As a former college football coach, I am well aware of how much film study and practice time is dedicated to 3rd downs. For the offense, converting on 3rd down enables you to extend drives, move the football and give yourself more scoring opportunities, while also keeping the ball out of the hands of your opponents. On defense, making stops on third downs, gets your defense off the field, limits scoring opportunities and gets the ball back in the hands of your offense.
Having both played and coached, I can assure you that there are few game situations that are more demoralizing to an opponent than making a critical 3rd down conversion. Just when the defense is ready to get off the field and the crowd is pumped up, the QB throws a 12 yard dart on 3rd & 10 to convert and move the chains. The offense gets a fresh set of downs and marches on while the defense wonders what they need to do to get off the field.
3rd Downs as the deciding factor
Last week as I was breaking down the Alabama vs. LSU matchup and deciding on the 14.5 point spread there was one area that pushed me over the top to select Alabama. While Alabama held the edge in many statistical categories, on paper, LSU was a pretty tough matchup. Giving 14.5 points to a top 3 team at home is almost unheard of. However, after looking at 3rd down offense, Alabama was ranked #1 and LSU at #86. With LSU needing to control the ball and keep Alabama off the field in order to have a shot to win , this type of 3rd down performance was not going to cut it against Alabama. As a result, I went with Alabama - 14.5 and the rest was history.
3rd Down Conversions: A Driver of Wins
While 3rd downs is not the only or most significant driver of wins, it plays a big part in winning football. If your team is not devoting enough practice time to 3rd downs, or you are not evaluating 3rd down efficiency when makings picks, perhaps this graph showing the linear effect of 3rd down conversions on wins will inspire you to start doing so.
A Clear Trend Line
Both the chart above & below show that as your 3rd down conversion % increase the average number of wins increase as well. This is called a linear relationship between 3rd down conversion% and wins. The predictive strength of 3rd down conversion % as a driver of wins is (31%).
Reminder, Predictive strength measures how well a predictor accurately predicts a target. Predictive strength is displayed as a percentage. A predictor with a predictive strength of 100% perfectly predicts a target. .
Top 10% in the nation at 3rd down conversion % on offense
Combo Analysis: Where 3rd Down Conversions Get Really Exciting
As discussed, (with a predictive strength of 31%) 3rd down conversions alone will not guarantee you wins, but they will certainly contribute. Where you really start to see the impact is when you analyze a combination of categories with 3rd down conversions as a component. Lets take a look at how the predictive strength for wins increases when we add in a second driver.
As Ive discussed in a previous posts, Defensive Points Per Game alone is a significant main driver of wins with a predictive strength of 52%. So what happens to the impact on wins when we analyze Defensive Points Per game and add in 3rd down conversion%? What happens is something magical, the predictive strength for wins rises to 68%!.
Think about that, two opposite sides of the ball, with no correlation between the two categories (Scoring Defense /Offensive 3rd Down conversion %) together become a significant main driver of wins with a predictive strength of 68%.
A Difference of 2.5 more wins!
The graph below shows the average number of Wins for combination levels of Defensive Points Per Game & 3rd Down Conversion %. The X axis across the bottom shows the levels of defensive PPG & the Y Axis going up on the left is the Average number of wins. The colored lines represent the 3rd down conversion %.
To keep it simple lets just take the first group of teams that have scoring defenses under 21.1 points per game. These are the very best defensive teams in the country. The top Purple line is a 3rd down conversion % grater than 44.5% & the Bottom Blue line is a 3rd down conversion % of less than 35%.
The group with the purple line averages 7.5 wins each , while the blue line group averages 5 wins. So even though both groups have the same level of dominant scoring defenses less than 21.1 points per game, the teams with the higher 3rd down conversion % within that group averages 2.5 more wins than the lower group. Thats a major difference in wins, with the same level of scoring defense. 10% more in 3rd down conversion % leads to 2.5 more wins!
The trends continue as you go down the chart to different levels of scoring defenses. You can see how the average number of wins decrease based on the level of 3rd down conversion % even though their level of scoring defense is the same. Show this chart to your team next time they question why you spend so much practice time on 3rd down offense.
As you can see, 3rd downs is an important part of winning football and should be a point of emphasis for your teams or when making your picks this weekend. I hope you enjoyed this analysis, be sure to check back often for updates and additional insight into what drives winning football.
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