Here’s How Your Coach’s Background Affects His Fourth Down Decision-Making

In the biggest upset of Week 7, South Carolina’s 20-17 double-overtime stunner at No. 3 Georgia, both coaches — Georgia’s Kirby Smart and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp — kept their offense on the field to attempt one fourth down conversion. Technically, Georgia went for it on fourth down twice but the Bulldogs’ incompletion on 4th & 6 with 1:53 remaining was counted as “no play” after South Carolina was flagged for holding.

Earlier in the game with Smart’s Dawgs leading 10-7 in the second quarter, facing 4th & 6 at South Carolina’s 38-yard line, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm threw an incompletion intended for Demetris Robertson. The Gamecocks took that friendly field position and settled for a 49-yard field goal after their offense stalled out after seven plays and only 30 yards on the drive.

In the second overtime period, Muschamp called for a fourth down conversion attempt on 4th & 1 at Georgia’s 16-yard line. His kicker, Parker White, had just missed a 33-yard attempt in the first overtime that would’ve won the game for South Carolina so White would’ve had another kick from the same distance if Muschamp played it safe.

Instead, Rico Dowdle picked up eight yards on 4th & 1, allowing South Carolina to later kick a 24-yard, chip-shot field goal with White that won the game.

Georgia ranks 122nd nationally in fourth down attempts this season with four, and South Carolina is just below the national average (9.7) with nine fourth down attempts this season.

That’s not surprising considering the coaching backgrounds of Smart and Muschamp — two former defensive backs at Georgia who were later SEC defensive coordinators before getting their first college head coaching gigs.

Keeping that in mind, we analyzed the fourth down conversion attempts of all 130 FBS teams through the lens of their head coach’s background. We looked through each coach’s history as an assistant coach or coordinator and labeled his background as “offensive” or “defensive.”

We found that 29 of the top 30 teams in terms of the number of fourth down attempts this season (those that have tried at least 13 through Week 7) are coached by someone with an offensive background, suggesting potential relationships between an offensive coaching background and a willingness for aggressive decision-making on fourth down, and a defensive coaching background and trusting one’s defense after electing to punt on fourth down.

The following scatter plot shows the 67 FBS schools that have attempted at least 10 fourth down conversions through Week 7 this season, meaning more than the national average.

North Texas, coached by Seth Littrell, who has experience as an offensive coordinator at Arizona, Indiana and North Carolina, leads the country with 20 fourth down attempts this season.

Blue dots signify coaches who have an offensive background while red dots signify a defensive background.

The second scatter plot shows coaches who have attempted fewer than 10 fourth down attempts through Week 7, meaning less than the national average.

The seven-week sample size shown above tells us that offensive-minded head coaches collectively have the same floor, or potential passiveness, as defensive-minded head coaches, when it comes to going for it on fourth down.

Five of the nine schools that have attempted the fewest number of fourth down conversions this season are led by coaches with an offensive background.

But the variance of fourth down attempts by offensive-minded head coaches is much higher and their aggressiveness also skews much higher considering that 22 head coaches with an offensive background have attempted more fourth down conversions this season than the defensive-minded coach with the most fourth down attempts through Week 7 (San Diego State’s Rocky Long, 13).

Of course, there are other factors that can impact how often a team goes for it on fourth down.

Some of the best offenses in the country have rarely gone for it on fourth down this season — No. 2 LSU and No. 4 Ohio State have both attempted just three fourth down conversions — because either a) they pick up first downs and score touchdowns at such a high rate that they rarely face a 4th & short situation that’s worth a conversion attempt, or b) they’re already winning by so many points that there’s no need to run up the score or let future opponents gain insight into their fourth down play-calling.

There’s potentially a slight relationship between a team’s offensive SP+ ranking and its number of fourth down attempts, meaning teams with worse offenses have gone for it more often on fourth down, which probably speaks to those teams trailing in games and their coaches feeling the need to be aggressive in order to cut the deficit.

The trendline above has an R^2 value of 0.062, which suggests the scatter plot above explains little of the variance between a trendline and how often a given team has gone for it on fourth down.

There’s even less of a relationship between the number of fourth down attempts and the strength of a team’s defense, as measured by the SP+ rankings. The R^2 value of the relationship below is 0.027.

There’s a chance that the College Football Playoff could be determined by a key fourth down conversion given the success of No. 6 Wisconsin (8-for-8), No. 1 Alabama (7-for-8), No. 7 Penn State (5-for-6) and No. 5 Oklahoma (4-for-5) on fourth down this season.

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