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Why Staying on Schedule Matters

Why staying on schedule matters to the most successful teams in college football, and how Iowa State can improve in that area.

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday's post on attacking the middle of the field with Iowa State's running game set off some interesting comments about where Iowa State's yards were coming from. That's an easy enough explainer in and of itself, but it makes more sense to add some perspective about the college football landscape as a whole and where our beloved Cyclones fall in to it.

Enter two key metrics to illustrate again how much Iowa State suffered when they couldn't stay on schedule: Yards and Success Rate.

We'll get to yards in a moment, but let's define Success Rate for those of you unfamiliar with the term. From Football Outsiders:

Success Rate (college football): Our Varsity Numbers column calculates Success Rate for teams, not just running backs, using a set of baselines that differ slightly from our NFL Success Rates: 50% of needed yards on first down, 70% of needed yards on second down, or 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down.

For those of you who have read SBN's Bill Connelly, this definition matches what he uses, and its explanation is very straightforward. In a typical 1st and 10 situation a team has a successful play if they gain five or more yards. Say they gain six and set up a 2nd and 4. They then need to gain three to have a successful play, which sets up a 3rd and 1. Getting the first down on 3rd down results in a successful play, and similarly if they fail on 3rd down but gain the 1st on 4th down.

Why Being Consistent Matters

The clear advantage that success rate has over a total yards metric is it rewards teams who can stay on schedule. Teams who can be successful consistently on 1st or 2nd down play themselves in to better positions later in the drive, and those that can do it no matter the down are the ones who frequent the top of the college football ladder. Observe:

These are the top 10 teams in success rate by down and the first thing that jumps out are the four College Football Playoff teams from 2014 lumped in spots 4-7 in 1st down success rate. For the most part the rest of the 1st down column reads as a Who's Who of the Top 25.

As we move to the right and get in to the later downs we see why Ohio State enters 2015 as the defending national champion. They're ranked 2nd in both 2nd and 3rd down success rate, and national runner up Oregon is ranked 5th and 9th, respectively. Not surprisingly, Florida State disappears completely from the rankings from 2nd to 4th down.

The average win percentage of teams ranking in the top 10 of each down is over .700, and only Pittsburgh and Ball State make it anywhere on the table as a team whose record was below .500.

Conversely, here's the bottom 10:

Nothing about this line up reads "murderer's row" and as a matter of fact the average win percentage hovering around .3333 tells you that all of these offenses had major flaws in one way or another. Of the 10 teams ranking in the bottom 10 of 1st down success rate, nine were below .500 last season, and it's the same for 3rd down. Being in the bottom 10 of 4th down success rate probably doesn't matter much (other than not converting), but Iowa State's inclusion illustrates how a bad offense was made worse by not converting in do or die situations.

Why Gaining Yards Early Matters

Success rate is a good measure of a team's efficiency, but sometimes simply being a yard eating machine matters. It's not the end all, be all of statistical analysis for football but if you aren't gaining yards you aren't scoring points; it's that simple.

We define Yards at College Football Analytics in the truest definition of the word, but Kirk and I have expanded on this by using % of Yards Gained by Down. This can reach some of the same conclusions as success rate, but it illustrates a team's leverage more when they can't move the ball on early downs. The easiest way to illustrate this is by sticking to the comparison between Iowa State and Baylor.

Here are the total yards gained by down:

Now here are those yards as a percentage of the overall yardage gained:

Baylor gained 81.5% of their yards on 1st and 2nd down, while Iowa State gained 73.9% of their yards in the same situation. This created a situation where Iowa State was more leveraged on 3rd down due to their inability to move the ball on 1st and 2nd. The yards they gain from 3rd down may accumulate faster than Baylor's, but unless they're getting a 1st down as a result the entire exercise is moot.

And while correlation does not equal causation, the following does have meaning:

A .7 correlation exists with Win % for teams who rack up the most yards on 1st down, and conversely, a negative .3 correlation exists for teams who get a higher % of their yards on 3rd down. In short, Baylor has a better chance of winning by racking up yards on 1st down than Iowa State does by racking them up on 3rd down.

The chart above is a guideline for the 2014 season, but for every Baylor you have Indiana, who ranks 6th in % of Team Yards Gained on 1st Down, but won only four games last year. Although a team may rack up loads of yards on 1st down it's how they follow it up that separates them from the upper echelon. In a sense, this is all about setting yourself up for success.

As the chart below illustrates, Indiana was great on 1st down last year, but never followed it up as they ranked 90th in % of Total Yards Gained on 2nd Down, 102nd on 3rd down, and 122nd on 4th down. They succeeded when the playbook was open, but couldn't do the necessary work to follow up early down success with additional first downs, and eventually points.

Here's the full Top 10 in % of Team Yards Gained by Down, and a familiar sight clocks in on 3rd down.

The average win percentage isn't nearly as strong as it is in the success rate charts above, but there is a prevalent takeaway here: if you're not successful early it spells doom for you being successful late. You can rack up all the six yard gains you want on 3rd down, but if it's constantly 3rd and 7 you're doing yourself a disservice.

How it Ties Together

Bringing this full circle we'll go back to the Baylor vs Iowa State game from last September. In my preview I wrote the following:

I said earlier that Baylor doesn't test the middle of the field in the passing game, and it couldn't be more true.  Only 14% of Baylor's passing plays are between the hashes, and they lean heavily on the speed of their receivers to work open on the sidelines.

Conversely, 44% of their runs come up the middle, and it pairs up well with teams running 46% of their plays between the tackles on Iowa State.  A key focus: fill the middle and force Petty to keep.  He's no slouch running, but he's not Linwood.

Three days after the game was played I tweeted the following:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Baylor ran 26 times between the tackles vs the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Cyclones?src=hash">#Cyclones</a>. Good enough for 142 yards, and 5.5 YPC. Not the whole story though (1/2)</p>&mdash; Dan Becker (@WRNLKnowDan) <a href="https://twitter.com/WRNLKnowDan/status/516968326732722176">September 30, 2014</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">They also passed 9 times over the middle for 110 yards, or 12.2 YPA. 6 of those went for 102 yards on 1st down alone.</p>&mdash; Dan Becker (@WRNLKnowDan) <a href="https://twitter.com/WRNLKnowDan/status/516968539207782400">September 30, 2014</a></blockquote>

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<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Why is that stat important? ISU couldn&#39;t stop the run on first down, committed more to the run. Baylor punished with slants vs 1 on 1 cover</p>&mdash; Dan Becker (@WRNLKnowDan) <a href="https://twitter.com/WRNLKnowDan/status/516969181317967872">September 30, 2014</a></blockquote>

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Not only did Baylor shove my thoughts down my piehole, but they did it in the most humiliating way possible. Everything to that point in time illustrated Baylor loved running on 1st down and doing it in the middle, and Iowa State's defense adjusted accordingly. All Baylor did was throw tendencies out the window and take advantage of Iowa State's willingness to commit resources to the run.

In the end the story was the same: Baylor was a successful 1st down team, they changed their tendency to cater to the opponent, but they still found a way to get theirs. When a team is strong in one facet of the game, especially on early downs, they stand to have more success as a whole and dictate the flow of the game.