Down and Distance success as a predictor to winning

As Nick Saban recently stated, offense is what is predominantly winning games in college football. Furthermore, passing and points are at a premium. Converting on a down and distance (D&D) situation is intuitively a good thing for the offense, which is then good thing for the team’s chances of winning. I was curious about how converting D&D relates to winning. Since I already had the play by play data from the SEC 2020 season courtesy of (with the exception of the Ole Miss Vanderbilt game), I decided to check it out.

Among the 67 regular season games analyzed, the winner of the game converted a D&D situation (either a first down or a touchdown) at a higher rate than their opponent 77.6% of the time. The winner, on average, converted D&D 9.7% more than their opponent. In the few games in which the team with the lower D&D won, this difference shrunk to 4.2%. So in instances when the team with the higher D&D lost, it was typically much closer, which makes sense.

A regression model for the data indicates a pretty strong relationship between winning and D&D conversion success. A statistically significant model (p < .001, r2 = 0.6281). Yea, it’s a small sample size, but still informative. A quick look at a scatterplot shows the linearity:

8 of 14 observations land within 2 standard errors of the regression line. Adding the team labels shows us who underperformed/overperformed as well:

The team that overperformed best was Texas A&M, while Ole Miss underperformed. There were only two games in which the loser of the game had a D&D conversion rate of more than 10% better than their opponent. Mississippi State vs Vanderbilt (MSU won 24-17, but Vanderbilt had a 34.1% D&D while MSU had only a 22.8%) and LSU vs Florida (LSU won, but UF had a D&D of 40.5% compared to 29.1% for LSU). So, going by this, LSU beating Florida was the SEC’s biggest upset in 2020.

Teamavg D&Dwin percentageD&D Rank
Ole Miss0.3700.443
Texas A&M0.3500.894
South Carolina0.3010.2011
Mississippi State0.2750.3014

I’ll probably play with this some more with additional years and conferences. I’d like to see how it plays out with larger sample sizes.

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