While we're all gripped by expansion talk, Phil Steele is sitting in a dark room in Cleveland, surrounded by 16 televisions while banging away on a keyboard. His latest post takes a look at what he's calling the "Close Loss Factor". He points to an Alabama team that entered 2008 with just 12 starters returning from a 7–6 season:
Alabama amazingly went 12-0 and was ranked #1 in the country at the end of the regular season. They had two MAIN factors in their favor that year. Both their offensive and defensive lines made my Top Units List in the front of the magazine and if you are strong along the line of scrimmage you can control many games. Another factor was that they were much better than a 7-6 team in 2007 as all 6 of their losses in ‘07 were by 7 or less points so they were just a handful of plays away from being 13-0.
Iowa fit that profile heading into last season and we all know how that worked out. There's a torrent out there of an overtime nail-biter in Columbus if you need a reminder.
So what teams are poised for similar breakthroughs this fall?
This year there are three teams that suffered three or more losses last year with none of them by more than seven. They are Notre Dame (6), Connecticut (5) and Pittsburgh (3). Alabama really pushed the envelope in 2008 with 6 close losses, so can new HC Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish do the same in 2010? They do have a favorable schedule with only three true road games and Kelly is the first coach in the history of my magazine to have his team finisher higher than I projected in six straight years (incl 3 conf titles).
I've been begrudgingly high on the Kelly hire since it was announced. The guy has won everywhere he's been and there's no doubt he'll be able to do the same at Notre Dame. Phil's insights only solidify this line of thinking, especially when you consider Irish coaches of late have benefited from first-year bounces: Willingham was 10-3 in 2002 and Weiss was 9-3 in 2005. This is a good thing, because even while still independent, a strong Notre Dame is good for the Big Ten.
It's also interesting that Connecticut makes his list. If you're counting, two of the three teams he expects to significantly upgrade their win totals face Michigan this season.