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The unlikeliest wins of the 2021 college football season

We studied all 894 FBS games in the 2021 season. These teams best snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

All season long, I tracked five box score statistics to see how often they correlated with winning. After falling off during the head coaching carousel, we're now all caught up. Eight hundred ninety-four games have been tracked, analyzed and catalogued. 

I did this for a couple reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to see which of our five stats most often correlated with victory (duh). I also wanted to see how often teams won all five statistics, because at some point some team would lose all five statistics but win the game anyway. With how wacky, how wild, how unpredictable this game is, surely some college football team would find a way to win despite being out-rushed and out-passed, despite not scoring first and trailing at halftime, and despite generating more giveaways than takeaways.

It didn't happen.

Teams pulled a quinfecta -- winning all five stats -- 146 times in 2021. Those 146 teams went 146-0, winning by an average of 42-11. 

But that's not to say it didn't almost happen.

Here are the five unlikeliest wins of the season, according to Winning Box Scores:

5. Purdue 28, Nebraska 23 (Oct. 30)

You can't write about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory without mentioning Nebraska. In a season where the Huskers managed to go 1-8 in Big Ten play despite scoring as many points as they allowed, the Purdue game was their masterpiece. They scored first. They led at halftime. They won passing, 269-233. They won rushing, 130-116. Yet they lost turnovers, 4-0, and so they lost the game, 28-23.

4. San Jose State 17, Hawaii 13 (Sept. 18)

The Rainbow Warriors out-passed the Spartans by seven yards and more than doubled them on the ground (127-56). They won turnovers and scored first. So how'd they end up here? One, San Jose State did most of its damage in the second quarter, turning a 7-0 deficit into a 14-7 lead, giving SJSU its only win among our five metrics. Two, Hawaii settled for two field goals inside the 10-yard line. And three, Hawaii's lone turnover was ill-timed, fumbling at their own 20 with under five minutes to play. That allowed SJSU to push their lead to 17-13, forcing Hawaii to throw for the end zone instead of kicking a game-winning field goal at the SJSU 21-yard line as time expired. 

3. Ohio State 48, Utah 45 (Jan. 1)

The Utes led by two touchdowns after the first and second quarters. They doubled the Buckeyes in takeaways, 2-1, and in rushing, 226-110. It took Jaxon Smith-Njigba setting a bowl game record with 347 receiving yards to keep Utah out of the win column.

2. Kentucky 20, Florida 13 (Oct. 2)

Kentucky did not win a single category. They were out-gained by 158 yards, traied 10-7 at the half, while giving and taking one turnover. So how'd they win? By blocking a Florida field goal and returning it 76 yards for a touchdown. 

1. Kansas State 25, Texas Tech 24 (Oct. 16)

This was the game that got Matt Wells fired. The Red Raiders led 14-0 after one and 24-10 at the half. They out-rushed the Wildcats by 99 yards. They recovered two fumbles, besting the one interception thrown. But it still wasn't enough. K-State QB Skylar Thompson went 24-of-30 for 306 yards and a touchdown, and the Tech offense went dormant after halftime; not only were they shutout, they generated two points for K-State in what ultimately proved to be a 1-point loss. 

And some honorable mentions:

South Carolina 20, East Carolina 17 (Sept. 11)

The Gamecocks out-passed the Pirates 225-152, but they lost everywhere else -- they were out-rushed 116-100, they lost the turnover battle 3-2, they trailed 14-7 at the half, and they even allowed a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game. But they won because they made more out of their two takeaways than ECU did in their three; a 63-yard Damani Staley pick-six provided the winning margin.

TCU 34, Cal 32 (Sept. 11)

Cal led 6-0 after one and 20-14 at the half. They secured the game's only turnover and even turned it into points, a pick-six that grew their advantage to 12-0 early in the second quarter. The Bears also out-passed the Frogs, but they couldn't stop the TCU ground game. Zach Evans and Max Duggan's 261 yards and two touchdowns bettered Cal's 133 yards, giving air supply to TCU's comeback.

Cincinnati 38, Indiana 24 (Sept. 18)

Cincinnati became the first Group of 5 to make the Playoff; Indiana became the first preseason AP Top 25 team in 50 years to finish with two wins, and it all turned here. Indiana out-gained Cincinnati on the ground and through the air, led 7-0 after one and 14-10 at the half, but committed four turnovers (to UC's two) and surrendered a kickoff return touchdown. 

Baylor 31, Iowa State 29 (Sept. 25)

Baylor was out-gained by nearly 200 yards and played to a draw in takeaways (1-1) but won because Iowa State couldn't finish drives (four field goal attempts) and because the Bears produced 10 points from their return game.

Wyoming 24, UConn 22 (Sept. 25)

The only box Wyoming checked was rushing (203-110 in their favor), and they even committed 10 penalties for 99 yards. It was still enough to beat UConn. 

The Texas losing streak

You may have heard Texas dropped six straight games during the season's stretch run, their longest losing skid in nearly 60 years. Even more unlikely than the streak's happening was the manner in which it unfolded.

The 'Horns played West Virginia and Kansas entirely from behind. In the 120-plus minutes of those two games, the Longhorns led for five plays -- the top of the first overtime, before Kansas went for two and the win. (Kansas beat Texas. In football.)

But before that, Texas was on the right side of the most important statistic among our five, and lost four straight times.

-- They led Oklahoma by 18 with 2:45 to play in the third quarter, and lost.
-- They led Oklahoma State by 11 with 11:43 to play in the third quarter, and lost.
-- They led Baylor by 11 with 8:49 to play in the third quarter, and lost.
-- They led Iowa State by four at the half, and lost. By 23. 

Three of those teams finished the season in the AP Top 10. 

Teams that led at the half won more than 80 percent of the time, the highest number of our five metrics. The Longhorns managed to be on the wrong side of their 4-in-5 odds four times in a row. 

Louisiana's.... general deal.

The Ragin Cajuns enter 2022 with the longest winning streak in college football, at 13 games. They'll also bring the nation's longest quinfecta streak -- the Cajuns went 5-for-5 in their New Orleans Bowl win over Marshall, in the Sun Belt Championship against App State, and in their rivalry game against ULM. Pure dominance, right? Sort of.

Teams that went 5-for-5 won by an average of 31 points, but the Cajuns won those three games by 28 points combined. 

The Cajuns also went 1-for-5 in a 21-17 win over Georgia State on Nov. 4. 

Without further ado, here are the final Winning Box Scores numbers for 2021:

-- Rush for more yards: 687-195 (.779)
-- Pass for more yards: 515-367 (.584)
-- Score first: 619-275 (.692)
-- Lead at halftime: 703-136 (.807)
-- Win turnovers: 507-147 (.775)
-- Win all five: 146-0 (1.000)

And, finally, we'll close with the greatest object of our morbid fascination in 2021 -- the Arkansas State running game. 

If nothing else, we confirmed just how incredibly hard it is to win if you're losing on the ground, if you're trailing at halftime, and if you're losing turnovers. Arkansas State managed to lose on the ground unlike any team in recent memory. The Red Wolves finished third-to-last in rushing offense (82.42 yards per game), second to last in yards per carry (2.83), and dead last in rushing defense (261.1 yards per game) and yards per carry allowed (6.42). 

Here's to some better box scores in 2022.