GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It seems strange to say this, but the two most revealing moments of the 2016 Florida Gators season may have taken place Saturday against UMass.
The first play was a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 on the UMass 15-yard line. The attempt was successful and one play later, Antonio Callaway caught a touchdown pass to put the Gators up 7-0.
The second play came later in the half. McElwain again went for it on fourth down, but this time it followed an offside penalty that saw McElwain making the decision to negate a 28-yard Eddy Pineiro field goal in favor of being aggressive on fourth-and-1.
This time (but curiously not the first time) the SEC Network announcers (Tom Hart and Andre Ware) repeatedly questioned coach McElwain. Their reasoning was that he defied conventional wisdom and “took points off the board” before the second fourth-down attempt.
The second fourth-down attempt failed and left McElwain open to further scrutiny. But I contend that going for it both times should have made every Florida fan giddy.
Statistically, going for it on fourth-and-short is almost always the correct call. This is especially true when deep in the opponent’s territory because of the ability to pin the opponent deep even with a failed attempt.
Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics has an excellent, detailed explanation on when this is true and expected point values for various situations. The take-home from his work: Coaches often take points off the board by kicking the field goal rather than going for it on fourth down deep in enemy territory.
During the Will Muschamp era (2011-2014), the Gators averaged 14 fourth down attempts. Coach McElwain – in contrast – was extremely aggressive and attempted fourth down conversions 27 times in 2015.
Record-wise, the 2015 Gators were a better football team than the 2014 squad. However, by point differential they were worse (+4.9 vs. +9.2). Their 2014 record is somewhat attributable to a 2-3 record in close games while their 2015 record in close games was 5-1 (note that I’m defining close games as those decided by seven points or less).
Think about how easy it would have been to turn the 2014 LSU and South Carolina debacles from losses to wins. (Tevin Westbrook’s drop and a blocked punt with 46 seconds left, respectively.) In that case, the 2014 Gators would have been 9-3 instead of 7-5 and Muschamp is still the coach (see, there is a silver lining to watching these clips).
Of course, anyone who watched those games understands that those situations are exactly why Muschamp is not the coach.
We’ve compared the ’14 and ’15 teams, eliminating the cupcake games against the likes of New Mexico State or Eastern Michigan. In these games (deemed competitive in the figure below), the 2015 team had a positive point differential (0.8) while the 2014 team had a negative point differential (-0.4). This indicates that the 2015 team played better against better competition, and that they deserved to win more close games than their 2014 counterparts.
A prime example was last year at the end of the first half against Kentucky. In this case, Florida converted a fourth-and-2 at the Kentucky 37 and eventually scored a touchdown to extend their lead to 14-3. Most coaches punt in that situation, but in this case the aggressiveness helped facilitate a 14-9 Florida victory.
But that was last year. This year is marked by the addition of kicker Eddy Pineiro. Luring Pineiro away from Alabama was a major recruiting coup for McElwain this offseason. His debut in the Swamp did not disappoint as he made all three of his field goal attempts and had the Florida crowd chanting his name.
McElwain didn’t need to make fourth-down judgement calls last year because there was so little value to be derived from the kicking game. But the upgrade from Austin Hardin to Pineiro poses an interesting strategic question.
McElwain now has the opportunity to default to conventional wisdom of being less aggressive in situations where statistically he would be harming his team to do so. The UMass game appears to be an indication that he is going to be aggressive, regardless of his upgraded kicking situation.
This is supported by the information available from his previous head coaching stop. As the head coach at Colorado State from 2012-2014, McElwain averaged 20 fourth-down attempts per year. His lowest number of attempts was 14, matching Muschamp’s average for his entire tenure at Florida.
Florida fans also got some insight into his thinking during the halftime interview on McElwain’s way into the locker room. SEC Network sideline reporter Cole Cubelic asked specifically about “his mind-set of taking points off the board and going for it on fourth down.”
McElwain’s response? “Well, you know, it’s something I’d do again.”
The Florida offense left something to be desired against UMass, but McElwain’s decisions led to an increase in overall points scored (seven vs. six if he had settled for two field goals).
At some point, this strategy is going to fail in a close game and McElwain is going to be second-guessed loudly by the same media who was criticizing him on Saturday night. But McElwain’s decisions on fourth down and his determination to do it again prove that he understands how to use his decision-making to gain an advantage at the edges.
More than anything, it suggests that Florida’s record in close games last year was not a complete anomaly.