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Forde-Yard Dash: To Go For Fourth Down—Or To Not?

What coaches are going for it? Attempts are rising, and the Dash breaks down the YOLO spirit permeating college football.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (confetti sold separately at Clemson, to celebrate finally scoring more than 20 points in regulation):

MORE DASH: Playoff Race | Volatility, Meet Texas | .500 Blues

THIRD QUARTER: FOURTH DOWN DECISIONS, AND EVERYTHING THAT RIDES ON THEM

Lane Kiffin (21) doesn’t like kickers. He’s an analytics believer who hates to punt and disdains field goals when the numbers say to go for it, which is why his teams annually rank at the top or near the top in attempted fourth-down conversions. Over the past five seasons—three at Florida Atlantic and two at Mississippi—Kiffin went for it on fourth down an average of 2.8 times per game in 2017; 3.7 in ’18; 1.6 in ’19 (his analytics chart must have been missing that year); 3.3 last year; and a nation-leading 4.3 times this season to date. If Ole Miss maintains that pace of going for it four or more times a game, it will be the highest average since at least 2008 and probably since much earlier—maybe decades ago.

Most of the time it’s working, with the Rebels converting 70.6% of those fourth downs. But amid a big SEC West game at Auburn (22) Saturday, Kiffin’s go-for-it mindset led to a series of misfires. Three times in the Red Zone, Kiffin elected not to kick field goals and instead try for first downs. All three failed, in a game the Rebels lost by 11 points. Ole Miss was 1 for 4 on fourth down that night.

“You can sit here and say we should’ve kicked field goals but we made a lot of those (in previous games),” Kiffin said afterward. “Converted more than anybody in the country. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

The problem for Kiffin is that when it doesn’t work, the Rebels lose. The two games this season where they have converted fewer than 50% of their fourth downs are their two defeats, to Auburn and Alabama (2 for 5). It’s one thing to dial up fourth-down calls against Austin Peay (4 of 6) or Tulane (5 of 5), but another to do it against top SEC competition. Analytics are fine in a vacuum, but they need to be weighted with some feel for the moment: time and score and opponent and—here’s a big one—the health of your team.

Kiffin acknowledged after the Auburn game that “(our) quarterback is limping and (our) receivers are hurt.” So maybe that isn’t the time to go for a fourth-and-7 from the Auburn 13, trailing by eight in the third quarter.

Regardless, Kiffin is leading the wave of coaches who are more willing to go for it and less willing to send out punters and kickers on fourth down. The college game is becoming less risk-averse and more aggressive. Some fourth-down numbers (23):

In 2017, the average team went for it on fourth down 1.59 times per game, with a success rate of 51.8%. In 2018, those numbers ticked up to 1.69 and 53.4%. In 2019, attempts again rose slightly (1.67) while success dipped slightly (52.9%). Then came 2020, and it seems something of a pandemic YOLO spirit (24) pervaded the sport—attempts shot up to 1.85 per game, with a 55.5% success rate. (Or maybe coaching staffs spent the dismal downtime of lockdown studying and embracing analytics that say to punt less and go for it more.) To date this season, teams are averaging 1.75 attempts and converting 54.3% of the time.

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In the Red Zone, teams are attempting field goals on 25.3% of their possessions. That’s down from 25.7% last year and 26.8% in 2019. Analytics give coaches greater cover to go for touchdowns, and fans are more willing to embrace a gambling spirit from their teams than in the past—as long as it works.

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After Ole Miss, here are the top two teams in most fourth-down attempts:

Tulane (25): 31 attempts, 16 conversions. Success rate: 51.6%. The 1–7 Green Wave has spent most of the season playing from behind, which is a good way to drive up your number of fourth-down gambles. Same with having a defense surrendering 40.9 points per game—punting to put that unit back on the field isn’t an appetizing proposition.

UCLA (26): 29 attempts, 20 conversions. Success rate: 69%. More than half of those 29 attempts came in the last two games, as the Bruins were trying to come back in losses to Oregon and Utah. And like Tulane, UCLA doesn’t have the most reliable defense.

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The two teams with the fewest fourth-down attempts:

Mississippi State (27): four attempts, two conversions. Success rate: 50%. Three of the four times Mike Leach has gone for it on fourth, the distance needed was two or fewer yards. The fourth time was a fourth-and-7 from the opponent’s 39-yard line, which the Bulldogs converted to keep a touchdown drive alive in the second half of a big win over North Carolina State.

Minnesota (28): four attempts, three conversions. Success rate: 75%. P.J. Fleck hasn’t gone for any fourth downs this season that weren’t fourth-and-one. His successes were all notable, especially going for it inside his own 30 in the season opener against Ohio State: Mohamed Ibrahim broke a 56-yard run that led to the Gophers’ first touchdown, on their way to a halftime lead. But when Fleck tried the same exact scenario (with a different back) against Bowling Green, the result was a five-yard loss that set up the Falcons’ first touchdown in a monumental, 14–10 upset. If Fleck has that one to do over again and punts the ball, Minnesota may well be 7–1 and ranked in the top 15.

And the least successful fourth-down teams:

Iowa (29): nine attempts, two conversions. The Hawkeyes have missed on their last five attempts, most recently converting one on Sept. 18 against Kent State. After a brief flurry of adventurousness on fourth down from 2017 to '19, Kirk Ferentz is back in his happy punting place this year and last. Iowa is sixth nationally in most punts per game at 6.3.

Clemson (30): five attempts, one conversion. After four previous failures, the Tigers converted their first and last fourth down of the season against Syracuse on Oct. 15, on a fake punt that kept a touchdown drive alive in what turned out to be a three-point Clemson victory. The Tigers’ abysmal offense does not have a fourth-down conversion to its credit this season. Clemson hasn’t had a season converting fewer than 50% of its fourth downs since 2014, which is also the last time it didn’t win the Atlantic Coast Conference.

MORE DASH: Playoff Race Volatility, Meet Texas | .500 Blues

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