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Baylor Will Likely Play in Some Close Games. “Playing it Safe” Could Cost Them.

Baylor forwent two possessions last Saturday. They should not do this in the future.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Kansas State
A very flattering picture of Matt Rhule
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Against Kansas State this past Saturday, two separate times in the first half Baylor folded despite holding a good hand.

First, just five minutes into the game on 4th down and 2 from Kansas State’s 45 yard line, Baylor punted.

Second, right before halftime, Baylor received the ball after a Kansas State punt at its own 21 yard line. There was 1:13 remaining in the half and, importantly, Baylor retained all three of its timeouts. Instead of attempting to get ~50 yards to get into field goal position, Baylor elected to get in a jumbo set and run the ball two times and let the clock run out.

These Decisions Made it Less Likely That Baylor Would Win the Game

A college football coach has ten thousand responsibilities. But on game day, each coach really only has one job: doing everything in his power to give his team the best chance to win the football game. It sounds trite, but it applies to every single decision point. The offensive and defensive coordinators are doing this every time they call a play. The head coach is doing this during flash points, such as whether to go for it on 4th down, whether to call a fake on a FG or punt, etc.

Of course, this is not always simple. Sometimes offensive coordinators will call plays that they know aren’t as likely to be successful as a different play because they’re trying to set something up for later in the game which will be more impactful in winning the game. Sometimes a defensive coordinator will play safer coverages because, even though it might make it more likely for the opposing offense to get a 1st down on that play, it makes it more likely that the defense will prevent points and thus give a better chance of winning the game.

For a head coach, this can get even more complicated. Baylor’s chances of converting on 4th and 2 are not the same as Kansas State’s, or any other FBS team. He has to know his team—know what they can and can’t do well and how that impacts the probabilities of converting.

As I’ll argue below, I think both of these critical decisions by Coach Rhule lowered Baylor’s chances of winning the game. More importantly, as Baylor gears up for a conference title run, these decisions to “play it safe” could make the difference in a critical game.

*Disclaimer: I shouldn’t even have to say this, but even though this article is criticizing two decisions made by Coach Rhule, it does not mean that I think he is a bad coach. Rhule is an incredible coach, what he has done at Baylor thus far has been nothing short of a miracle, and as a Baylor graduate I could not be more proud that he is representing our university. Coach Rhule preaches the process, which means looking at the good and the bad irrespective of the final score.

4th & 2 from Kansas State’s 45

Baylor’s second possession of the game began at their own 6 yard line. In just 7 plays the offense gained 49 yards (a very good 7 yards per play) to get to the Kansas State 45 yard line. Coach Rhule elects to punt, which resulted in a 32 yard punt and Kansas State beginning their drive from their own 13 yard line.

There’s a lot going on here, and about 15 different things running through my brain. To prevent this from getting too long, I’ll address each in bullet point:

  • Baylor’s redshirt freshman punter had just punted the same direction into the wind and it was a horrible, 18 yard punt. You cannot count on him to reliably pin K-State back.
  • 4th and 2 is a very manageable 4th down. Last year, Baylor converted on 59% of 4th downs. When you consider that many of these were much longer distances due to being behind in games, you can safely estimate that Baylor’s conversion rate at 2 yards is closer to 75-80%.
  • If Baylor converts this 4th down, they will almost assuredly score. This graph shows the expected points FBS teams will score with a 1st and 10 from different points on the field—the value of having a first down at the opposing team’s 40 yard line is ~3.5 points.
https://www.reddit.com/r/CFBAnalysis/comments/3utkur/expected_points_given_field_position_and_down/
  • Here’s an interesting thing you can do with that ~3.5 points datum. Let’s use our 75% chance of conversion that I settled on earlier. Rudimentarily, one can derive that the decision to go for it on this fourth down is expected to gain ~2.6 points (3.5*0.75). Thus, for the decision to punt to make sense, the punt needs to be worth 2.6 points of field position.
  • This statistic is also probably a low value for Baylor’s expected points. Offenses tend to gain momentum against defenses. Indeed, this possession where Baylor punted was the only drive of the game where Baylor did not score if it gained at least one first down on the drive. In other words, Baylor either scored or went 3 and out on every possession except for this one, if you discount Baylor kneeling at the end of the game, and Baylor essentially kneeling on its last possession of the 1st half. Furthermore, Baylor’s offense is better than average, which means that these expected value charts lowball Baylor’s actual expected value.
  • The best case scenario after the punt is to force K-State into a 3 and out and get the ball right back. As it turns out, because Baylor’s defense is awesome, that is exactly what happened and Baylor started its next possession at its own 46 yard line (i.e., 54 yards needed to score a TD). What did this best case scenario gain Baylor? Nothing. Using the same graph as used above, the expected point value starting at your own 46 yard line is ... around 2.6 points.
  • But of course, this was the best case scenario—the punt actually risked much more. Kansas State went 3 and out, but that was the best case scenario. Kansas State averaged 28 yards per drive in this game. Thus, on average, Baylor is getting the ball back around its own 25 instead of its own 46 after this decision to punt.
  • When Kansas State started their drive at their own 13 yard line, that drive had an expected point value of ~1.5 points. If Baylor had failed the 4th down conversion and Kansas State started its drive at its own 45 yard line, their expected value from that field position is ~2.6 points. But! Because Baylor only had ~25% of failing to convert, this is really only an expected point value of 0.65 points.
  • This is really the crux of the argument. Punting for thirty yards of field position only slightly lessened Kansas State’s chances of scoring but completely eliminated Baylor’s chances of scoring. I could keep going but I’m yammering and this is getting way too long.

Baylor Running Out the Clock with 1:25 Left and 3 Timeouts

Thus far, Baylor had two scoring drives in the first half. Both involved hitting long passes to its two primary wide receivers: Denzel Mims and Tyquan Thornton. But instead of trying its hand and taking advantage of this mismatch, Baylor elected to run the ball twice and let the clock run out. I’ll do a few bullet points again, but keep it briefer because this is getting way too long.

  • College football is not the NFL; it is way easier to drive down the field with less clock because the clock stops after every first down to reset the chains. 1:25 with three timeouts barely qualifies as a hurry up situation to get 50 yards into field goal position.
  • I don’t understand the downside here. You have a QB in Charlie Brewer who has not thrown an interception all year and is generally very careful with the football, so you can lessen the worry of an interception giving K State good field position. Thus, the barring turnovers worst case scenario is that you pass the ball three straight times, ~20 seconds runs off the clock, and you punt the ball back to K State who has two timeouts left and around 1:00 left on the clock.
  • Let’s even say that it is a very bad punt again, and thus in this worst case scenario Baylor gives the ball to Kansas State at around its own 45 yard line. Kansas State would need about 30 yards to get in reliable field goal position. This is what is so bad that you would just not even try to score?

Finally, A Conclusion

Baylor had 13 possessions in this game. They essentially elected to opt-out of two of them, playing for a minimal amount of field possession the first time and who knows on the second time.

I know that some of y’all are going to have a common objection: Dude, we won the game by 29 points, I think Rhule made the right decisions.

But this goes against everything Rhule talks about: process. You can’t just look at the final results. You have to look to every play, every decision, and see if you are doing everything you can to make it more likely to win the game. Baylor did a ton well this past Saturday. Dominating a decent K-State team at their place is no feat to take lightly. But they could have been better. And I hope that, as he has throughout his tenure at Baylor, Rhule stays aggressive, recognizing that every possession in CFB is extremely valuable.