Illinois' seven-win turnaround, from 2-10 to 9-4, was the surprise of last season, but maybe observers should have seen it coming.
The slimmest of margins made Ron Zook's 2006 team the Big Ten cellar-dweller. A touchdown here or defensive stop there was the difference between Illinois winning two games or going to a bowl. Zook's 2006 Illini went 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less. A more seasoned and hardened Illinois team went 3-2 in those types of games last season and ended up in the Rose Bowl.
Kansas, too, turned deflating losses in 2006 into big wins in '07. The Jayhawks were 6-6 in '06, with four of those losses decided by a touchdown. Last season, Kansas won four games decided by one possession on its way to the Orange Bowl.
How much is that experience in tight spots worth? Ask Zook's former team, Florida. In their national-championship season in '06, the Gators won all five of their games decided by one score. With a young defense and a new starting quarterback, Florida went 9-4 last season – but 2-3 in games decided by one possession.
Who could be this season's Illinois or Kansas? Rivals.com takes a look at teams that lived on the edge last season and what it could – emphasis on the could – mean for 2008:
LUCK IS TURNING: North Carolina (4-8 overall, 3-5 in the ACC) looks similar to Illinois. As with Zook, Butch Davis restocked a fading program with talent. With that raw talent, the Tar Heels went 3-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less last season, when 11 freshmen and sophomores started at least seven games. A year of experience could turn that record around and return North Carolina to a bowl.
LUCK IS TURNING: Maryland (6-7, 3-5) loses two productive running backs and linebacker Erin Henderson, but still returns 15 starters on a team that lost five games by eight or fewer points.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: No team lived on the edge quite like Virginia (9-4, 6-2). The Cavaliers won three games by a point and two more by two points. Chris Long, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, probably was worth more than seven points over the course of five games. If that's not enough, starting quarterback Jameel Sewell is academically ineligible this season.
LUCK IS TURNING: Pittsburgh (5-7, 3-5) finally squeezed out a close victory against a top opponent with a 13-9 win at West Virginia in the final week of the season. Six of the Panthers' final seven games were decided by a touchdown or less, with Pitt winning three of them.
LUCK IS TURNING: If Louisville (6-6, 3-4) could just have managed a defensive stop here or there, the Cardinals would have been bowl-bound. They were 3-5 in games decided by single digits.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Connecticut (9-4, 5-2) was the surprise co-champ of the league last season, but the Huskies ended the season with a thud. UConn lost three of its last four, defeating only Syracuse. Those losses came by an average of nearly four touchdowns each.
LUCK IS TURNING: The conference schedule is backloaded and the season begins at California for Michigan State (7-6, 3-5), but the Spartans are poised for another leap forward. Mark Dantonio led Michigan State to a three-win turnaround in his first season, but it could have been more. All of the Spartans' losses in 2007 were by a touchdown or less.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Illinois (9-4, 6-2) was a textbook example of a team that, in coach-speak, "learned how to win." The Illini went 3-2 in games decided by a TD or less before being overwhelmed by USC 49-17 in the Rose Bowl.
LUCK IS TURNING: Colorado had a four-win turnaround last season, but there's still room for more of Dan Hawkins' optimism. Three of the Buffaloes' last four losses were by six points or less, though one of those came to Iowa State a week after losing 55-10 to Missouri.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Texas (10-3, 5-3) won three games by a field goal, and tailback Jamaal Charles had monster fourth quarters in two of those. Now, Charles is gone and new coordinator Will Muschamp looks to repair a defense that allowed at least 34 points in each of the last four games.
LUCK IS TURNING: Washington (4-9, 2-7) had its ups and downs in the first season as a starter for quarterback Jake Locker. The Huskies lost nine of their last 11 games but managed to show improvement. Their last four losses, though, were by a touchdown or less. They also lost a 27-24 nail-biter to USC. Behind a maturing Locker and new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, Washington hopes to reverse its luck.
LUCK IS TURNING: Arizona (5-7, 4-5) won three of its last four. Its last three losses came by seven, one and three points. But with only two returning starters on defense, that might be as good as it gets.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Everything at California (7-6, 3-6) depends on how its backfield gets sorted out. The Bears played with fire in the second half of the season last year, and lost six of their last seven games in the regular season, including going 1-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less over that span. A 42-36 win over Air Force in the bowl game was encouraging, though.
LUCK IS TURNING: The numbers might be on Nick Saban's side. All of Alabama's losses – six of them – came by a touchdown or less. And there were signs of hope in the bowl game: After losing the last four games of the regular season by an average of 6.5 points, the Crimson Tide beat Colorado 30-24 in the Independence Bowl.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: LSU (12-2, 7-2) will be hard-pressed to defend its national title, especially after dismissing quarterback Ryan Perrilloux. The Tigers won four games by a touchdown or less. In situations like that, an experienced quarterback can make the difference, especially in an SEC road game.
LUCK IS TURNING: June Jones already holds the Division I-A record for best single-season coaching turnaround in NCAA history by improving Hawaii from 0-12 to 9-4 in 1999. SMU (1-11, 0-8) is ripe for that type of improvement. Five of the Mustangs' last eight games were lost by a touchdown or less. SMU also lost all three of its overtime games.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Memphis went from 2-10 in 2006 to 7-6 and a New Orleans Bowl bid last season, but it could be back to earth for the Tigers. Memphis went 5-2 in games decided by less than a touchdown, but lost a senior quarterback and running back.
LUCK IS TURNING: During a five-game stretch, Western Michigan (5-7, 3-4) lost three games by four points or less, including a 34-31 loss to MAC champion Central Michigan and a 37-34 setback to bowl-bound Ball State. The Broncos showed signs of turning those fortunes around by knocking Iowa out of a postseason bid with a 28-19 upset in Iowa City. With 17 returning starters, Western Michigan – which could have 11 senior starters on defense – is poised to rebound.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Miami (6-7, 5-3) missed out on a bowl bid but still won the MAC East. All but one of the RedHawks' wins were by a touchdown or less.
LUCK IS TURNING: TCU (8-5, 4-4) is due to return to double-digit wins. All four of the Horned Frogs' conference losses were by a touchdown or less. TCU was in the top four of most offensive and defensive categories in the league but ranked next-to-last in the Mountain West in turnover margin. With sophomore Andy Dalton entering his second year as a starter, that number could improve along with TCU's victory total.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: New Mexico (9-4, 5-3) won four games by a field goal or less, and only nine players who started at least seven games return.
LUCK IS TURNING: Western Kentucky (7-5) isn't a full-fledged member of the Sun Belt – that comes in 2009 – but the Hilltoppers are poised to be competitive against league foes. WKU went 1-2 against league opponents last season, with each game decided by four points or less. Western Kentucky finishes 2008 with five consecutive games against the Sun Belt, and three of those are at home.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Louisiana-Monroe (6-6, 4-3) provided one of the Sun Belt's highlights last season with a 21-14 stunner at Alabama on Nov. 17. The Warhawks defeated conference champion FAU, the Tide and Louisiana-Lafayette on the road – all by a touchdown or less. But they must replace 1,000-yard back Calvin Dawson.
LUCK IS TURNING: Nevada (6-7, 4-4) went 3-4 in games decided by one possession, including a four-overtime loss to Boise State and a two-point loss to WAC champ Hawaii. All that happened as redshirt freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick was forced into starting duty.
LUCK IS RUNNING OUT: Hawaii (12-1, 8-0) lost its coach and the bulk of the nation's top offense. After going 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown last season, Hawaii's fortunes appear likely to turn in 2008.