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 https://www.collegefootballdata.com/ (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
Alabama0.4241.001
Florida0.3900.802
Ole Miss0.3700.443
Texas A&M0.3500.894
Georgia0.3240.785
Auburn0.3170.606
LSU0.3150.507
Missouri0.3080.508
Arkansas0.3080.309
Tennessee0.3050.3010
South Carolina0.3010.2011
Kentucky0.2890.4012
Vanderbilt0.2780.0013
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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