– Written by Jeff Fuller
Recent scrutiny of Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s decisions to repeatedly “go for it” on 4th down in questionable situations during the AFC championship game drudged up memories of many similar head-scratching moments for BYU fans over the past few years. As fans though, we often overreact emotionally and unfairly criticize our coaches, remembering the failed moments over the successes. So, what do the actual numbers show? Are BYU fans just guilty of recall bias and unfairly piling on Coach Sitake and his staff?
While researching this, I came across an interesting scatter-plot of fourth down success vs frequency of all teams from 2008-2018. The figure below has BYU highlighted among all teams, with an average 11-year success rate of 53%, slightly above the national average of 52%. However, this only captures the first three years of the Sitake era, while showing the last 8 years of the Mendenhall era.
LINK TO FULL UNEDITED CHART: https://public.tableau.com/views/NCAAFootball4thDownAttemptsand4thDownConversion/4thDownAttemptsby4thDownConversion?:showVizHome=no
While its clear from the figure that BYU’s 4th down success rate from 2016-18 leans strongly toward the left, what happens when we look at the entirety of the Sitake era and compare his 8 year tenure to the previous 8 years? I scraped data from ESPN’s statistics, from Connelly’s SP+ historical offensive efficiencies, and from the Massey Composite final team rankings to compile the following table:
This analysis reveals some concerning findings, headed by a significant decline in 4th down success rate between the last 8 years of Mendenhall, at 56%, and the first 8 years of Sitake at 47%. While a 9% decline is tough to stomach, it’s actually an 11% decline when viewed within the context of national average success rates climbing in from 51% to 53% over those same periods. Put another way, while Mendenhall managed to be 5% above than the national average, Sitake has been 6% below it.
How much of the blame of these poor numbers fall at the feet of a head coach as opposed to his offensive coordinators? Such information is hard to garner and may also change from coordinator to coordinator. Coach Sitake has always been very good about “owning” all of the decisions and mistakes and not throwing any of his staff “under the bus.” Also, while the overall numbers have been poor overall, there is a trend toward higher success rates with each of Sitake’s coordinator change: 44% under Detmer, 46% under Grimes, and 50% under Roderick, the latter of which has also attempted, by a non-significant margin, more 4th downs per year than any of his predecessors, at 24.7 attempts per year.
I decided to include the team rankings and offensive rankings for context, since the decision to “go for it” on 4th down is often forced upon desperate teams trying to make a late-game come back. BYU’s obviously concerning trend over the last four years is highlighted by these figures. I think most fans expected a “regression to the mean” after the stellar COVID season numbers, but last year’s ranks in the 70s (meaning below the average FBS program) are a big red flag to me and others. While it’s easy to blame the declining rankings on “stepping up into the P5 level,” it shouldn’t be forgotten that these rankings systems are “opponent-adjusted,” meaning that you aren’t dinged as much for losing to good teams.
So where does Sitake’s overall figure of a 4th down success rate of 47% put BYU in the larger context of other teams around the nation? Below is a list of all the football programs that had an average 4th down success rate of 48% or worse from 2016-23:
Even the stronger programs on the above list have been through some major down times in the past 8 years. All listed programs have had at least one “losing season”, and many of them have losing records more often than not. Nearly all of the “P5 doormat” programs of the last decade show up with the likes of Kansas, Indiana, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, Georgia Tech, and Illinois. Conversely, below is the list of schools with a 59% or better 4th down success rate over the last 8 years. Clearly, any program would rather be co-mingled with the latter group over the former.
It’s understandable that the service academies all top the list here, since their option offensive schemes put them in “4th and short” frequently but are also built to convert short-yardage situations with confidence. After that though, we see a list of some of the winningest programs in recent history, including a majority of the “Blue Bloods” of the college football world.
As far as national trends are concerned, this data confirms that teams are not only “going for it” on 4th down more often over time, but are also converting at a greater rate. From 2008-15, FBS schools averaged” 19.1 4th down attempts per year, while that figure rose to 21.4 over the last 8 years. This was despite including the 2020 COVID year where teams only averaged 15.9 4th down attempts (again, this was due to many teams having limited schedules and/or cancelations.) The trend toward greater success is fairly apparent too with the aforementioned increase in success rate from 51% to 53%. Hopefully the BYU coaches and players can perform better on 4th downs in the c9ming future, turning this area of relative weakness into a strength.
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