When Texas lost to Iowa State by three points the day after Thanksgiving, Tom Herman’s record in one-score games as coach of the Longhorns dropped to 14-13. If that strikes you as a shitload of close outcomes for a tenure that’s not even completed four seasons, your instincts are well-honed. No other program in the Big 12 has played that many single-score games since 2017, and only one FBS team surpasses the Longhorns: Eastern Michigan, who’s played 28 of them.
Few of those Texas games were statistical flukes, where the game was actually well in hand but a late score technically nudged the final margin into close territory. In ten of those 13 losses, including the Iowa State game, the Longhorns had the lead at some point in the fourth quarter. In seven of the wins, Texas was either tied or trailed in the last fifteen minutes of the game. Pretty much any time Herman’s Longhorns take the field, they are likely in for a full 12 rounds, no matter the opponent.
In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with winning close games. Six Minnesota victories in 2019 were decided by one score, and the Gophers finished with 11 wins for the first time in over a century. Stanford finished with eight one-score wins in 2012, when they claimed the program’s first Rose Bowl title since 1971. 2010 Auburn and 2016 Clemson both wound up with national titles thanks, in part, to winning seven close games on the way.
But Texas plays so many of these that they inevitably include close finishes over schools the Longhorns should easily dispatch. For every close battle Herman has had with Oklahoma – four of his five showdowns with the Sooners have been decided by one score – he’s also gifted Texas fans and boosters a two-point win over Kansas, or a five-point win over a down Kansas State, or a two-point loss to TCU, or a four-point loss to Texas Tech, or a five-point loss to Maryland. (To be fair, that was at least an improvement over the ten-point loss to Maryland the year before.)
This is not the experience supporters of a traditional power sign up for. But I think what it actually reveals is a different deficiency in the Herman era: the absolute lack of beatdowns delivered.
Though we’ve previously defined a blowout as a game decided by at least 35 points, let’s lower the bar quite a bit and just call it a win by 20+. Texas has eight wins that fit that definition under Tom Herman. Only four of those came against Power 5 opponents, and only two came in conference play. How’s that look compared to the other teams in the Big 12?
Not technically worst, since Kansas doesn’t even make it on this chart, though if “less sad than the Jayhawks” is a key point on your performance review, you are not likely to be the head coach at Texas for long.
Those blowout victories provide a jolt of confidence to the fanbase, creating the sensation of a program on the rise. Take Michigan, where meaty wins over Indiana* and Rutgers and Michigan State** get turned into expectations of change and growth. Sure, those expectations are quickly extinguished by Ohio State and whoever the Wolverines play in their bowl game, but they exist for a while. A coach cannot survive on lopsided matchups alone; without those blowouts, however, he has significantly less emotional capital saved up for lean times.
That’s what really makes the abundance of close games so tricky. Herman’s never lost to Kansas State (which isn’t a guaranteed win for Texas), but he also hasn’t put the hammer down on the Wildcats. The close wins over teams that don’t recruit on the same level of Texas or have the same embarrassment of riches are all missed opportunities to show that the distance between the Longhorns and the hoi polloi of the Big 12 is significant, and growing larger all the time. In reality, those narrow victories show the opposite is true.
It’s easy (and accurate) to say that the plan when Texas hired Herman wasn’t to get to year four and lose to Iowa State and TCU, by five points or by fifty. But the powers-that-be also probably didn’t see close wins over Texas Tech and West Virginia as accomplishments to strive for, either. Right now, that’s the best Herman’s been able to give them.
* not this year
** also not this year