Forty names, games, teams, and minutiae making headlines in college football (confetti sold separately at Clemson, to celebrate finally scoring more than 20 rule points):
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THIRD QUARTER: FOURTH DECISIONS BELOW, AND EVERYTHING THAT IS SUPPORTED BY THEM
Lane Kiffin (21 years old) he doesn’t like kickers. He’s an analytic believer who hates to clear and disdains field goals when the numbers say we do, which is why his teams annually rank at the top or near the top in fourth-down conversion attempts. Over the past five seasons, three at Florida Atlantic and two at Mississippi, Kiffin chased him fourth down an average of 2.8 times per game in 2017; 3.7 in ’18; 1.6 in ’19 (your analytical chart must have been missing that year); 3.3 last year; and 4.3 times the nation’s leader this season to date. If Ole Miss maintains that pace four or more times per game, it will be the highest average since at least 2008 and probably long before, perhaps decades ago.
Most of the time it’s working, and the Rebels make 70.6% of those fourth attempts. But in the middle of a great SEC West game in Brown (22) On Saturday, Kiffin’s go-for-it mentality sparked a series of failures. Three times in the Red Zone, Kiffin chose not to kick field goals and instead try first and ten. All three failed, in a game the rebels lost by 11 points. Ole Miss was 1-for-4 for the fourth down that night.
“You can sit here and say we should have kicked field goals, but we did a lot of those (in previous games),” Kiffin said afterward. “Converted more than anyone else in the country. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. “
The problem for Kiffin is that when it doesn’t work, the rebels lose. The two games this season in which they have made less than 50% of their fourth downs are their two losses, to Auburn and Alabama (2 of 5). It’s one thing to dial fourth-down calls against Austin Peay (4 of 6) or Tulane (5 of 5), but another thing to do it against the SEC’s main competition. Analytics works well in a vacuum, but needs to be weighed with a certain sense of the moment: time, score, opponent, and here’s an important one, your team’s health.
Kiffin acknowledged after the Auburn game that “(our) quarterback is limping and (our) receivers are hurt.” So maybe that’s not the time to look for a quarter-seven from the Auburn 13, with eight in the third quarter.
Regardless, Kiffin is leading the wave of coaches who are more willing to do it and less willing to send punters and kickers on fourth down. The college game is becoming less risk averse and more aggressive. Some numbers fourth down (23):
In 2017, the average team was in fourth place, 1.59 times per game, with a 51.8% success rate. In 2018, those numbers climbed to 1.69 and 53.4%. In 2019, attempts increased slightly again (1.67) while success decreased slightly (52.9%). Then 2020 came, and it seems kind of pandemic spirit YOLO (24) dominated the sport – attempts skyrocketed to 1.85 per game, with a 55.5% success rate. (Or maybe the coaches spent the gloomy downtime of the lockdown studying and adopting analytics that claim to clear less and do more.) To date this season, teams are averaging 1.75 attempts and converting 54.3% of the time.
In the Red Zone, teams are attempting field goals on 25.3% of their possessions. That’s down from 25.7% last year and 26.8% in 2019. Analytics give coaches more coverage for scoring touchdowns, and fans are more willing to embrace their teams’ spirit of the game than in the past. as long as it works.
After Ole Miss, these are the top two teams in most fourth-down attempts:
Tulane (25): 31 attempts, 16 conversions. Success rate: 51.6%. The Green Wave 1-7 has spent most of the season playing from behind, which is a good way to increase their number of bets on fourth down. The same goes for having a defense that yields 40.9 points per game – punt to get that unit back on the field is not an appetizing proposition.
UCLA (26): 29 attempts, 20 conversions. Success rate: 69%. More than half of those 29 attempts came in the last two games, as the Bruins tried to come back in losses to Oregon and Utah. And like Tulane, UCLA doesn’t have the most reliable defense.
The two teams with the fewest number of fourth-down attempts:
State of Mississippi (27): four attempts, two conversions. Success rate: 50%. Three of the four times Mike Leach has gone for it in fourth place, the distance needed was two yards or less. The fourth time was a quarter and 7 from the opponent’s 39 yard, which the Bulldogs converted to keep a touchdown series alive in the second half of a major victory over North Carolina state.
Minnesota (28): four attempts, three conversions. Success rate: 75%. PJ Fleck hasn’t gone for fourth down attempts this season other than fourth and one. All of his successes were notable, especially going within his own 30s in the season opener against Ohio State: Mohamed Ibrahim broke a 56-yard run that led to the Gophers’ first touchdown, on his way to a lead at the halftime. But when Fleck attempted the exact same scenario (with a different back) against Bowling Green, the result was a five-yard loss that set up the Falcons’ first touchdown in a monumental 14-10 upset. If Fleck has to do that again and kicks the ball, Minnesota could very well be 7-1 and rank in the top 15.
And the least successful fourth-chance teams:
Iowa (29): nine attempts, two conversions. The Hawkeyes have missed their last five attempts, the most recent making one on Sept. 18 against Kent State. After a brief wave of fourth-chance adventurers from 2017 to ’19, Kirk Ferentz is back in his happy place of punt this year and last. Iowa ranks sixth nationally in most punts per game at 6.3.
Clemson (30): five attempts, one conversion. After four previous failures, the Tigers converted their first and final fourth attempts of the season against Syracuse on October 15, into a false punt that kept a touchdown series alive in what turned out to be a three-point Clemson victory. . The Tigers’ abysmal offense doesn’t have a fourth-down conversion under its belt this season. Clemson hasn’t had a season converting less than 50% of his fourth down attempts since 2014, which is also the last time he didn’t win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.