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Does field position really matter?

+14 HS
Buckeye_Wizard's picture
October 10, 2016 at 8:37pm

See if this makes sense to you...if, on average, you start your offensive drives closer to the goal line than your opponent, then you should have an easier time scoring versus your opponent who starts further away. When you stop to think, it makes perfect sense.  If the Buckeyes have to rumble only 40 yards to score and their opponent has to trudge through 80 long yards to score exactly the same number of points, then field position must matter.

But how much does it matter? (Good news here...it seems the Buckeye coaches are well aware how much it matters.)

Consider this, the Buckeyes try very hard to make sure every Ohio State kick-off is booted as close to the goal line without going into the end zone (ball placed on 25 yard line) and also, more importantly, without going out of bounds (ball placed on 35 yard line.)  When kicked perfectly, the coverage team is flying down the field with their hair on fire...looking to make a big hit on the returner. And very often, the kick returner is tackled before he can reach the 20 yard line.  It turns out this is a very big deal.

There has been a decent amount of analytics performed on football data and field position.  In my opinion, all of the work seems to come up with just about the same conclusion...for every 10 yards of field position, you are 10% more likely to score points on that drive (TD or FG.)

The table below is based on the work of Andrew Schechtman-Rook.  His work, based on several years worth of NFL data available at Armchair Analysis, claims, if you get the ball at your own 10 yard line, you have a 10% chance of scoring either a TD or a FG on that particular drive.  If you start on your own 20 yard line, you have a 20% chance and so on.

Probability of Scoring (TD + FG)
Drive Start Percent
-10 Yard Line 10%
-20 yard line 20%
-30 yard line 30%
-40 yard line 40%
50 yard line 50%
+40 yard line 60%
+30 yard line 70%
+20 yard line 80%
+10 yard line 90%

Assuming that the percentages would correlate to the college game, a smart coach can create a huge advantage for his team if he is really good at controlling field position.  I am pretty confident every upper level coach is aware of this fact, but Urban Meyer appears to be obsessed with special teams and, in turn, field position.

It leads one to believe there must be data available which shows your winning percentage based upon the difference between your average starting field position and your opponent's average starting field position.

Bill Connelly covered this in his book, Study Hall.

A team’s average starting field position was worse than 24.0 (i.e. the team’s 24-yard line) in just 14.1 percent of the 2012 FBS vs. FBS games. It was better than 36.0 just 15.7 percent of the time. In most games, teams were trying to average in the 32-36 range (win percentage in this range: 66 percent) instead of the 24-28 range (win percentage: 32 percent).

These aren’t huge numbers. On average, a team got 13 possessions in a given game; the total difference between an average start of 26.0 and an average start of 34.0 is just 104 yards (13 possessions times 8.0 yards). One turnover could mean a difference of about 40 yards. One field-flipping punt that bounces past the punt returner and rolls a while could mean 25 yards. One huge stop on a kick return could mean 15 yards. A sack on third-and-long, instead of a short completion, could mean 15 yards. A third-down conversion that simply extends a drive from three-and-out to six-and-out could mean 10 yards. And just like that, you’re at 105 yards, and you’ve gone from likely loss to likely win.

That is a bit of an extreme example with a significant special teams impact, but one can see how smaller plays, particularly third downs, can add up quickly. And almost nothing is more devastating to your field position cause than a three-and-out, especially if a drive involves a sack or negative play on third down. Never mind the impact such a series might have on momentum; that’s significant enough. It can have an even larger impact in the field position battle.

Bill provided this table in an article titled, The five factors:College football's most important stats.

fp margin range % of 2013 games win % Avg scoring margin
20+ yards 4.0% 96.9% +32.4
15-20 yards 8.6% 92.8% +28.6
10-15 yards 17.8% 86.7% +19.9
6-10 yards 23.5% 78.3% +15.7
3-6 yards 23.5% 59.8% +6.3
0-3 yards 22.7% 54.1% +2.6

From the table, it is pretty clear there is a fairly large advantage when your average starting field position is better than your opponent's.  So next time you watch a punt returner not catch the ball and he allows the ball to bounce closer and closer to the goal line, you can count out the probability lost that his team will score on offense. 

A good measure of the emphasis put on field position by a coach is the number of starters who play on special teams.  Keep your eye on the guys making plays on punt cover or kick cover.  Urban Meyer states that an Ohio State player must earn playing time on special teams before he can play on offense or defense. Good news for us.

This is a forum post from a site member. It does not represent the views of Eleven Warriors unless otherwise noted.

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