Success on 4th down brings national renown

Last year, I wrote this before the season began:

I believe fourth down is underutilized in college football. Too many times, a team punts when going for it is the proper call.

It goes deeper than that, though. The best way to approach most offensive possessions, especially those that begin less than 70 yards from the end zone, is to assume that the offense is already in “four-down territory”.

Doing so means a team can be more creative with offensive playcalling. For a team like The Citadel, that can really open up the playbook.

In general, I was more than satisfied with Brent Thompson’s approach on fourth down in 2018. In eleven games, The Citadel went for it on 4th down 38 times, which was third-most in all of FCS. The Bulldogs were successful 23 times, for a better-than-average 60.5% (the mean for FCS teams last year was 47.2%). Among teams in the sub-division, only Southern Utah converted more often on 4th down than The Citadel.

Those were statistics that I covered earlier, in one of my many (way too many) statistically-oriented posts. What I would like to do with this particular post, though, is to illustrate the “power” of 4th down by taking a long look at one of the more amazing seasons in recent years from the perspective of fourth down conversions. I’m talking about last year’s Army team.

A quick summary of the Black Knights’ campaign: an 11-2 record, with one of the two defeats an overtime loss at Oklahoma. The victories included a sweep of Navy and Air Force and four other wins over bowl teams, the last of those a 70-14 destruction of Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The schedule also had some soft spots (two FCS teams, a brand-new-to-FBS Liberty squad, and 1-11 San Jose State), but it was nevertheless a very impressive campaign, and one that featured a fourth-down philosophy based on analytical research:

The analytics come in mostly on fourth-down decisions. Army is among dozens of Division I football schools that subscribe to Championship Analytics, which provides weekly customized statistical breakdowns for each team based on opponent, with recommendations on when to kick, go on fourth down, go for 2 and more.

“I’m not a math guy,” [said Army head football coach Jeff Monken]. “I’m not an analytical thinker. I’m a PE major and proud of it.”

But when presented with the statistics that showed Army should be more aggressive on fourth down, Monken quickly embraced a by-the-numbers approach.

“It made way too much sense to me to argue with,” he said, adding. “I think it really fits what we do.”

Before discussing Army’s 4th-down decision-making and success rate, it is well worth mentioning the Black Knights’ 3rd-down statistics last season, which were outstanding on both sides of the ball. 

On offense, Army was 112 for 196 (57.14%) on 3rd down in 2018, best in all of D-1. It helped that the Cadets only needed on average 5.4 yards to go on third down, which ranked first in FBS. 

Defensively, Army held opponents to a 3rd-down conversion rate of 26.56%, fourth-best in FBS. Third-down success was based on what happened on the first two downs, as Army’s opponents averaged 8.4 yards to go on third down — and yes, that was the highest yards-to-go average for any defense in the sub-division.

Thus, the Black Knights’ enormous time of possession advantage (holding the ball for 38:33 per game, by far tops in D-1) wasn’t strictly because of its ball-control offense. The defense also contributed by forcing 4th downs and getting off the field.

There is a reason why Mack Brown, the new-old coach at North Carolina, hired Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman to become the new DC for the Tar Heels.

Now, that is what Army did on third down. However, the Black Knights weren’t automatically lining up in punt formation if they failed to convert on 3rd down. Far from it.

Army failed to gain a first down (or touchdown) on 84 of its 196 3rd-down attempts last season. So what did it do on the next play? Here is the breakdown:

  • 3 times: There was no next play, because Army turned the ball over on 3rd down (two interceptions and a lost fumble)
  • 12 times: Army tried a field goal (making 8 of them)
  • 33 times: Army punted
  • 36 times: Army went for it on 4th down

Yes, the Black Knights had more 4th-down attempts than punts. How unusual was that? Well, Army was the only FBS team to go for it more often than punt (two FCS squads, Davidson and Kennesaw State, also did this).

Georgia Tech came close (35 punts, 34 fourth-down attempts), and so did Florida Atlantic (+2) and Air Force (+4). On the FCS side of the ledger, The Citadel’s +14 (52 punts, 38 fourth-down attempts) ranked 8th overall in this particular “Punts vs. 4th down attempts” category, one that frankly I just made up because I thought it was interesting.

Florida Atlantic actually led FBS in 4th-down conversion attempts, with 44 (the Owls were successful 24 times). FAU was 5-7 last season, which raises the possibility that part of the reason Lane Kiffin went for it on 4th down so often was because his team was trailing at the time.

However, Florida Atlantic also led FBS in 4th-down conversion attempts in 2017 (39, tied with Northwestern). The Owls won 11 games that season, so being aggressive on 4th down appears to be a consistent strategy for Kiffin. The teams that are most likely to go for it on 4th down are generally option outfits, so in that respect FAU has been a bit of an outlier over the last two seasons.

Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech led the ACC in terms of being most aggressive on 4th down (Boston College was second). The SEC team most likely to go for it on 4th down last year was South Carolina, which was a return to form of sorts for the Gamecocks (which led the conference in this area in 2011, 2013, and 2014, albeit under a different coaching staff).

Teams that were more likely to punt (or attempt a field goal) than go for it included Fresno State, LSU, Utah State, Texas A&M (Jimbo Fisher has historically been very conservative in his decision-making), Central Michigan, and Maryland. Another team that did not go for it on fourth down as often as might have been anticipated: Georgia Southern.

The most incredible thing about Army and 4th down last year wasn’t the amount of attempts, though. It was the number of successful conversions. The Black Knights were 31 for 36 on 4th down, an astonishing 86% success rate that topped all of FBS. 

Nobody else in the country came close to combining such a high volume of attempts with that type of success. For example, Texas converted 80% of its 4th-down tries, second-best nationally by percentage, but only attempted 15 of them all season.

If you add those 31 successful 4th down plays to Army’s already impressive 3rd-down numbers, you get a 3rd-4th down “combination conversion” rate of 73%, which is A) a stat I may have just created, and B) simply ridiculous. 

One reason Army was so good on 4th down is that it often did not have far to go for a first down. Of the Black Knights’ 36 attempts, 28 of them were 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2 plays. Army was 25 for 28 in those down-and-distance situations.

The yards-to-go statistic on third down (5.4) I mentioned earlier in this post had a lot to do with that. Army set up a lot of short 4th-down plays by what it did on 3rd down.

What the Black Knights didn’t do quite as successfully, though, was get well ahead of the chains on first down (only 5.3 yards per play on 1st down, 101st in FBS). This was your classic “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, except that Army played most of its games on artificial turf. Big plays were not a regular staple of the attack.

Below is a chart of all 81 of Army’s 4th-down decisions from last season.

  • # = 4th down situations
  • P = punts
  • FGC = made field goals
  • FGX = missed field goals
  • C = successful 4th-down conversion attempts
  • X = failed 4th-down conversion attempts

Army 2018          #          P        FGC        FGX         C         X
    4th and
1 25 2 0 0 21 2
2 5 0 0 0 4 1
3 9 5 2 0 2 0
4 5 4 0 0 1 0
5 4 1 0 2 1 0
6 4 2 2 0 0 0
7 5 3 1 0 0 1
8 3 1 1 0 1 0
9 6 4 0 1 0 1
10 2 2 0 0 0 0
11 2 2 0 0 0 0
12 4 3 1 0 0 0
13 1 0 0 0 1 0
14+ 6 4 1 1 0 0
Total 81 33 8 4 31 5

As you can see, Army only punted on 4th-and-1 twice last year. The circumstances that led to those punts were quite similar:

– Against Air Force, Army faced a 4th-and-1 on its own 41-yard line. The Black Knights led 14-0 at the time, and it was early in the third quarter.

– Against Navy, Army faced a 4th-and-1 on its own 12-yard line. The Black Knights led 10-0 at the time, and it was early in the fourth quarter.

In both games Army was up two scores, playing a rival, and there were a limited amount of possessions in each contest (due to the nature of the offenses). Thus, on both occasions, Jeff Monken elected to punt. This certainly made sense, particularly in the Navy game, when Army was backed up to its own 12. 

As it happened, Navy actually scored a touchdown on its ensuing series, so that decision to punt didn’t really work out for the Black Knights.

Incidentally, in both situations, Army faced a 3rd-and-6, gained five yards to set up a 4th-and-1, and then punted.

Army went for it all five times it had a 4th-and-2, making four of them. The one failure came against the Midshipmen, when a rush attempt at the Navy 43-yard line only resulted in a one-yard gain.

There was more variety on 4th-and-3. Five of the nine times Army faced that down-and-distance situation, it punted. The Black Knights also attempted two field goals (going 2-for-2), and went for it twice (succeeding both times).

Army led by at least a touchdown all five times it punted on 4th-and-3. The Black Knights also led by at least 7 points all four times it punted on 4th-and-4, and led by a TD the one time it punted on 4th-and-5.

The line of scrimmage for the four times Army went for it on 4th-and-3, 4th-and-4, or 4th-and-5:  its own 32, the opposition 47, the opposition 28, and the opposition 26. The Black Knights averaged 22.25 yards on those four plays (with one TD). 

That 4th-down play on its own 32 came in the season opener at Duke. Trailing 31-14 in the fourth quarter, Army gained 13 yards on 4th-and-3. This could be considered more of a “desperation” decision, as opposed to most of the other down-and-distance calls Monken made during the campaign.

I also decided to see how many yards Army gained on its successful 4th-and-1 and 4th-and-2 plays, just to see how many “explosive” plays the Black Knights garnered. There were not a lot (although the 52-yard gain against Air Force came in handy, as the Cadets scored on the next play):

  • 4th-and-1, opp 35: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, own 34: 3 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 21: 4 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 8: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 34: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 49: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, opp 15: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-2, opp 46: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 46: 14 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 10: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 32: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-2, opp 2: 2 yards (TD)
  • 4th-and-2, opp 9: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 42: 52 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 49: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-2, opp 32: 7 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 34: 14 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 25: 5 yards
  • 4th-and-1, own 17: 3 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 27: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 2: 2 yards (TD)
  • 4th-and-1, opp 31: 1 yard
  • 4th-and-1, own 44: 5 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 14: 2 yards
  • 4th-and-1, opp 35: 3 yards

That 4th-and-1 play from its own 17-yard line came at Buffalo, with 1:05 remaining in the first half and Army leading 21-7.

What Monken and Army did last season may start to become a trend. This statistic was published following last year’s regular season (but prior to the bowl games):

Teams are going for it on fourth down an average of 1.683 times per game during the 2018 season, which is by far the highest rate over the last 10 years. Overall, it’s a 22.8 percent increase from the 2009 season when teams went for it on fourth down 1.371 times per game.

Of course, that average doesn’t apply evenly to teams. Army went for it on fourth down 2.769 times per game, which is obviously higher than average — but even higher when considering the percentage of fourth downs faced, because of the way the Black Knights limited possessions. Army went for it 44.4% of the time on fourth down.

This interactive chart includes similar numbers for all of the FBS teams. It’s a very interesting (and well-constructed) graphic.

(Of note, there is a small error in its stats for Army; I believe that is because a field goal attempted on 3rd down at the end of the first half against Liberty was counted as a 4th down situation.)

That graphic accompanies this solid article focusing on Washington State’s 4th-down tendencies under Mike Leach.

The Citadel went for it on fourth down 36.9% of the time on fourth down last season. That was the second-highest rate in the SoCon, behind only VMI (39.5%).

Davidson went for it 55.6% of the time, by a wide margin the highest percentage in D-1. Kennesaw State ranked 2nd in FCS (43.6%), while VMI was 6th, The Citadel 8th, and Samford 11th.

In case you were wondering (because I was), Davidson averaged just two punts per game, fewest in FCS. The Wildcats only attempted four field goals all season, tied for second-fewest (with Jacksonville) in the sub-division. Only Presbyterian (three) attempted fewer field goals in D-1.

Towson’s 25.3% rate ranked 23rd. The Tigers did not really punt that often, but they attempted 29 field goals, tied for second-most in FCS (only Arkansas-Pine Bluff tried more).

Charleston Southern (14.0%) was 100th in go-for-it rate. The Buccaneers had only 14 fourth-down conversion attempts in 2018.

Another 2019 opponent for the Bulldogs, Elon, had a go-for-it rate of 18.9%, which was 68th nationally, and slightly below the FCS average (20.6%).

What follows is a table of all the teams in the Southern Conference. This statistic includes all games, including non-conference contests:

Team 4th down go for it rate
VMI 39.5%
The Citadel 36.9%
Samford 32.5%
Wofford 22.9%
Western Carolina 19.5%
Chattanooga 18.6%
Furman 17.8%
East Tennessee State 16.0%
Mercer 12.7%

There is clearly a difference in approach among the league teams. For example, Mercer (112th nationally) only attempted 10 fourth-down conversions all season. Part of that may have had to do with the Bears’ outstanding punt unit, as Mercer led FCS in net punting in 2018.

In the interest of equal time, it should be pointed out that generally conservative decision-making can be successful, too.

As mentioned earlier, Georgia Southern took this path last season (12.4% “go for it” rate), and proceeded to win 10 games in a bounce-back season. Excellence in other facets of the game justified a more punt-driven philosophy. Just to highlight two areas of superiority:  GSU placekicker Tyler Bass was 19 for 21 on field goal attempts, and the Eagles only committed five turnovers all year (with no interceptions).

Two of the three lowest rates in the “go for it” category in FCS were James Madison (7.1%, lowest in the sub-division) and North Dakota State (8.5%). It didn’t seem to be a problem. Teams that frequently dominate games usually don’t have to take many risks.

Maine would never have been described as dominant last season. That said, the Black Bears won 10 games anyway, despite a 4th down “go for it” rate of just 13.6%, leading FCS in total punts (96, by far the most in FCS). The flagship school of the Pine Tree State parlayed an outstanding run defense (best in the nation) and gritty situational football into the undisputed CAA title.

It isn’t easy to win a road playoff game with double-digit totals in both punts and penalties (11 each), but that is exactly what Maine did last year at Weber State. The Black Bears did not attempt a fourth down conversion in that contest (and were only 3 for 15 on third down conversion attempts). However, Weber State was held to -1 yard rushing (a total that includes sacks).

Basically, there are a lot of ways to win a football game.

I’ll wrap this up with a re-post of my recommended fourth down decision chart for The Citadel. This is unchanged from last season.

4th-down decision chart

Assorted explanations and observations:

– There are six colors represented on the chart. Three of them are self-explanatory — green (go for it), yellow (field goal attempt), and red (punt).

– Another color, light green, indicates an area where the coach has to decide whether to go for it or attempt a field goal. This is dependent on game conditions, ability of the kicker, etc. Obviously, a chart like this should vary at least slightly for each game.

– The field goal parameters are based on a field goal unit with average accuracy and a realistic distance capability limit of 52 yards. Last year was obviously much better from a field goal kicking perspective for The Citadel, but I decided not to further adjust for accuracy due to sample size issues.

– There are two other color areas on the chart to discuss. One (which is light blue) is called “General’s Choice” and named after (of course) General.

This is a section in which the Bulldogs’ statistics from their most recent seasons tend to suggest that punting is probably the percentage play. The sample size is limited, however, and some available statistics suggest that going for it may be a reasonable decision.

– There is also a gray section that I named “Boo Territory”, after the reportedly more hyper and aggressive of the school’s two mascots.

Most of the time, punting is the play in this section. There are a surprising number of analytical sources which would advocate going for it in this area, though.

The Citadel’s historic statistical profile (“historic” meaning the last few years under Mike Houston/Brent Thompson) doesn’t truly justify that level of aggression, however. That is why the section isn’t green (or even light blue).

On the other hand, going for it in Boo Territory could be a game-changer — and faking a punt in this area could also be a consideration.

The season is here! The season is here!

We’re all grateful for that, so much so that we won’t even mind our team punting in opposition territory on fourth and short.

(Okay, maybe not that grateful.)

College Football TV Listings 2019, Week 0

This is a list of every game played during week 0 of the 2019 college football season involving at least one FBS or FCS school. All games are listed, televised or not.

For the streamed/televised games (only live broadcasts are listed), I include the announcers and sideline reporters (where applicable). I put all of it on a Google Documents spreadsheet that can be accessed at the following link:

College Football TV Listings 2019, Week 0

Obviously, there are only four D-1 games this week (hence the “Week 0” usage). There will be a full slate of games next week.

Additional notes:

– I include streaming information for games on CBS Digital, ESPN.com, ESPN3, Fox Sports Go, NBC Live Extra, Pac-12 Digital, Facebook, and FloSports.

– I also list digital network feeds provided by various conferences. For some of these feeds, the audio will be a simulcast of the home team’s radio broadcast. Other online platforms have their own announcers.

For now, the digital networks I am including in the listings are those for the ACCCAABig Sky (Pluto TV), Big SouthOVCNEC (Front Row), SoConWCCCUSAMountain West, and Patriot League. Some of the feeds for those conferences are provided by the Stadium platform.

Occasionally individual schools (almost always at the FCS level) provide video feeds. When that is the case, I list those as well.

– As I did last season, this year I am including pay-per-view telecasts and streams. These matchups are sometimes listed as “PPV” telecasts or (in the case of feeds from individual schools) “All-Access” streams, though an occasional stream with that description is actually free.

– BTN (formerly Big Ten Network) “gamefinder”:  Link

– AP Poll (FBS):  Link

– AFCA Coaches’ Poll (FCS):  Link

A lot of the information I use in putting this together comes courtesy of Matt Sarzyniak’s comprehensive and indispensable site College Sports on TV, a necessity for any fan of college football and/or basketball. Another site on the “must-bookmark” list is lsufootball.net, particularly for devotees of the central time zone.

I must also mention the relentless information gatherers (and in a few cases sports-TV savants) at the506.com. I am occasionally assisted as well by helpful athletic media relations officials at various schools and conferences.

Ruminating about ratings — 2019 preseason numbers for The Citadel, SoCon, FCS, and more

Recent posts about football at The Citadel:

“Advanced” statistics from The Citadel’s 2018 football season

– Inside the Numbers, Part 1: The Citadel’s 2018 run/pass tendencies and yards per play statistics, with SoCon/FCS discussion as well

– Inside the Numbers, Part 2: The Citadel’s 2018 4th down decision-making, plus Red Zone stats, 3rd down conversion info, etc.

– Football attendance at The Citadel (and elsewhere) — an annual review

– 2019 preseason rankings and ratings, featuring The Citadel and the rest of the SoCon

– During the 2019 football season, which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

– Homecoming at The Citadel — a brief gridiron history

Other links of interest:

– Cam Jackson, playing American football in Turkey (and enjoying dessert)

Brandon Rainey talks about the upcoming season, and about closure

Dante Smith had a very good game against Alabama; is ready to have even more very good games this season

Bulldogs hold first scrimmage in the heat of Charleston

Usually, I discuss the Massey Ratings at the same time that I write about the preseason rankings from the various college football magazines. This year, because the ratings came out a little later, I decided to have two posts, one for rankings (which can be read here) and one for ratings.

I’m going to also briefly delve into several other preseason computer ratings for FCS teams. There will be a table!

For several years now, I’ve been incorporating the Massey Ratings into my game previews. For those not entirely familiar with this ratings system, here is an explanation:

The Massey Ratings are designed to measure past performance, not necessarily to predict future outcomes…overall team rating is a merit based quantity, and is the result of applying a Bayesian win-loss correction to the power rating.

…In contrast to the overall rating, the Power is a better measure of potential and is less concerned with actual wins-losses.

…A team’s Offense power rating essentially measures the ability to score points. This does not distinguish how points are scored, so good defensive play that leads to scoring will be reflected in the Offense rating. In general, the offensive rating can be interpreted as the number of points a team would be expected to score against an average defense.

Similarly, a team’s Defense power rating reflects the ability to prevent its opponent from scoring. An average defense will be rated at zero. Positive or negative defensive ratings would respectively lower or raise the opponent’s expected score accordingly.

…the Massey model will in some sense minimize the unexplained error (noise). Upsets will occur and it is impossible (and also counter-productive) to get an exact fit to the actual game outcomes. Hence, I publish an estimated standard deviation. About 68% of observed game results will fall within one standard deviation of the expected (“average”) result.

Preseason ratings are typically derived as a weighted average of previous years’ final ratings. As the current season progresses, their effect gets damped out completely. The only purpose preseason ratings serve is to provide a reasonable starting point for the computer. Mathematically, they guarantee a unique solution to the equations early in the season when not enough data is available yet.

As I’ve mentioned before, Massey has ratings for almost every college football team — not just FBS and FCS squads, but D-2, D-3, NAIA, junior colleges, and Canadian schools. This season, there are preseason ratings for 927 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, from Clemson (#1) to Vermilion Community College (#927).

Vermilion is located in Ely, Minnesota. The Ironmen were 1-7 last season (1-5 in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference).

This year, The Citadel is #176 overall in the preseason ratings. In previous campaigns, the Bulldogs had overall preseason rankings of 218 (in 2018), 130 (2017), 113 (2016) and 174 (2015).

The teams on The Citadel’s 2019 schedule are ranked in the ratings as follows (with the chances of a Bulldogs victory in parenthesis):

  • Towson: 151 (45%)
  • Elon: 161 (36%)
  • Georgia Tech: 54 (3%)
  • Charleston Southern: 245 (86%)
  • Samford: 148 (32%)
  • VMI: 249 (85%)
  • Western Carolina: 220 (75%)
  • Furman: 153 (34%)
  • Mercer: 181 (58%)
  • East Tennessee State: 192 (50%)
  • Chattanooga: 183 (47%)
  • Wofford: 138 (39%)

Going by the ratings, a Massey preseason poll for the SoCon would look like this:

1 – Wofford
2 – Samford
3 – Furman
4 – The Citadel
5 – Mercer
6 – Chattanooga
7 – East Tennessee State
8 – Western Carolina
9 – VMI

Massey’s FCS-only rankings (ratings) for select schools:

  • North Dakota State – 1
  • South Dakota State – 2
  • Eastern Washington – 3
  • Princeton – 4
  • Dartmouth – 5
  • UC Davis – 6
  • James Madison – 7
  • Northern Iowa – 8
  • Illinois State – 9
  • Weber State – 10
  • Colgate – 11
  • Harvard – 15
  • Kennesaw State – 19
  • Wofford – 21
  • Samford – 24
  • Towson – 26
  • Furman – 28
  • Elon – 33
  • Jacksonville State – 38
  • The Citadel – 46
  • Mercer – 49
  • Chattanooga – 51
  • North Carolina A&T – 54
  • East Tennessee State – 55
  • San Diego – 58
  • Duquesne – 59
  • Richmond – 61
  • Alcorn State – 70
  • Western Carolina – 75
  • Charleston Southern – 87
  • VMI – 91
  • South Carolina State – 94
  • Campbell – 96
  • North Alabama – 103
  • Gardner-Webb – 104
  • LIU – 110
  • Davidson – 114
  • Hampton – 117
  • Jacksonville – 118
  • Presbyterian – 122
  • Mississippi Valley State – 125
  • Merrimack -126

In the “overall” category, some schools of note:

  • Clemson – 1
  • Alabama – 2
  • Georgia – 3
  • LSU – 4
  • Oklahoma – 5
  • Ohio State – 6
  • Notre Dame – 7
  • Florida – 8
  • Texas A&M – 9
  • Auburn – 10
  • Syracuse – 15
  • Texas – 16
  • Washington – 17
  • Missouri – 18
  • Kentucky – 19
  • UCF – 20
  • Fresno State – 25
  • North Dakota State – 26 (highest-rated FCS team)
  • Stanford – 27
  • South Carolina – 34
  • North Carolina State – 35
  • Virginia – 40
  • Wake Forest – 42
  • Miami (FL) – 44
  • Appalachian State – 47
  • Vanderbilt – 49
  • Army – 50
  • Georgia Tech – 54
  • Southern California – 56
  • Florida State – 59
  • Ohio – 66
  • Marshall – 71
  • Air Force – 79
  • Georgia Southern – 85
  • Navy – 98
  • North Texas – 99
  • Rutgers – 103
  • Oregon State – 116
  • Coastal Carolina – 127
  • Liberty – 131
  • Laval – 155 (highest-rated Canadian team)
  • Connecticut – 169
  • Ferris State – 174 (highest-rated D-2 team)
  • Rice – 179
  • Laney College – 184 (highest-rated junior college team)
  • UTEP – 191
  • Mary Hardin-Baylor – 227 (highest-rated D-3 team)
  • Morningside (IA) – 237 (highest-rated NAIA team)

Of course, the Massey Ratings aren’t the only ratings out there. On his website, Massey himself lists 19 other services, some of which include FCS teams in their respective ratings. Not all of those have preseason ratings, however.

There appear to be five other ratings systems (on his list, anyway) that have updated preseason FCS ratings. I decided to create a table in order to compare the ratings (by rankings) of 17 different FCS schools — the nine SoCon institutions, along with The Citadel’s three non-conference FCS opponents this season (Towson, Elon, and Charleston Southern), two other instate schools (Presbyterian and South Carolina State), and three other solid programs in the league footprint (Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, and North Carolina A&T).

Like any good table, there is a key:

Drum roll…

The table (remember, these are rankings only for the 126 FCS teams; i.e., VMI is the preseason #91 team among all FCS squads in the Massey Ratings):

Team A B C D E F
The Citadel 46 24 43 36 39 59
VMI 91 111 114 107 106 120
Furman 28 33 20 25 27 32
Wofford 21 22 13 17 13 13
Chattanooga 51 49 54 42 33 43
ETSU 55 56 31 65 83 19
Samford 24 23 25 24 20 52
WCU 75 82 86 78 76 99
Mercer 49 54 56 48 41 67
Towson 26 29 11 28 18 23
Elon 33 36 24 40 38 26
Ch. Southern 87 83 62 74 97 62
Presbyterian 122 115 115 112 112 114
S.C. State 94 85 88 81 71 71
Kennesaw St. 19 5 7 9 15 8
N.C. A&T 54 37 18 37 53 11
Jacksonville St. 38 26 6 12 10 16

While some teams have fairly small groupings in terms of rankings among the services (such as Furman, Wofford, and Presbyterian), others differ wildly (particularly East Tennessee State and North Carolina A&T).

I was perhaps most surprised by the generally solid rankings for Samford, which comes across as a borderline top 25 preseason pick in these ratings. That certainly isn’t how SU has been perceived in the various rankings that have been released this summer, either league or national.

A few other things I’ll mention that aren’t reflected in the table:

– Entropy System’s preseason #1 FCS team isn’t North Dakota State, but South Dakota State. Hmm…

–  CSL included Virginia University of Lynchburg in its rankings. VUL is not an FCS school, but the computer program that put together the list may have thought it was, given that the Dragons play seven FCS opponents this season (Merrimack, Davidson, Mississippi Valley State, Prairie View A&M, Hampton, Southern, and Morgan State).

All of those games are on the road — in fact, the Dragons will play ten road games in 2019. VUL, a member of the National Christian Colleges Athletic Association (NCCAA), has two home games this year.

For the purposes of this post, I removed Virginia University of Lynchburg from the CSL Ratings, so that all the teams ranked were actually FCS squads.

– LIU, which will field an FCS team for the first time (having combined varsity programs at its two branch campuses), is ranked #22 by CSL, probably because the then-Pioneers (new nickname: Sharks!) were 10-1 in D-2 last season. Considering LIU did not play a Division I team last season, that high of a preseason ranking seems a bit dubious. We’ll know rather quickly just how dubious it is, as LIU opens its season at South Dakota State.

The overall situation with LIU is quite interesting. Basically, a D-2 varsity athletics program is being folded into an existing D-1 setup. Not everyone was happy about that decision.

College basketball fans may be familiar with the LIU Blackbirds, which made the NCAA tourney a few times and once played home games in the old Paramount Theater in Brooklyn. Now there are no Blackbirds, and no Pioneers (from the LIU-Post campus). Everyone is a blue-and-gold Shark.

LIU-Brooklyn didn’t have a football team, unlike LIU-Post. Thus, the D-2 football program is simply moving up to D-1 — but because it is going to be part of an already existing D-1 athletics program, it doesn’t have to go through a “transition” period and is immediately eligible to compete for the NEC title and an NCAA playoff berth.

– Steve Pugh is the creator/publisher of the “Compughter Ratings”. He has a master’s degree from Virginia Tech, as does Ken Massey. Apparently VT grad students spend most of their waking hours coming up with sports ratings systems.

– The Laz Index also rates Florida high school football teams. It has done so since 1999.

– Along with college football, the Born Power Index rates high school football teams in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — in fact, it was used last year by the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association to rank playoff teams in that state.

This didn’t go over too well:

There has been a tremendous amount of criticism heaped on the NJSIAA for the new United Power Rankings.  A complicated formula that no one is 100 percent sure is accurate at any time, it basically breaks the ranking of teams into numbers – The Born Power Index and average power points.

The Born Power Index has been around since 1962, and is a mathematical rating system which somehow, determines how good a team is. Somehow, I say, because the formula is proprietary, and William Born, its creator, is not sharing with the public. That lack of transparency has a lot of people bothered.

The index will apparently not be a part of the “power ranking” for the New Jersey high school football playoffs this season.

– Five of the six ratings systems have Princeton in the top 7. The exception is the Compughter Ratings, which has the Tigers ranked 19th. On the other hand, fellow Ivy League school Dartmouth is ranked 12th by the Compughter Ratings.

Entropy has both Princeton and Dartmouth in the top 5, and Harvard ranked 14th among FCS schools. Massey also has Princeton and Dartmouth in the top 5; Harvard is 15th in that service.

Ivy League schools with high ratings (and rankings) are the norm for most of these college football ratings services. I think this is a bug, not a feature.

Personally, I find it difficult to justify ranking Princeton and Dartmouth in the top five, or even the top 20 for that matter. That said, the Tigers and Big Green might be very good.

However, the Ivy Leaguers’ lack of schedule connectivity with the vast majority of their FCS brethren — particularly the more highly-regarded teams — makes it all but impossible to compare those squads to the elite outfits in the sub-division. For example, in 2019 none of the Ivies will face a team from the MVFC, Big Sky, SoCon, Southland, OVC, Big South, or SWAC.

Here is a list of all the non-conference games played by Ivy League schools this season against teams ranked in the STATS preseason Top 25:

  • Dartmouth hosts #13 Colgate
  • Cornell hosts #13 Colgate
  • Penn is at #22 Delaware

Princeton has been the standard-bearer for the league in recent years. The Tigers host Lafayette and Butler, and travel to Bucknell. Those three teams were a combined 8-25 last season; this year, their respective preseason Massey rankings in FCS are 100, 112, and 108.

It is very hard to say that Princeton is one of the best FCS teams in the country when there is no practical way to demonstrate the validity of such a statement.

At any rate, we’re getting even closer and closer to football season, which is all that really matters.

“Advanced” stats from The Citadel’s 2018 SoCon campaign

Other recent posts about football at The Citadel:

Inside the Numbers, Part 1: The Citadel’s 2018 run/pass tendencies and yards per play statistics, with SoCon/FCS discussion as well

Inside the Numbers, Part 2: The Citadel’s 2018 4th down decision-making, plus Red Zone stats, 3rd down conversion info, etc.

– Football attendance at The Citadel (and elsewhere) — an annual review

– 2019 preseason rankings and ratings, featuring The Citadel and the rest of the SoCon

– During the 2019 football season, which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

– Homecoming at The Citadel — a brief gridiron history

Additional links about the Bulldogs’ upcoming gridiron campaign:

Hero Sports previews The Citadel

Five questions as The Citadel opens fall practice

WCSC-TV was at the first fall practice

What about a preview of the Bulldogs’ first opponent, Towson?

What follows is mostly (but not exclusively) about the “Five Factors” of college football. This is the third straight year I’ve written about The Citadel and the Five Factors; you can read my previous efforts here and here.

Later in this post I’ll discuss a few stats not directly related to the Five Factors, but we’ll start with the 5F. First, here is Bill Connelly of ESPN (formerly of SB Nation; he moved to the four-letter about a month ago) on what the Five Factors actually are. This is from 2014, but it still applies:

…I’ve come to realize that the sport comes down to five basic things, four of which you can mostly control. You make more big plays than your opponent, you stay on schedule, you tilt the field, you finish drives, and you fall on the ball. Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.

  • If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.

  • If you win the efficiency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.

  • If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.

  • If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.

  • If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.

Connelly later adjusted some of the formulas that result in the five factors, but the basic principles are the same.

I’ve already discussed a lot of other statistics in my annual post on per-play numbers, conversion rates, etc. (see Part 1 and Part 2, linked above), but these are slightly different types of stats.

They are “advanced” statistics for the Bulldogs’ 2018 season. Is there a really convenient spreadsheet that goes with this post? You bet there is!

Keep in mind that these stats are for SoCon games only. Eight games. Sample size caveats do apply.

Also, please remember that the stats were compiled by me, so they may not be completely perfect. However, finding “ready-made” FCS stats for these categories is not easy. Actually, it’s just about impossible. I’m not complaining…okay, maybe I am complaining.

Since there are no readily available equivalent stats online for FCS teams, I will occasionally be using FBS data for comparisons. With that in mind, let me quote something from last year’s post about advanced stats.

Now, you may be wondering whether or not FCS stats would be similar to those for the FBS.

For the most part, they should be — with a couple of possible caveats. I asked Bill Connelly a question about FBS vs. FCS stats and potential differences, and he was nice enough to respond. Here is what he had to say about it on his podcast:

…The one thing you will notice is the further down you go, from pro to college, from FBS to FCS, Division II to high school and all that…the more big plays you’re going to have, and the more turnovers you’re going to have. That’s going to be the biggest difference, because you’re going to have more lopsided matchups, and you’re just going to have more mistakes. And so if you go down to the FCS level, it’s not going to be a dramatic difference with FBS — but that’s going to be the difference. You’re going to have more breakdowns, you’re going to have more lopsided matchups to take advantage of, you’re not going to have quite the same level of proficiency throughout a defense, and so there will be more mistakes on defense, and I think the reason North Dakota State has been so good is that they’re about as close as you can get to kind of being mistake-free in that regard.

As long as an FCS team plays in a league in which most, if not all, of the teams are competitive (such as the SoCon), statistical variance should be relatively normal, so I feel reasonably confident that there is validity to the numbers I’m about to present.

Okay, time for the Five Factors.

Field position

Annual reminder: the key to evaluating and understanding this category is that an offense’s effectiveness (in terms of field position) is measured by the starting field position of its defense (and vice versa).

Special teams play is obviously critically important for field position as well. Net punting, kickoff coverage, the return game — it all counts. Last year, The Citadel benefited from strong special teams play.

The FBS national average for starting field position in 2017 was the 29.6 yard line. Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the average starting field position for 2018, but it is probably similar. There may have been a very slight uptick due to the rule change for fair catches on kickoffs.

-Average starting yard line of offensive drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 32.3 24.3  8.0
Road 33.9 28.7  5.2
Avg. 33.1 26.5  +6.6

The Citadel won the field position battle in six of eight league contests. The exceptions were Mercer and ETSU.

However, the numbers for the Mercer contest do not include Rod Johnson’s game-winning 94-yard kickoff return for a TD. That is because this statistic only reflects where offensive drives started, and the Bulldogs did not have an offensive drive after Johnson’s return (because he scored).

There is a similar issue with Dante Smith’s touchdown in the Western Carolina game, which came directly after a blocked punt by Bradley Carter. This isn’t a flaw in the statistic, but just something that has to be kept in mind.

The Citadel’s net punting average in SoCon play was 38.3 (third-best, behind Mercer and Furman). The league average was 35.5. Trust my numbers on that, as the net punting averages on the SoCon website are incorrect.

The Bulldogs were fourth in both punt return average and kickoff return average in conference play. The Citadel was third in kickoff return coverage, with a touchback rate of 43.2% (second-best in the SoCon). That TB rate is in line with the 2017 average (46.7%).

A corollary stat to field position is “3-and-outs+”, which is forcing an offense off the field after a possession of three plays or less that does not result in a score.

After a sizable edge in this stat in 2016 (a 7.7% positive margin), the Bulldogs’ differential in during the 2017 campaign was -2.5%. Last year, The Citadel rebounded in a major way, with a differential of almost 9% (33.70% – 24.73%). It helped that the offense reduced its number of 3-and-out drives by a significant margin (though there were occasional struggles in this area).

Toledo (+8.2) and Syracuse (+7.6) ranked 1-2 in field position margin for FBS. Other teams that had sizable edges in field position included Michigan, Marshall, Ohio State, LSU, and Auburn.

Florida State, with a FP margin of -9.3, was the worst FBS team in the category. It was a tough year in Tallahassee.

Efficiency

For defining efficiency, a stat called “Success Rate” is useful. Via Football Outsiders:

A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The FBS average for Success Rate in a given season is roughly 40%.

-Success Rate-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 41.37% 41.21% 0.17%
Road 38.53% 39.76% -1.23%
Avg. 40.02% 40.42% -0.40%

The Citadel was 3-5 in the efficiency battle in league games, coming out ahead against Mercer, ETSU, and Western Carolina. (Yes, VMI edged the Bulldogs in Success Rate, and by more than you might think.)

Two years ago, The Citadel had a differential of -4.24% in Success Rate, so 2018 was an improvement. That said, the Bulldogs have to stay “on schedule” on offense with their triple option attack, and 40% is not quite good enough.

During the 2016 season, The Citadel had an offensive Success Rate of 45.4%. Last year, such a percentage would have resulted in about 30 more “successful” plays in league action for the Bulldogs, or 3.75 per game. Three or four more successful plays per contest, whether they were long gainers or just helped move the chains, could have made a difference in several close games.

In FBS, Alabama led the way in offensive Success Rate, at 56.2%. Oklahoma ranked second, at 54.9%. Other squads that fared well in this sphere included Ohio, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Army was also solid (22nd nationally).

Rice, Central Michigan, and Rutgers (130th and last) were the most inefficient offensive units in the subdivision.

UAB ranked first in defensive Success Rate. Another C-USA team, Southern Mississippi, was second, followed by Michigan and Cincinnati. Alabama, Fresno State, and Appalachian State also finished in the top 10.

It should come as no surprise that the worst defensive teams in this category were Louisville, Oregon State, and cellar-dweller Connecticut, with the Huskies in particular having a historically bad defense.

In terms of margin, Alabama dominated (+22.0%). Clemson was second. Also in control from a marginal efficiency perspective: Wisconsin, Florida, Mississippi State, and Ohio State.

Explosiveness

Here is an explanation of “IsoPPP”:

IsoPPP is the Equivalent Points Per Play (PPP) average on only successful plays. This allows us to look at offense in two steps: How consistently successful were you, and when you were successful, how potent were you?

The triple option offense does not lend itself to explosive plays, as a rule. Now, big plays are certainly important to the overall success of the offense. However, the modest-but-successful plays generally associated with the attack tend to cancel out the “chunk” plays when calculating the stat.

The Bulldogs only came out ahead in this category in one of eight league contests, the third consecutive season that was the case. That one game was against Samford.

-Explosiveness (IsoPPP)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 0.98 1.25 -0.27
Road 1.06 1.41 -0.35
Avg. 1.02 1.33 -0.31

The averages are slightly worse than last season, with the largest discrepancy the defensive rate at home (it was 1.05 in 2017).

FBS rankings are from Football Outsiders, which also includes “IsoPPP+”, which adjusts for opponent strength. However, I’m just going to list the unadjusted IsoPPP averages here.

The FBS national median for Explosiveness was 1.17. Oklahoma led the subdivision, at 1.46, followed by Maryland (in a bit of a surprise), Memphis, Houston, and Alabama.

As would be expected, the triple option (or triple option oriented) teams were all below average in explosiveness, with the notable exception of Georgia Southern (1.19, 53rd overall). Navy was 111th, New Mexico 112th, Georgia Tech 113th, Air Force 120th, and Army 129th (next-to-last, only ahead of Central Michigan).

BYU was the champion when it came to defensive IsoPPP (0.90). The rest of the top five: Iowa, Georgia, Washington, and Wyoming. Clemson was 8th, South Carolina 12th, and Georgia Southern 15th.

Last season, Georgia Southern was next-to-last in defensive IsoPPP, so there was a dramatic improvement on defense for that program. Beautiful Eagle Creek shimmered in the moonlight again.

On the wrong end of too many explosive plays: Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina, South Alabama, East Carolina, Georgia State, and (of course) Connecticut, which had a defensive IsoPPP of 1.50. Yikes.

Imagine what would have happened if Oklahoma had played Connecticut last season…

Finishing Drives

This category calculates points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, based on the logical notion that the true “scoring territory” on the field begins at the +40.

The FBS national average for points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line in 2017 was 4.42.

-Finishing Drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 4.56 3.90 0.66
Road 4.82 5.41 -0.59
Avg. 4.69 4.55 0.14

This was a big improvement over a terrible 2017, when the Bulldogs struggled to put points on the board while in the Red Zone or the Front Zone.

The margin in 2018 might have been modest, but it was much more respectable than the -2.64 put up the year before. The defense does need to do a better job of bending (as opposed to breaking) when on the road, but that unit still improved by over a point in this category from 2017.

  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2016: 11.1
  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2017: -6.6
  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2018: 2.0

There are usually a lot of close games in the Southern Conference (five of the Bulldogs’ eight league games last season were decided by 7 points or less). That makes it all the more important, when approaching the goal line, to put the pigskin in the end zone.

Oklahoma led FBS in finishing drives (offense) last year, with a borderline-ridiculous 5.7 points per trip inside the 40-yard line. UCF was 2nd, followed by Utah State, Houston, Clemson, and Washington State. The worst team at finishing drives was UTSA.

The best defense inside the 40-yard line was Clemson, which allowed only 3.0 points per trip. Other stout defensive units in this area included Mississippi State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Miami (FL), Kentucky, and Appalachian State. The worst defense inside the 40 was also the worst defense outside the 40, or on the 40, or above the 40, or anywhere — Connecticut.

As you might imagine, Clemson topped the charts in finishing drives margin, at +2.4. As succinctly noted in Athlon’s college preview magazine, that meant opponents needed to create twice as many chances as Clemson to score as many points. That never happened, obviously.

Mississippi State (+2.1) was second. In last place was Louisville, at -2.0, but at least the Cardinals were consistent — they finished 126th in finishing drives (offense), and 126th in finishing drives (defense). Louisville’s scoring margin from 2017 to 2018 dropped by an incredible 35 points per game, a monumental collapse.

Turnovers

First, a table of the actual turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 7 2 -5
Road 4 10 6
Total 11 12 1

This was the second year in a row the Bulldogs didn’t fare well at home in the turnover department.

The next table is the “adjusted” or “expected” turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 6.04 3.82 -2.22
Road 5.70 8.02 2.32
Total 11.74 11.84 0.10

As mentioned in previous posts, the expected turnovers statistic is based on A) the fact that recovering fumbles is usually a 50-50 proposition, and B) a little over 1/5 of passes that are “defensed” are intercepted. The “passes defensed” interception rate is calculated at 22%.

Essentially, The Citadel’s turnover margin was almost exactly what you would expect it to be. There was a bit of “turnover luck” both at home and on the road, but it all canceled out in the end.

The luckiest FBS team by far, at least in terms of turnovers, was Kansas — which makes one wonder how bad the 3-9 Jayhawks would have been if they hadn’t received a friendly roll of the dice when it came to takeaways.

Also fortunate in 2018: FIU, Maryland, Arizona State, and Georgia Tech. Among those teams not so lucky: ULM, Connecticut, UTEP, Tulane, Rutgers, and Florida State, with the Seminoles having the worst turnover luck in the country. Did I mention it was a tough year in Tallahassee?

How did The Citadel fare in the “Five Factors” head-to-head with each opponent in league play?

  • at Wofford: 2-3, with sizable edges in field position and turnovers, but a terrible efficiency number
  • Chattanooga: 2-3, again winning the field position battle, and with a slight edge in finishing drives
  • at Mercer: 2-3, coming out ahead in efficiency and turnover margin
  • ETSU: 1-4, with only an edge in finishing drives (though with most categories closely contested)
  • at VMI: 2-3, with an enormous edge in field position (and committing one fewer turnover)
  • Furman: 1-4, again having a field position edge, but not in front in any other category
  • at Western Carolina: 4-1, only trailing in explosiveness
  • Samford: 3-1-1 (neither team committed a turnover), with The Citadel playing its best 30 minutes of football all season in the 2nd half

There are three other statistical categories that I’ll mention here. All of them are included in tabs on the linked spreadsheet (and all reference SoCon games only).

-First down yardage gained per play-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 6.50 5.59 0.91
Road 5.00 5.95 -0.45
Avg. 6.01 5.78 0.23
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.21 yards on first down in 2016
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 5.83 yards on first down in 2017
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.01 yards on first down in 2018

In 2017, the margin in this category was -0.23; last year, it flipped (in a good way) in the other direction. The Bulldogs’ first-down defense was better on the road in 2018 than it had been the previous season.

-3rd down distance to gain (in yards)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 5.99 8.68 2.69
Road 6.09 7.85 1.76
Avg. 6.04 8.28 2.24

The margin in 2017 was 1.64, while it was 2.49 in 2016. Thus, last year was a nice rebound, but there is room for improvement.

In FBS, Army’s offense averaged 5.4 yards to go on third down, best in the nation. Army’s opponents averaged 8.4 yards to go on third down, also best in the nation.

In related news, Army won 11 games last season.

Definition of “passing downs”: 2nd down and 8 yards or more to go for a first down, 3rd/4th down and 5 yards or more to go for a first down

-Passing down success rate: offense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
Home 62 23 20.00%
Road 71 12 19.28%
Total 133 35 19.64%

Last season, the Bulldogs ran the ball 79.2% of the time on “passing downs”, a dramatic increase from 2017 (65.6%), and actually a higher percentage than in 2016 (75.6%). The success rate declined by more than ten percentage points, though.

I think this is an area that needs work. I will say that the emphasis on running the ball on passing downs — even more so than might be expected from a triple option team — may at least in part have been an attempt to position the offense for a more manageable 3rd-down or 4th-down play. This is not a bad idea (Army last year was extremely effective with a similar philosophy).

Still, that success rate has to increase.

-Passing down success rate: defense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
Home 36 62 30.61%
Road 31 66 29.90%
Total 67 128 30.26%

This isn’t bad; the passing attempts success rate against the Bulldogs’ D was 32.0%. That 26.8% success rate for opponents when running the ball on passing downs was too high, though.

No matter how “advanced” the statistics are now or might become in the future, the essence of football remains the same. Run. Throw. Catch. Block. Tackle. Kick.

That is why people love watching the game. It was true 100 years ago, and it is still true today.

It is almost time for another season. It cannot come soon enough.