On Tennessee’s 12 opening offensive possessions last season, the results of the Volunteers’ drives were as follows: punt, field goal, punt, fumble, punt, field goal, fumble, punt, punt, punt, punt and punt – a dismal 0.50 points-per-drive average.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Alabama went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, punt, interception, touchdown, interception on its first offensive possession in each of its 15 games last season – a machine-like 5.13 points per drive.
We analyzed the first-drive production for every SEC team in order to evaluate how each school started games last season. Teams will script their opening drives, often the first 10 to 15 plays, in order to test the defense and see how it reacts to different offensive formations, alignments and play types.
Did teams try to establish the run? Did they typically pass on first down during their first drive?
How often did they gain at least five yards on first down, setting up friendly downs and distances to move the chains?
How often did they have an explosive play on their opening drive, which could lead to an early score and establish a recipe for success that could potentially be repeated for big plays throughout the game?
We tried to answer these questions and others through our analysis. We didn’t count punts or kicks on 4th down in our analysis, plays that were ruled as “no play” due to a penalty, or possessions in which teams returned a kick for a touchdown the first time they received the ball.
On average, Ole Miss and Alabama roughly averaged a ten-yard gain on 1st-down plays during their opening drives last season – in other words, they averaged a 1st down. The Rebels averaged 10.3 yards on 1st down during their first offensive possessions last season, while the Crimson Tide averaged 9.8 yards.
While a willingness to pass on 1st down early in the game benefitted Ole Miss and Alabama, it doesn’t necessary guarantee big gains on 1st down. Florida threw it just as often as Ole Miss during its opening drive but the Gators averaged nearly six fewer yards on 1st down during their opening drives.
The following scatter plot shows the relationship between percent of passing plays on first down during SEC teams’ opening drives last season and their average yards gained on 1st down.
Studies have shown that 2nd & 5 is preferable to 1st & 10, but that 1st & 10 is preferable to 2nd & 6, so gaining at least five yards on 1st down is critical for offenses. Here’s the relationship between how often teams passed on 1st down and how often their 1st downs results in gains of at least five yards.
Once again, Alabama and Ole Miss are in a favorable position in the upper-righthand corner of the scatter plot, while Tennessee appears in the opposite corner as a team that rarely threw the ball on 1st down during its opening drives and gained five yards on 1st down just a third of the time in those scenarios.
Run vs. Pass
When we examined which teams were more inclined to run the ball on their first offensive possession of the game versus throwing it, and vice versa, we found that teams were arguably more productive on a yards-per-attempt basis based on how often they ran or passed the ball.
The scatter plot below shows the relationship between how often teams ran the ball on their opening drive and how many yards per carry they averaged on those drives. Kentucky, Texas A&M, Georgia and Vanderbilt ran the ball more than 55 percent of the time on their first offensive possession of the game and each team averaged at least 6.4 yards per carry on those drives.
There also appears to be a potential correlation between the frequency that SEC teams passed the ball during their first offensive possession of games last season and how many yards they averaged on those passing plays.
While the cluster of Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida provides potential counterpoints of teams that threw the ball (inefficiently) on more than half of the plays during their opening drive, the pattern of the other 11 teams in the conference suggests a potential trend line between passing frequency and average yards per pass attempt.
Positive and explosive plays
We already hinted at Tennessee’s struggles on its first offensive possession of the game last season and here’s another metric that supports that sentiment: positive play percentage.
Just 52.5 percent of Tennessee’s plays on its opening drives gained at least one yard.
For the conference as a whole, 71.9 percent of plays on SEC teams’ opening drives were positive plays, so the Volunteers were nearly 20 percent worse than the conference average and almost 30 percent worst than SEC-best South Carolina, which boasted an 81.2 percent positive play percentage.
Too often the Volunteers were stuffed at the line or tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
|School||Positive Play Percentage|
It should come as no surprise that Alabama’s offense was the most explosive in the conference on its first possession of the game as the Crimson Tide gained at least 10 yards on 37.6 percent of its plays on its opening drives.
The third column in the chart below shows the yards per play averages of SEC teams on their opening drives.
|School||Explosive Play Percentage (10+ yards)||Yards Per Play|
Points per drive
Ultimately, the most important stat when teams have the ball on offense is points scored.
Positive plays, explosive plays and plays on 1st down that result in gains of at least five yards only matter if those drives result in points – touchdowns, ideally.
As we teased in the lede, Alabama averaged more than 10 times as many points on its opening drives last season than Tennessee – a massive gap from first to 14th in the conference in that category.
Here’s the complete breakdown.
|School||Points Per Opening Drive|