Seven is greater than three. Everyone knows that from an early age.
Yet, in the game of football that can be a hard concept to understand. For decades and decades, football coaches across all levels have played it conservative and taken the points in the kicking game when fourth downs have occurred. However, analytics have told us that the data says you should go for it on fourth down way more than most people realize.
While running the program and calling plays at Florida Atlantic, Lane Kiffin’s offense led college football in both 2017 and 2018 in fourth-down attempts. Last season, Ole Miss ranked third nationally and led the SEC in fourth-down attempts. The 46-year-old coaching celebrity is a believer in data and what the book says.
“I know that sounds, like he just said, seven’s greater than three, and that’s pretty basic, but that is a big part about analytics that, for whatever reason for years as coaches, like that didn’t hit us,” Kiffin told KSR at SEC Media Days on Tuesday. “Because I think it was just the feeling of, oh, I kick a field goal, or I attempt — it’s not even that I’m going to make it. I’m going to attempt a field goal. It’s like as a coach, I did everything I’m supposed to do. We got the ball close enough.”
“When you dive into the analytics, it obviously teaches you to play different. I think somebody said we were most fourth-down attempts or something in the country. I know at FAU one year we were. That’s not — I think some people used to do that, just gunslinger mentality, I’m just going to go for it no matter what.”
Kiffin does what the book says and it has paid off for his offenses. Last year, the Rebels ranked 10th nationally in yards per play offense (6.97) and 14th in scoring offense (39.2) while posting a top-20 success rate finish (48.7%). At FAU, the Owls had a top-10 scoring offense (40.6) in 2017. This analytical approach is helping good offenses become even better. However, it is not easy to make some of these fourth-down calls.
“It’s not easy to follow,” said Kiffin. “I think that’s why a lot of coaches struggle because it goes against how you were trained to coach and how you were trained to make decisions, especially when you watch the NFL, which until as of late, everybody just kicked. So it is hard to follow at times. I’d like to think that we follow it really well, which is why we end up being so aggressive.”
Now in the NFL, it’s becoming almost automatic for teams to go for two after cutting a two touchdown lead to eight because of what the book tells them. Analytics is driving game management decisions. Some will think it is great for the game while others continue to scoff. However, math is here to stay in football but we could be about to see it lose some value over the next few seasons.
“I do think a lot of people are catching up to it, so I don’t — if you think it’s an advantage, like you referenced, I think it was, and I think people now, because it’s more public and more people are doing it, are catching up with it,” Kiffin told reporters.
Analytics plays a big role in football and there is an edge to be found in its utilization. There is no getting around that in 2021. As the game continues to grow, expect more attempts on fourth down to go along with two-point conversion tries with kicking attempts going down.
That is what the book says.