College Teams Are Still Punting In Opponent Territory — Though Not Quite As Often

Like a makeover contestant who returns the tailored garments for a jeans-and-graphic-tee ensemble once the camera crew leaves, Paul Chryst is firmly set in his ways.1

Two weeks ago, the fifth-year Wisconsin coach notched one of the biggest wins of his career when his team trampled the Michigan Wolverines. In that game, the notoriously conservative Badgers attempted three fourth-down conversions, successfully converting all of them. That might not sound terribly surprising in a vacuum, but Wisconsin has gone for it on fourth down just 43 times since 2015, the second-fewest of any Power Five team, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. By Badger standards, the Michigan game was downright aggressive.

But the following week against Northwestern, Chryst reverted to his old ways: decision-making as field-position optimization. When drives stalled inside Wildcat territory, out came the Badger punting unit — four separate times. Unless a team is facing a fourth-and-forever situation, the calculus suggests going for it in opponent territory, regardless of yardline, essentially every time. No college football team has punted more in plus territory in a game this season.2 You could almost hear the groans from Madison on the telecast.

Teams are punting less often once inside midfield

Punts in opponent territory per game and as a share of all drives, among Power Five schools

Punts in opponent territory
Season No. Per Game % of all Drives
2008 0.93 7.4%
2009 0.89 7.0
2010 0.81 6.4
2011 0.73 5.8
2012 0.84 6.4
2013 0.82 6.2
2014 0.92 7.0
2015 0.91 7.0
2016 0.82 6.3
2017 0.79 6.1
2018 0.80 6.3
2019 0.72 5.7

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

Asked why he abandoned an aggressive fourth-down strategy, Chryst didn’t provide much insight, saying, “I think a couple things go into it: What are you doing offensively? How is our defense playing? Different situations.” The Badgers do indeed feature arguably the nation’s most formidable defense, but it’s also true that since Chryst was named Wisconsin head coach in 2015, his team has elected to punt 77 times in opponent territory — second-most of any team in the country.

Chryst certainly isn’t the only coach to insist on waving the white flag after his offense advances into an opponent’s side of midfield.3 But the analytical community — and those who care about their teams’ chances of success — can rest easy knowing that the rate at which coaches dial up a punt in opponent territory is falling noticeably. Through Game 5, just 5.7 percent of all Power Five offensive drives this season have resulted in a punt in opponent territory, the lowest rate since at least 2008.

This is true, no matter the offense’s field position. At any point inside the 50-yard line, the number of punts in the 2019 season falls beneath the prior 10-year average.

A team with a lead is more likely to punt, so it should come as no surprise that 56.6 percent of all punts taken at midfield or closer by Power Five teams this season have been taken by the team with more points on the board.

But even those attempts to pin an opponent deep aren’t consistently effective — it’s difficult to control an oblong ball in a narrow window. Less than 40 percent of all punts this season taken inside the 50-yard line by Power Five teams have resulted in the opponent getting pinned inside the 10-yard line. Punts taken 40 to 49 yards from goal result in a touchback nearly one-quarter of the time.

By and large, punting at the college level is dying on the vine, despite what punt acolytes like Stanford’s David Shaw and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz would have you believe. On average, Power Five games now feature nearly as many punts per drive (0.34) as they do offensive touchdowns (0.32), with punts falling to the lowest rate since at least 2008 while offensive touchdowns reach its highest.4

Not uncoincidentally, this is happening in conjunction with a spike in fourth-down conversion attempts, which have taken place on more than 12 percent of all drives at the Power Five level this season — also the highest rate since at least 2008.

For all of the machismo that football inherently brings to the table, it doesn’t take much to be considered an aggressive play-caller. Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera is nicknamed “Riverboat Ron” for his propensity to attempt to convert fourth-and-1s. Kansas coach Les Miles is dubbed the “Mad Hatter” because he wears a baseball cap and delights in calling fake field goals. There’s a chance your favorite coach is one play call away from some goofy nickname meant to intimate a take-no-prisoners ethos.

The sometimes infuriatingly conservative nature of college coaches is likely related to job preservation concerns in a pressure-cooker industry. It’s harder for a coach to justify a failed fourth-down conversion than it is to put it on the defense to make a stop or ask a punter — you had one job! — to pin an opponent inside the 10-yard line.5 But the statistical evidence is overwhelming: An aggressive fourth-down strategy maximizes a team’s chances of success.

Maybe even Paul Chryst will come around.

Looking ahead: Week 6

Game of the Week: Auburn (17 percent playoff odds) at Florida (10 percent)

How Auburn vs. Florida swings the playoff picture

Potential changes in College Football Playoff probability for teams with a change of at least 0.5 points of playoff probability, based on the outcome of the Oct. 5 Auburn-Florida game

Change in odds if Auburn…
Team Current Playoff % Wins Losses Weighted Difference*
Auburn 17.4% +9.4 -10.2 +/-9.8
Florida 10.2 -6.4 +7.0 6.7
Alabama 46.5 -1.1 +1.2 1.1
Oklahoma 43.6 -0.8 +0.9 0.9
Total† 22.3

* Difference in playoff odds is weighted by the chance of each outcome — win or lose — actually happening.

† Total swing includes every team in the country — not just those listed here.

After a week with hardly any meaningful upsets to alter the College Football Playoff landscape, there are a few better shakeup candidates this week. Take Florida versus Auburn: Both teams are currently 5-0, and the winner would receive a sizable bump to its playoff chances with a victory. In fact, either the Gators or Tigers could potentially pull within a few spots of the top four in our playoff model, depending on who wins. (The loser’s odds, meanwhile, will drop into the mid to low single digits.) The game has implications for a few other teams as well. Most notable among that group is Alabama, whose Iron Bowl task is tougher in the universes where the Tigers beat Florida.6 Despite being on the road, Auburn has a 52 percent chance of winning at the Swamp on Saturday — simply the next step in a brutal stretch of games that will also include LSU, Georgia and Alabama before the season is through.

The most important games of Week 6

Week 6 college football games, measured by how much the outcome projects to swing the playoff odds of every team in the country

Game Other Team Most Affected (Rooting interest)* Total Swing
1 Auburn-Florida Alabama (Florida) 22.27%
2 Ohio State-Michigan St. Alabama (MSU) 18.19
3 Michigan-Iowa Wisconsin (Michigan) 13.55
4 Oklahoma St.-Texas Tech Oklahoma (Texas Tech) 11.26
5 Washington-Stanford Alabama (Stanford) 10.39

*This is the team outside of the game in question whose playoff odds project to change the most, depending on the outcome. Listed in parentheses is the team whose victory would increase the affected team’s odds.

Source: ESPN

Check out our latest college football predictions.