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Stats O’ War Season Preview: Third Down Offenses

Third downs are what make or break a drive for most offenses - how do Big 12 teams approach third downs, and how do they succeed?

Author’s note: This is the third in a three-part offensive scouting exercise in preparation for the 2019 season, and the third entry in Stats O’ War’s inaugural College Football Season Preview. You can find the First Down Scouting Preview here, and the Second Down Scouting Preview here.

A note about data: All data in this post is filtered for garbage time. Additionally, due to coaching turnover, I have proxied each program with the most recent team associated with their offensive manager. When you read “Texas Tech, Kansas, and West Virginia” below, the data are coming from Utah State, Florida, and Troy, respectively.

The first part of this post focuses on TCU’s Big 12 opponents. If you’re just here for info on the Frogs, you can skip down to the “What About TCU?” section at the bottom.

This summer, I’ve been working through scouting and previewing the Big 12 Offenses, trying to glean any information about what we might expect to see on the field this fall, all with the purpose of enhancing our collective football viewing. How we view teams really helps us to contextualize statistics and understand more of the workings of the game. So far, I’ve looked at first downs, isolating the first play of a possession to analyze style, and at second downs, tracing out which teams are making up ground on second down and which teams are taking shots to get ahead.

Third downs are the result of a dynamical process of first and second down results. A team’s success might mean they don’t see a third down on a drive, or a team’s failure might mean they see a third down every drive. Some teams are committed to low ceiling, and see themselves in third-and-manageable often. Other teams are boom and bust, finding themselves in short and long third down situations equally.

Third down can be a key indicator of a team’s quality, but it serves as an even better bellwether of what teams do when they don’t succeed on first and second downs. In this installment of the Stats O` War Season Preview, I analyze third downs in 2018 to characterize what situations teams find themselves in and how they approach those situations.

Third Downs: The Basics

I began the analysis with a basic visualization of the situation teams found themselves in most often, and their success rate overall. The top left quadrant reflects an average distance faced on third down lower than average and a higher than average third down success rate. The bottom right reflects a higher than average third down distance and a lower than average success rate. A few key features of this graph jump out, as we initially characterize the third down landscape of Big 12 teams.

First, we note the effective “peak” of Texas Tech, Texas, and OU. Those three teams sat close to the mean of average third down distance, yet all sit comfortably above average in third down success. Texas, as we’ve seen in the last few posts, is a little different in their offensive approach - they rushed and self-imposed a low ceiling on first and second down, committing to a three-down approach. That’s reflected here, where their average third down is lower than half the conference, and the Longhorns were efficient at getting the final piece to continuing drives - 46.1% of the time, Texas converted on third downs.

As for Texas Tech and OU, we have two offensive specialists (Matt Wells and Lincoln Riley) lead by two experienced and elite QB talents (Jordan Love and Kyler Murray). The experience shows, as the two offenses were able to convert on third downs absent any kind of positional advantage. This fall, one could expect Matt Wells’s play-calling to come through and continue some of that third down success, and QB Alan Bowman has showed promise in the past - the combination of an intelligent offense with some stability at QB could give Texas Tech a secret weapon in third down conversions.

Oklahoma, of course, continues their long line of quarterback succession with proven starter Jalen Hurts, whose running ability should continue to make OU’s offense yet again a unit that allows their opponents no rest.

Iowa State and West Virginia both got themselves in trouble on third downs - both found themselves, on average, facing a third down and over seven yards, and as a result, neither was particularly effective. The other big split comes from your pass-heavy and your rush-heavy teams: Baylor and Oklahoma State, taking more passing shots on first and second down, find themselves in longer situations than rush-heavy Kansas and Kansas State. While the differences in distance among those two groups reflect the stylistic variations of those offenses, their relative effectiveness was about the same - all four teams made up the Big 12’s Middle Class of third down efficiency.

To continue an evaluation of team performance on third down, I now turn to rush rates. We know which teams found themselves in longer third down situations (Oklahoma State, Baylor, WVU, Iowa State) and which were most successful (Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Texas), and we can examine who relied on the rush versus the pass most often to find their success.

Four of the top five teams in success rate passed more than league average. Kansas and Texas sit as the lone members of the “above average rush rate, above average success” quadrant. Texas, and to some extent Kansas (proxied by Dan Mullen’s Florida) both love the QB run, whether by design or by opportunity. Texas’s above average rush rate is probably the Ehlinger factor - Kansas won’t off the bat have a QB rush option anywhere near that caliber, but Pooka Williams has proved a dangerous rusher, and third downs might be where he adds the most marginal value to an unknown Kansas offense. Neal Brown’s entrance into the Big 12 is already making waves - seeing West Virginia near the top in rush rate is a little shocking, but that balance is not the least of the reasons WVU brought him in.

Context and Situational Third Downs

Of course, not all third downs are created equal. Let’s break up the data by situation - third and short (<4), third and medium (<7), and third and long (>7) - and see who excelled where.

Third and Short:

Top 5 Success Rate, 3rd and Short:

  1. West Virginia (84.2%)
  2. Iowa State (81.2%)
  3. Texas Tech (77.8%)
  4. Baylor (77.5%)
  5. Texas (68.8%)

It shouldn’t surprise us to see West Virginia in this list - these teams are all similarly modern, emphasizing a running quarterback and far more balance than the prototypical Big 12 spread. Neal Brown and Matt Wells, particularly, are much more in the mold of the “evolved spread” and bring vicious running attacks with them, pointing to a new fact of reality in the Big 12: you can’t win without a quarterback to make plays and a running attack to keep your opponents honest. A small aside: one could argue that some second tier contenders who haven’t made the jump thus far only had one facet - 2018 Oklahoma State and TCU only had the rushing attacks, it took Iowa State a couple weeks to pair their QB with a running attack - and the 2018 Big 12 surprise, Texas, had a quarterback and a running back pair the likes of which they haven’t seen in years.

Top 5 Success Rate, Third and Medium:

  1. Oklahoma (58.8%)
  2. Oklahoma State (58.1%)
  3. Texas (54.1%)
  4. Kansas (50%)
  5. Texas Tech (47.5%)

Top 5 Success Rate, Third and Long

  1. Oklahoma (31.3%)
  2. Oklahoma State (29.6%)
  3. Baylor (26.9%)
  4. Kansas State (25.6%)
  5. Texas Tech (25.9%)

Third and medium is a mystery down of sorts - there isn’t an obvious trend in whether you should run or pass, and so the better offenses come to the top here (remember, we are proxying Kansas with Florida and Texas Tech with Utah State, the programs most recently connected to each team’s offensive manager). Aside from Oklahoma State, who had an incredible rushing attack combined with the WR talent to make defenses indecisive in their third down coverage, all four teams have elite QB play. The quarterback matters on third down more than anything, and on third and medium, elite QB play has a time to shine, the defense on their heels.

Third and long could be conceived as a predictor of some intangibles - poise, grit, confidence, etc. - we see two teams creep up onto this list, and Kansas State is really an oddity due to sample size. Baylor, on the other hand, has a dual threat QB who learned a lot last season and is regarded by many as a fierce competitor. This season, plenty of signs are pointing towards Baylor having a better offense than they’ve had in years. I’d expect Baylor’s offense to be similar to the mold of Texas and Ehlinger this season, based on small indicators like this.

What About TCU?

The Frogs are effectively an outlier on both initial graphs of Big 12 Performance. TCU faced an average third down distance a quarter of a yard shorter than the second place team. In fact, TCU was 11th nationally in third down distance, which, under normal circumstances, would be a huge indicator that something was going right. The problem is, of course, TCU’s success rate. Looking at the Rushing vs Success Rate graph, we see a relatively balanced TCU, willing to run on third down. On third downs, balance is not a virtue. TCU’s third down struggles can be traced entirely back to quarterback play, and that “balance” is a result of play-calling without an identity, without a sure idea of what to do next.

As for the shortest average distance, it’s worthwhile to discuss a theory as to why that, too, is misleading in terms of TCU’s offensive quality. TCU ranked in the bottom third of FCS offenses last year, largely due to injury and inconsistency. No one is here to throw stones at the Mule, a man who earns every ounce of praise he gets. Instead, I’m offering a simple theory: TCU faced the shortest average third downs in the Big 12 because most other Big 12 offenses converted their second-and-manageable downs. TCU was 78th nationally in “First Downs Coming on First and Second Down” at 67.5%. (For reference, Oklahoma was first with 80%.) So, TCU’s apparent “success” in getting to manageable third downs is really more of a failure.

On third and short, TCU’s success rate was only 62.5%. They rushed 73.3% of the time, which proved to be a strategical advantage - their rushing success rate on third and short was 20 percentage points higher than their passing success rate. Still, though, TCU ranked 7th in the conference in third and short success rate.

On third and medium, TCU’s lack of offensive identity became more apparent. TCU’s success rate fell to 9th in the conference - 33.9% - as their rush rate fell to 20%. For whatever reason, the Frogs felt like they couldn’t rush and succeed on short and medium; this might be related to offensive line, or more realistically just reveal a preference for situational passing. Third and medium is the area I’d keep an eye on most this fall, especially that rush rate. With the two-headed monster of Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua (we hope!), and a couple of more than capable rushers at QB, the rushing attack should take some precedence and have a little bit bigger of a role for TCU this year.

Finally, on third and long, TCU rarely converted. Given their short average distance, they very rarely saw a true third and “long”, but where they did, only 15% of the time did they convert, Lending credence to my argument above, TCU’s rush rate stayed steady at about 20% on third and long.

TCU’s third downs last year displayed their troubled search for an identity amidst some horrible injury luck and some unmet expectations. The most successful teams on third down were teams with established QB play, and TCU will look to a deep QB room to find someone to come in, take over, and keep drives going this fall.