by Brian Fremeau
One of the data points I'm closely tracking this year is kickoff return value. College football made a kickoff rule change this offseason with player safety in mind, allowing a team to elect to fair catch a kickoff received inside its own 25-yard line and have it counted as a touchback, giving its offense the ball at its own 25-yard line on the ensuing possession. We'll want a full season's worth of data in the books before we reach any major conclusions about the impact of this rule change, but we do have a solid number of results thus far from which to draw some initial conclusions.
Before digging into 2018, it's important to note that a significant kickoff rule change also occurred prior to the start of the 2012 season. Before that year, college football teams kicked off at the start of the half or following an offensive score from their own 30-yard line, and touchbacks resulted in an ensuing offensive drive starting at the team's own 20-yard line. Beginning in 2012, teams kicked off from their own 35-yard line and touchbacks resulted in offensive drives starting at the receiving team's own 25-yard line.
That rule change had its own impact. From 2007 to 2011, 16.6 percent of kickoffs (in FBS games and non-garbage possessions only) resulted in a touchback or its equivalent (a kickoff return to the 20-yard line). From 2012 to 2017, that number more than doubled -- 40.3 percent of kickoffs resulted in a touchback or its equivalent (a kickoff return to the 25-yard line). The impact of the 2012 rule change on the number of kickoffs returned for touchdowns was less dramatic, but still measurable. Prior to the 2012 rule change, 0.9 percent of kickoffs were returned for touchdowns. After the rule change, only 0.7 percent of kickoffs were returned for touchdowns.
It's also important to clarify that the net value on kickoff returns must take into account turnovers recorded on those returns. In my data set, a turnover on a kickoff return includes situations in which the receiving team fumbles the ball back to the kicking team on the play, and also includes all successful onside kick attempts by the kicking team. Unsurprisingly, the data supports the concept that fewer kickoff returns lead to fewer turnovers on those returns. From 2007 to 2011, 1.4 percent of kickoff returns resulted in a turnover on the play. From 2012 to 2017, only 1.1 percent of kickoff returns resulted in a turnover on the play.
So how do the results to date in 2018 compare? The fact that there haven't been too many memorable kickoff returns of note is the first clue. South Florida had a pair of kickoff return touchdowns against Georgia Tech in Week 2 that helped spark their victory over the Yellow Jackets. Those return touchdowns were two of the merely seven total kickoff return touchdowns in non-garbage time FBS games recorded this season. Only 0.5 percent of all kickoffs this season have been returned for a touchdown. Only 0.7 percent have resulted in a turnover (fumble or successful onside kick) on the play. And a whopping 55.7 percent of kickoffs have resulted in a touchback or its equivalent through the first three weeks of this season.
The key data point I'm tracking is the net value for the receiving team on kickoff returns, taking into account all touchdowns, turnovers, and the resulting starting field position on all other kickoff return opportunities. From 2007 to 2011, the average net kickoff return value was 1.98 points per return. From 2012 to 2017, that number dipped to 1.89 points per return. Thus far in 2018, that number has dipped further to 1.87 points per return.
Again, we'll need to examine this data at the end of the year as well, but early indicators do show that there are fewer total returns, fewer touchdowns and turnovers on returns, and a slight reduction in average starting field position following a kickoff return. I'll leave it to the NCAA to evaluate the rule change on its stated goals of reducing player collisions and injury rates, but I'd expect it has been successful on that front thus far as well.
FEI Week 3 Ratings
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is a college football rating system based on opponent-adjusted possession efficiency. Preseason projections (57 percent weight in this week's ratings) are based on five-year results, recruiting success, and returning offensive and defensive production. Strength of Schedule ratings (SOS) represent the average number of losses an elite team (two standard deviations better than average) would have against the team's regular season schedule. Strength of Schedule ratings against opponents played to date (PSOS) are also calculated from the perspective of an elite team. Net points per drive (NPD) is the difference between each team's points scored per offensive drive and its points allowed per opponent offensive drive. Net starting field position (NFP) is the difference between the average starting field position for each team's offensive drives and its opponent's offensive drives.
|29||North Carolina State||1-0||.093||.96||59||.01||125||2.62||6||5.5||23|