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Offenses, Pt 1: First Down

More than you ever thought you’d want to know about how Big 12 Offenses approach First Down

Baylor v Texas Tech Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Author’s note: This is the first in a three-part offensive scouting exercise in preparation for the 2019 season, and the first entry in Stats O’ War’s inaugural College Football Season Preview. To start, I will analyze Big 12 offenses, down by down, to see what some more obscure numbers reveal about the style, approach, and attacks of each TCU opponent.


The secret to getting ahead is getting started. - M. Twain

Each possession, each fresh set of downs provides an opportunity for an offense to start over, to try something new, to approach the problem of gaining yards in a new and better way. A successful play on first down can set the tone for a drive, getting an offense proverbially “ahead of the chains,” whereas a hole dug on first down by a failed play lingers.

Aggregate statistics - run percentage, pass percentage, and success rate, for example - constitute a baseline analysis of an offensive style, but lack the nuance of context. One can begin to grasp the fundamental approach of an offense via a thorough analysis of contextual first down behavior. In this article, I will outline some descriptive statistics concerning the tendencies and preferences of Big 12 Offenses (and some newcomers!) on first downs last season, examine the ways in which those patterns changed when the first down was the first play of a possession, and discuss how these situational adaptations inform our expectations of TCU opponents in the coming season.

First, a brief segue to discuss some data and methodology.

Coordinators, Old and New

As Big 12 football fans - both those astute and aloof - are well aware, there are some new coaches faces in the Big 12 this year. That context of course necessitates some adjustment to the data I consider in the ensuing analysis.

As Texas Tech and West Virginia brought in coaches and coordinators from FBS schools, I can easily add in Utah State (Matt Wells at Tech) and Troy (Neal Brown at WVU) to understand the types of offenses these new coaches might run.

Two coordinator situations offer no direct parallel - Chris Kliemann brought his NDSU partner in crime Courtney Messingham to Kansas State, and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State hired Princeton’s Sean Gleeson. In both cases, I do not currently have access to granular data at the FCS level, so I am limited in how thoroughly I can cover each coordinator’s past. Instead, I’ll argue that at least for this year, Kansas State should still be run-heavy in style and Oklahoma State isn’t changing the scope of their high-tempo offense, just the presentation. Therefore, in both cases, I’ll stick to the Big 12 teams’ 2018 body of work for analysis.

Finally, there are two more changes in terms of coordinators: Iowa State brought back Tom Manning from the NFL, and Les Miles hired Les Koenning at Kansas (Les to the power of two!). I’ll keep Iowa State’s analysis restricted to 2018, as Manning had previously been at Iowa State, and so I don’t expect a huge swing in style this coming season. As for Les Koenning, I’m going to do something a little weird - Koenning’s last meaningful job was under Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, so in lieu of Kansas’s 2018 data, I examine the tendencies of Dan Mullen’s Florida offense to approximate what we may see in a best-case-scenario for Kansas.

To clarify, going forward, I’ll be discussing only the Big 12 teams, but when I say “West Virginia” I’m really looking at Troy’s data, and the same for “Texas Tech” and Utah State, and “Kansas” and Florida. I hope that’s not too confusing. Anyway, on to the data.

First Downs - Descriptive Statistics

Top 10 First Down Offenses, by YPP (2018):

  1. Oklahoma 8.6 ypp
  2. Iowa State 6.9
  3. West Virginia 6.6
  4. Baylor 6.2
  5. Oklahoma State 6.2
  6. Kansas 6.1
  7. Texas Tech 6.0
  8. Texas 5.3
  9. TCU 5.2
  10. Kansas State 5

A bar chart provides a simple level comparison of each team’s yards per play overall, and for rushes and passes, on first down. The dotted line represents the average YPP for all first downs for all ten teams, 6.22. There is little variation, for the most part, as most teams’ offenses are above 4 yards per play and all but two passing units are under about 8 yards per play. Oklahoma, of course, stands alone as having all three units above average.

This graph also highlights the variety of styles in the Big 12, generally. Some teams are consistent big gainers on first down, and some are small gainers, but neither seems tied particularly to success - Texas, for instance, is near the bottom in total YPP on first downs, but still had a relatively successful offense last year.

We can categorize some of the asymmetry to paint in broad strokes about style. Pass-success teams include: Baylor, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and West Virginia. Interestingly, no team gained more on rushes, but that’s going to be weighted and skewed by the fact that passes are necessarily longer attempts most of the time. An offense like TCU, for example, that has historically been screen-heavy, has a flatter distribution between success in the run and the pass.

Plotting teams’ rushing and passing success rates on first down further clarifies our initial inference; most teams skew pass heavy, in terms of success on first downs (anything right of the dotted red line indicates more passing success). Again, Oklahoma stands out, as they do in all offensive categories, but the clustering in the center reveals some stylistic successes. Oklahoma State relies on the run much more than their speed spread reputation suggests; Matt Wells has roots in the Air Raid, but is decidedly not an “Air Raid” guy, and we see a bit more balance. Similarly, we see Baylor, TCU, Kansas State, and Troy (Neal Brown moving to WVU) all rely more on short yardage first downs, again reflecting the diversity of style and execution - TCU heavy on screens, Troy a run team satisfying WVU’s urge to move away from the Holgo-Air-Raid, and Kansas State’s commitment to bread and butter, three yards and a cloud of dust. Initially, first down success seems to be a mixed bag - the ideal of five yards each first down is certainly desirable, but by no means totally indicative of whether each play was a “success”.

We’ve seen success, and who makes their money on the run and the pass, but how does strategy parallel or drive that? Here are the first down rush rates for each team:

  • Kansas State 67.7%
  • OU 61.3%
  • TCU 60.1 %
  • Kansas 59.9%
  • Iowa State 58.9%
  • Texas 54.0%
  • WVU 52.2%
  • Baylor 50.9%
  • Oklahoma State 50%
  • Texas Tech 47.7%

Kansas State, the least successful rushing team, is also the team who rushes the most on first downs. This reflects that style commitment to establishing the run. For the Wildcats, evidently the number of yards matters less than the number of opportunities they have to be physical with their opponents (the body-blow theory).

TCU’s 60% is perhaps deflated on first downs, as the Frogs like to spread their run game outside with short screens. Whereas teams like Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Texas Tech prefer to work in longer shots on first down, the Frogs focus remains on consistent first down yardage. Will that change with the rumored return to the downfield veer and a more “vertical attack”?

The Big 12 has a reputation for pass-happy, high tempo offenses. Below the surface, though, establishing the run is paramount in offensive success in the Big 12 - 8 of 10 teams rush more than half the time on first down, and half the league rushes more than 57% of the time on first down.

This first down data gives us an idea of how each team attacks and succeeds on first down, but the aggregate numbers obscure team intent - the context of each first down and the plays run leading up to each first down dictate much of a team’s approach. To adequately comprehend each team’s preferences, let’s examine how they behave on first and possession - the first first down of each drive.

First and Possession: Trends and Differences

Why look at first and possession? While this eliminates some of our sample size, isolating the initial plays of each drive strips away most of the confounding context and reveals to us each team’s preference about how to approach a drive. Granted, there are still some game state realities that dictate strategy, but getting that granular really inhibits the meaningful comparisons we can make, in terms of sample size. For now, let’s just stick to a broad analysis of success rates and rush rates, comparing those to all first downs, and see what we learn.

Success on First and Possession:

Top 10 Offenses on First and Possession, by YPP

  1. Oklahoma 8.6
  2. West Virginia 8.2
  3. Iowa State 6.8
  4. Baylor 6.7
  5. Texas Tech 6.6
  6. Kansas 6.5
  7. Oklahoma State 6.4
  8. Kansas State 6.2
  9. Texas 5.7
  10. TCU 5.3

Starting out with raw yards per play, I plotted the average gain on the first play of a possession against the the average gain on all first downs. We see some stark differences here. All 10 teams sit above the 45 degree line (the black line, indicating the point where First Down YPP = First and Possession YPP): teams gain more on the first play of a possession, on average, than they do overall.

Consistency, however, doesn’t seem to factor into total YPP - the top four teams in YPP on first and possession are split between equal success on first plays of possession and first downs (ISU, OU) and being drastically more successful on first plays (Baylor, WVU). We see at the bottom two teams who struggled for different reasons - TCU’s offense was a mess at times, and digging a hole on first down didn’t help. Texas, on the other hand, is the odd case of consistency - they weren’t very explosive on first down, but they were consistent.

Kansas State and West Virginia are the two biggest differences between first and possession and first downs: West Virginia (Troy) through taking shots downfield and Kansas State due to their plodding run commitment.

The above scatter plot lends credence to the utility of examining first and possession, though, as we see teams perform better when they presumably have the strategic advantage of the fresh slate of a drive.

Looking at success rates, we note immediately that Oklahoma was, in layman’s terms, a damn good offense last year. They didn’t beat you situationally, they just beat you. Also of note, their difference in success rate comes from the fact that they scored early and often, and their drives are notoriously short due to their explosive offense.

As for the rest of the conference, we see Texas Tech, Iowa State, Texas, and TCU all less successful on first and possession than first downs, and again we see a variety of drivers: Texas Tech, as we will see below, passed the most of anyone on first and possession, which trends toward a lower success rate. Iowa State and Texas modeled more of that consistency, opting for short gains rather than long strikes, especially on the first play of a drive.

In the case of TCU, we see yet again what it looks like to stall out as an offense. TCU came out of the gate slow on most drives, unable to establish an identity on first downs, which obviously bled over into the resulting second and third and longs.

Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Kansas all came out as the “feel-good” offensive teams of the year - when the drive started, these teams were able to put together some yards, but that ability waned as the drives continued. All three were talented teams with serious flaws, but when they were at their best, they could put together yards and establish the start of the drive.

Run/Pass Tendency and Success

Adding in the YPP numbers from first and possession to the bar graph from above, we see some spectacular consistency across run and pass abilities. The only significant discrepancies are Kansas State’s pass game, and arguably, Baylor’s pass game. On the whole, the levels shift down, on average, slightly, but for the most part the relative success of rush and pass remains unchanged for each team.

Finally, we come to rush rates. This is the nitty gritty of strategy, the true indicator of how a team establishes themselves on first and possession. Again, we see no large differences, but a few meaningful ones that might just inform us as to how teams in the Big 12 like to start their drives:

RUN-HEAVY: Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Kansas, TCU
BALANCED: Oklahoma State, Baylor, WVU, Texas
PASS-HEAVY: Texas Tech

For not being an Air Raid Guy(tm), Matt Wells’s offenses sure do like to pass a bunch.

RUN MORE on F&POSS: Oklahoma State, Baylor, OU, Kansas, Kansas State
PASS MORE on F&POSS: Iowa State, TCU, Texas, Tech, WVU

The league is almost split 50-50 on how they approach the game. TCU, as I’ve mentioned before, has some deflated rush numbers because a lot of their offense is really a screen run game, so you could almost put them in that first category. Despite the Big 12’s reputation for slinging the ball, most teams prefer to establish the run regularly on first down.

Conclusion

The main conclusion to be drawn from this analysis on first downs is that, despite what the memes and the talking heads would have you believe, Big 12 offenses actually establish the rush in their game plans. Big 12 teams rushed over 56% of the time on the first play of a possession. The data indicates that on the first play of a possession, the league did split tendencies: Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Kansas State all preferred to run more to start out drives, whereas Iowa State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia all committed more to the pass to start out their drives.

The novel contribution of this article is that by examining the offenses of Utah State (Texas Tech), Troy (West Virginia), and Kansas (sort of Florida) in context, we were able to predict the best case scenario for three future TCU opponents and see how they fit into the Big 12 landscape. (WVU might pass less, Kansas will be more balanced, and... Tech’s going to still do the Tech thing. In fact, Tech might be even more Tech with the addition of Matt Wells.)

All in all, this article provides a solid starting point for a thorough analysis of Big 12 offenses, and lays a foundation of discussion moving forward. It’s important to note that first down is only one piece of the puzzle, and even that breaking tendencies up by down is only one piece of the puzzle, but this piece of the puzzle gives us plenty of insight into what we can reasonably expect from Big 12 offenses going forward.

This is part one of many in the Stats O’ War 2019 Preview Series. You can follow Stats O’ War on Twitter (@statsowar) for more content and updates about future installments.