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Is college football play sloppier this year?

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I learned how to make histograms for this so you have to read it.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Last Saturday, Rutgers closed out a 38-27 win over Michigan State, the first conference win for the Scarlet Knights in almost three years, with an interception. That sideline pick, hunted down by Ohio State transfer Brendon White, was the seventh Spartan turnover of the day and the tenth of the game. Watching that last doomed throw sail into a White’s grasp, my brain had one reaction: College football’s been pretty sloppy on the field in 2020, hasn’t it?

A week before Rutgers-Michigan State, Ole Miss barfed up seven turnovers in their loss to Arkansas. In Week 3, Duke pulled off a neat bit of alchemy against Boston College, turning three red zone possessions into zero points. Kansas State struggled to convert a single third down in their opening loss to Arkansas State, then barely improved to 2 for 11 against Oklahoma and won.

But those games are just anecdotes, limited pieces of evidence that don’t demonstrate a pattern. I decided to compare a handful of statistics that tend to reflect the concept of sloppiness as it applies to a football team. In the interest of keeping the comparison accurate, I limited these stats to totals from conference games for 2020 and 2019, and the 2020 totals only include teams that had played at least three games as of October 26.

2020 vs. 2019 Sloppiness

Statistic 2020 2019 Difference
Statistic 2020 2019 Difference
Third Down Conversions 40.1% 39.5% Up 0.6
Red Zone Scoring 82.3% 83.5% Down 1.2
Red Zone Touchdowns 61.2% 60.1% Up 1.1
Completion Rate 61.0% 58.1% Up 2.9
Interception Rate 2.7% 3.5% Down 0.8
Penalties/Game 6.6 6.1 Up 0.5
Penalty Yards/Game 57.0 53.7 Up 5.3

Those numbers don’t tell a tale of chaos. If anything, they suggest that college football in 2020 isn’t that different from what it was in 2019. There are three possible explanations for that apparent lack of disorder.

  1. My hunch was wrong, and I mistakenly drew a conclusion based on a handful of outlier games.
  2. The disruptions caused by Covid-19 (changes to practice formats, canceled spring games, depth chart reductions) are being felt equally across all parts of every team. Consequently, frazzled offenses are facing frazzled defenses, with neither unit really able to take advantage of the situation. That would explain almost all of these stats, though penalties and penalty yards would likely be up more than they already are.
  3. The composite data doesn’t tell a complete story.

Answer one is harmful to me personally, so I reject it on self-care grounds. Answer two is interesting, but not something I’m capable of ascertaining by looking at the numbers. So let’s look a little closer at answer three.

Each one of these statistics has its own internal ranking. Air Force, for example, led all FBS teams in 2019 third down conversions against conference opponents, with a success rate of 60.82%. Akron was last in that category, converting only 23.15% of their third downs in conference play. But most programs stuck pretty close to the overall conversion rate. In fact, 66 of the 124 teams eligible under these parameters finished with conversion rate between 35% and 45%.

You might have seen this in school, in the form of a grading curve.

Football’s not graded on a strict curve, but the statistical distributions end up looking close to one naturally. Here’s what 2019 looked like, with the 35-45% crew towering above their peers in the middle of the chart.

If 2020 really isn’t that different from 2019, then we should see the same kind of clustering, with most teams staying within a reasonable range of the overall average and a smaller percentage on the extremes at either end.

So far, only 21 of the 61 teams who’ve played three or more conference games are in that middle portion of the curve for third-down conversions, where they’re converting at a rate between 35% and 45%. The overall average hasn’t moved much but, to put it back in academic terms, it’s not because most teams are getting a C. It’s because more are either getting A’s or F’s.

That pattern holds for other statistics that seem flat year-over-year as well:

2020 vs. 2019 Sloppiness, Part Two

Range 2020 2019 Difference
Range 2020 2019 Difference
35-45% on Third Down 21 teams (34%) 66 teams (53%) Down 19%
70-90% Red Zone Scoring 28 teams (46%) 79 teams (63%) Down 17%
50-70% Red Zone Touchdowns 32 teams (53%) 80 teams (54%) Down 11%
55-65% Completion Rate 36 teams (59%) 81 teams (65%) Down 6%
2-4% Interception Rate 28 teams (46%) 76 teams (61%) Down 15%
5-7 Penalties/Game 27 teams (44%) 75 teams (60%) Down 16%
45-65 Penalty Yards/Game 24 teams (39%) 72 teams (58%) Down 19%

Ok, so what do those numbers mean? There are three possible conclusions there, too.

  1. It’s early yet, and as teams start to settle into the rhythm that has thus far eluded them thanks to this very disruptive offseason, they’ll move closer to these normal ranges.
  2. As we were warned it would, the mere specter of NIL legislation is destroying competitive parity across the sport, and only by remembering the virtues of amateu–ok fine, I just stuck this one in here to keep the structure parallel.
  3. College football in 2020’s pretty similar to the pandemic economy: The rich are getting richer, the poor aren’t getting any help, and the middle class continues to erode.