Patrick Barron / MGoBlog
(You should probably read the prior installment of this series before this one in order to understand the context and motivation of this article.)
I collected the data on Jim Harbaugh’s fourth-down decision making for the 2016 season and the results were staggering enough that I had to have the co-founder of this site check my work. We ultimately came up with a “success rate” of 91.1%, counting decisions that didn’t follow the Romer chart but were deemed correct by yours truly given the larger context of the game. If you went purely by the Romer chart, our success rate is 76.8%. Using either metric, this is a substantial improvement from last season.
A couple notes:
- This time around I used Bill Connely’s definition of “garbage time” (up 25 in the second quarter, 22 in the third quarter, and/or 17 in the fourth) instead of my own subjective evaluation of when the game effectively was over in an attempt to get rid of some of the subjectivity included in last season’s edition.
- Michigan blew out seven of their 12 regular-season opponents, so this chart was significantly easier to compile than last year’s.
- I did not chart the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game, the final offensive play against Indiana (it was a full-blown blizzard in Ann Arbor at that point and IU had effective conceded), the fourth-down attempt in overtime against Ohio State, or the final play of the Orange Bowl since we obviously didn’t have a choice.
- There were only five punts I gave the “red” designation, and even then I felt that I may have been being unreasonably harsh on Harbaugh since these were coming up correct at such a higher clip than last season.
- Michigan was 13 for 20 on fourth-down conversion attempts in 2016 compared to six for 16 in 2015. More of these came in garbage time this year than last, hence the disparity in charted attempts.
Without further adieu…
This is some serious progress. Harbaugh’s decision making already agreed with the metrics a good bit last season but this is a big step forward. I have a few hypotheses on why.
- Last season’s defensive production fell off with the injury of Ryan Glasgow, most notably when Indiana gashed Michigan to the tune of 307 rushing yards in Bloomington and obviously the dreadful 2015 edition of The Game. This was not at all the case this year. Don Brown’s defense was stout all season long, even in Columbus when it was only a total absence of discretionary penalties called on the Buckeyes that prevented Michigan from defeating the #2 team in the country on the road. Because of this, Harbaugh was certainly more confident in their ability to get a stop when given a short field.
- Michigan Football has a larger team of analysts now than they did under previous regimes. It’s not hard to believe that they made have had a part in this trend. I apologize for not being able to find the link, but I seem to remember Brian Cook of MGoBlog suspecting that the team of analysts likely had a big role in finding trends and alignments of opponents that led to big special teams plays this season, i.e. the myriad blocked punts, fake field goal on extra-point attempt against Rutgers, sniffing out the fake punt against Ohio State, etc. This crew is employed to give ample attention to the little details and this is potentially one of them.
- Michigan’s offensive S&P “success rate”* was 45.5% (24th nationally) in ’15 and 44% (46th nationally) in ’16, so Michigan did not convert on third and short or medium more often than last season, which would have given them less instances where the decision to punt or leave the offense on the field was a difficult one. Some of this trend can consequentially be attributed to plain luck.
*To clarify, Football Outsiders defines this as “a common tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.” Of course, this is a different “success rate” than I provided above at the beginning of this piece: the percentage of the time Jim Harbaugh’s decision to punt or go for it on fourth down was deemed the correct one. I regret not using different terminology.