Going for It: 4th-Down Makes Fuel Football Scoring Surge
Major college football teams are on a record scoring pace this season and a more aggressive approach on fourth down is helping to fuel the surge.
Through eight weeks of the season, FBS teams are averaging 30.23 points per game, up almost a point and a half from last season and just ahead of the record 30.0 set in 2016.
While last year's dip in scoring to a six-year low seemed related to teams moving away from up-tempo offense , the cause for this season's uptick appears to be — at least in part — tied to fourth-down decisions. Often guided by analytics, teams are going for it on fourth down more frequently and turning more scoring opportunities into touchdowns.
"You know we're big into analytics and have some different analysts look into that every week," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "We study it during the week. We practice it. There's some recommendations that they give. Sometimes it's very aggressive. Sometimes it's too aggressive."
Orgeron and LSU went on fourth-and-short four times in a victory against Georgia earlier this month; for the season, the Tigers have attempted nine fourth-down conversions in eight games, just one less than in 13 games last season.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said more teams are catching on to an approach he has used for years.
"There are a lot of companies out there, analytic companies, that have aggressively pursued clients," Cutcliffe said. "I think a lot of people are listening to them, looking at the math, figuring it out. So I think it is a matter of the cat's out of the bag."
Scoring slipped to 28.8 last season, the lowest since 2011, stopping a string of six consecutive seasons where the average increased. Offenses were just as effective last year, but not playing as fast. Plays per game, like scoring, reached a six-year low (69.9) and possessions per game dropped to 24.39, continuing a downward trend since 2015.
Plays per game have risen to 70.8 on average in 2018, but possessions have stayed steady, according to Championship Analytics Inc., a company that provides dozens of Division I schools a weekly statistical analysis of their upcoming game.
CAI uses points per possession to measure offensive efficiency. According to CAI, points per possession are up nearly 5 percent from last season, 2.34 compared to 2.23 in 2017. Oklahoma leads the country in points per possession at 4.16. While scoring has increased significantly, yards per play is up less than 1 percent, 5.76 last season to 5.79 this year.
"Teams have found other ways to improve their scoring rates without a drastic change in their ability to move the ball on a per play basis," said Rob Ash, a former Montana State head coach and spokesman for CAI.
One of the ways is playing more offense on fourth down. According to CAI, FBS teams went for it on fourth down 19.3 percent of the time in 2017 and converted 51.8 percent of those attempts.
This season, teams have gone for it 21 percent of the time on fourth down and have converted 54.6 percent.
Army is college football's current king of fourth down. The Black Knights have gone for it 48 percent of the time and converted 88 percent (22 for 25). Only Air Force (17 for 27) and Florida Atlantic (26 for 13) have attempted more fourth-down conversions than Army.
In the red zone, an opponent's 20-yard line and in, the numbers are even better across the country.
According to research done by Bill Connolly, a writer for SB Nation whose S&P+ metric uses play-by-play data to rank FBS teams , there have been 355 fourth-down conversion attempts in the red zone this season. Teams are converting at a rate 61.4 percent. Last season, teams converted 57.6 percent of their fourth-down conversion attempts in the red zone. The number of attempts is also on pace to surpass last season's total of 519.
FBS teams overall are scoring touchdowns in the red zone at a greater rate this season (63.6 percent) than last (61.9), according to CAI.
Coaches say a more aggressive approach to fourth downs on the opponent's side of the field changes the way offenses operate on the preceding downs, too.
"Usually on third down and 7 in the plus territory, back 10 years ago, seven years ago, five years ago, teams are thinking, 'We got to get all seven," Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said. "I'm always going to tell our offensive coordinator, 'You have four downs here on third-and-7.'"
And more downs of offense have led to more points.
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