1995 regular season.)

With data combed from Sports Reference, let’s look at the overall team numbers since 1990:

Nail-biters in Aggregate, 1990-2019

School Nail-biters Won Nail-biters Lost Total Nail-biters Nail-biter Differential
School Nail-biters Won Nail-biters Lost Total Nail-biters Nail-biter Differential
Air Force 13 10 23 3
Akron 11 7 18 4
Alabama 6 14 20 -8
Appalachian State 4 3 7 1
Arizona 8 20 28 -12
Arizona State 10 16 26 -6
Arkansas 19 10 29 9
Arkansas State 8 8 16 0
Army 13 12 25 1
Auburn 14 9 23 5
Ball State 12 13 25 -1
Baylor 14 11 25 3
Boise State 7 8 15 -1
Boston College 13 13 26 0
Bowling Green State 10 9 19 1
Brigham Young 16 11 27 5
Buffalo 4 10 14 -6
Cal State Fullerton 1 1 2 0
California 20 13 33 7
Central Michigan 18 6 24 12
Charlotte 2 3 5 -1
Cincinnati 13 7 20 6
Clemson 13 9 22 4
Coastal Carolina 2 2 4 0
Colorado 14 7 21 7
Colorado State 18 8 26 10
Connecticut 6 6 12 0
Duke 8 18 26 -10
East Carolina 11 7 18 4
Eastern Michigan 7 14 21 -7
Florida 10 6 16 4
Florida Atlantic 8 9 17 -1
Florida International 8 5 13 3
Florida State 8 9 17 -1
Fresno State 13 19 32 -6
Georgia 16 11 27 5
Georgia Southern 3 2 5 1
Georgia State 2 2 4 0
Georgia Tech 12 10 22 2
Hawaii 12 9 21 3
Houston 11 8 19 3
Idaho 7 6 13 1
Illinois 10 9 19 1
Indiana 10 7 17 3
Iowa 16 15 31 1
Iowa State 13 12 25 1
Kansas 5 9 14 -4
Kansas State 12 11 23 1
Kent State 4 8 12 -4
Kentucky 11 9 20 2
Liberty 0 1 1 -1
Long Beach State 4 1 5 3
Louisiana 14 11 25 3
Louisiana Tech 11 15 26 -4
Louisiana-Monroe 12 16 28 -4
Louisville 10 8 18 2
LSU 15 16 31 -1
Marshall 9 11 20 -2
Maryland 13 11 24 2
Memphis 8 19 27 -11
Miami (FL) 16 5 21 11
Miami (OH) 11 12 23 -1
Michigan 11 17 28 -6
Michigan State 8 18 26 -10
Middle Tennessee State 11 8 19 3
Minnesota 12 14 26 -2
Mississippi State 10 16 26 -6
Missouri 6 9 15 -3
Navy 19 15 34 4
Nebraska 12 9 21 3
Nevada 8 13 21 -5
New Mexico 10 15 25 -5
New Mexico State 8 10 18 -2
North Carolina 13 16 29 -3
North Carolina State 15 10 25 5
North Texas 4 12 16 -8
Northern Illinois 12 11 23 1
Northwestern 21 15 36 6
Notre Dame 11 16 27 -5
Ohio 12 13 25 -1
Ohio State 10 2 12 8
Oklahoma 12 11 23 1
Oklahoma State 8 9 17 -1
Ole Miss 11 11 22 0
Oregon 17 7 24 10
Oregon State 10 13 23 -3
Pacific 1 2 3 -1
Penn State 12 13 25 -1
Pitt 7 16 23 -9
Purdue 9 16 25 -7
Rice 16 14 30 2
Rutgers 11 11 22 0
San Diego State 9 16 25 -7
San Jose State 10 10 20 0
SMU 6 10 16 -4
South Alabama 3 7 10 -4
South Carolina 12 12 24 0
South Florida 7 4 11 3
Southern Mississippi 15 14 29 1
Stanford 14 11 25 3
Syracuse 8 12 20 -4
Temple 9 10 19 -1
Tennessee 17 12 29 5
Texas 17 8 25 9
Texas A&M 11 15 26 -4
Texas Christian 18 10 28 8
Texas State 3 1 4 2
Texas Tech 7 12 19 -5
Toledo 10 11 21 -1
Troy 6 5 11 1
Tulane 12 9 21 3
Tulsa 8 9 17 -1
UAB 8 8 16 0
UCF 8 16 24 -8
UCLA 12 10 22 2
UNLV 11 9 20 2
USC 7 13 20 -6
Utah 12 12 24 0
Utah State 11 16 27 -5
UTEP 8 12 20 -4
UTSA 5 2 7 3
Vanderbilt 11 14 25 -3
Virginia 15 9 24 6
Virginia Tech 8 10 18 -2
Wake Forest 15 13 28 2
Washington 7 8 15 -1
Washington State 11 5 16 6
West Virginia 15 9 24 6
Western Kentucky 9 6 15 3
Western Michigan 11 6 17 5
Wisconsin 16 10 26 6
Wyoming 14 9 23 5

Northwestern’s the current leader in close games played, with 36 (21 wins, 15 losses). From 1990 through 2019, the Wildcats played 363 times. Imagine the experience of being a Northwestern fan over that stretch, with ten percent of your games coming down to the thinnest of margins. (This, of course, is why Pat Fitzgerald is known as America’s Greatest Showman.)

Arizona’s the most agonizing school to be a fan of, however. Those Wildcats lead all schools in nail-biters lost (20) and have the greatest disparity between close losses and close wins (-12). Of the schools on the list who have been FBS members for the entirety of the covered timespan, there’s a three-way tie for fewest nail-biters played, with Kent State, Ohio State, and Ole Miss at 12 each. When you think of peer football programs, those three go together perfectly, right? UPDATE: Of course I had the Ole Miss number in correct; they shouldn’t be on this list. It’s just Ohio State and Kent State, the two dominant programs of the last 30 years.

They all pale before the true masters of the close game, however. Central Michigan has the best spread of nail-biters won to nail-biters lost at plus-12. This is why we need the Chips and Northwestern to start an annual rivalry game. Their traveling trophy will be the Bronze Hourglass With One Grain Of Sand Left In It.

Now, let’s look at some of the single-season nail-bitin’ notables.

MOST NAIL-BITERS WON IN ONE YEAR: Five, by 2007 Virginia. The ‘07 Cavaliers started October with three wins on margins smaller than a field goal, over MTSU, UConn, and Maryland. Throw in a one-point victory over Wake Forest and a 22-20 final against UNC, and you have the most accomplished season of blade-dodging in recent college football history.

MOST NAIL-BITERS LOST IN ONE YEAR: Four, by 2013 South Alabama. The Jaguars opened the season with a one-point loss to FCS Southern Utah and later fell just short against Troy, Texas State, and Arkansas State. But they still managed to finish 6-6 in just the program’s fifth year of existence and second season in FBS. USA and Virginia share the record for most nail-biters played in a year (not including ties) at five games.

Finally, here are the nine matchups with at least five games decided by fewer than three points since 1990. The team listed first for each matchup is Team 1:

Frequent Nail-biter Matchups, 1990-2019

Matchup Nail-biters Played Team 1 Wins Team 2 Wins
Matchup Nail-biters Played Team 1 Wins Team 2 Wins
Army-Navy 6 5 1
Duke-UNC 6 4 2
Florida-Tennessee 6 4 2
FSU-Miami 6 4 2
Kentucky-Mississippi State 6 4 2
Ball State-Central Michigan 5 2 3
Boston College-Notre Dame 5 4 1
Colorado State-New Mexico 5 2 3
Duke-Wake Forest 5 0 5

Please note: “close” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” or “interesting.” Sometimes it’s “two winded stormtroopers hurling half-eaten dinner rolls at one another from far away on a windy afternoon.”

[sighs deeply] Both stormtroopers played hard.