by Brian Fremeau
Maryland recorded a blowout victory by 41 points over Rutgers last weekend. After opening up a 27-7 lead at the half, the Terrapins returned the second half kickoff 100 yards to the end zone before tacking on two more scores in the third quarter. That kickoff return touchdown was the only non-garbage kickoff return touchdown in an FBS game last weekend.
There were 464 other kickoffs in Week 6 FBS games in addition to the Maryland score, and most were unremarkable. Seven of them (1.5 percent of all kickoffs on the weekend) resulted in a successful onside kick or a fumbled return recovered by the kicking team. The remaining 457 were either fielded or allowed to bounce through the end zone for a touchback -- I don't maintain a distinction in my records; rather, I record the starting field position of the receiving team on the ensuing possession. Last weekend, 198 of the 457 non-scoring, non-onside, and non-fumbled kickoff returns resulted in a starting field position other than the receiving team's own 25-yard line. That is, whether the receiving team fielded the kickoff and ran it back to their own 25-yard line, or the ball was placed there by touchback rule, 259 out of 465 kickoffs in Week 6 (55.7%) resulted in starting field position at the same place on the field: the receiving team's own 25-yard line.
Is it strange that more than half of all kickoff returns result in starting field position at the same point on the field? Beginning at the start of the 2018 season, a rule change was administered to allow kickoff receiving teams to signal a fair catch on a kickoff when fielding the ball to have it automatically placed at the 25-yard line. This change was made to reduce the number of violent impacts on kickoff returns and protect players. It has also had an impact on starting field position following kickoffs.
Over the course of the 2019 season to date, 58.5% of all kickoffs have resulted in the receiving team starting their next possession on their own 25-yard line. Last season, that percentage was only 54.8%. In 2017, prior to the fair catch rule's introduction, only 45.0% of all kickoffs resulted in starting field position at the team's own 25-yard line. Prior to the 2012 season, kickoffs were from the kicking team's own 30-yard line (not the 35-yard line as they are today) and touchbacks were placed at the receiving team's own 20-yard line (not the 25-yard line as they are today). Way back in 2007, only 14.3% of kickoffs resulted in starting field position for the receiving team at the touchback location, and only 3.7% of kickoffs resulted in starting field position at the receiving team's own 25-yard line.
Average starting field position in college football is, of course, only partially tied to kickoff rules. So far in the 2019 season, 43.2% of all offensive possessions began following an opponent kickoff. Another 38.2% of offensive possessions began following an opponent punt. The remaining 18.6% of offensive possessions follow an opponent fumble, interception, turnover on downs, or failed field goal attempt. Of these three types of possession change events, the first two are nearly indistinguishable in terms of average starting field position. Offenses have started at their own 27-yard line on average following kickoffs, and at their own 27-yard line following punts. Following other possession change events, offenses have started at their own 44-yard line. Those numbers are consistent with 2018 season results, and with 2017 season results as well, prior to the most recent kickoff rule change.
Across all possession change event types, offenses are starting drives at their own 30-yard line on average. This is true in 2019, and was true in 2018 and in 2017. The kickoff rule in and of itself has not had a significant impact on average starting field position. But even though the average has not changed, the mode has changed -- the most frequent starting field position location (a team's own-30 yard line) has increasingly become more frequent. The percentage of offensive drives started at the team's own 25-yard line since 2012 are indicated below:
- 2012: 17.5%
- 2013: 18.0%
- 2014: 18.3%
- 2015: 18.7%
- 2016: 19.3%
- 2017: 20.9%
- 2018: 25.6% (new fair catch rule instituted)
- 2019: 27.1% (through Week 6)
Is the game of college football being contested in a fundamentally different way with a higher concentration of possessions started at the same point on the field? I'm not sure about that, but I do wonder if and how that figure will continue to grow and how it may impact the game. I'd posit that a theoretical game in which all possessions were started at a team's own 25-yard line would more heavily favor the stronger team than one in which field position was more fluid and short field opportunities could be seized upon by the underdog. That said, it's probably a stretch to suggest that these changes in starting field position mode are tied to the observations of "chalkiness" in recent season results. But it is something to continue to pay attention to as this year and future years play out.
2019 FEI Ratings (through Week 6)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Ratings this week are partly (14%) based on weighted five-year FEI ratings. OFEI Offense ratings (OFEI) and Projected DFEI Defense ratings (DFEI) represent per-possession advantages projected for each unit. Projected losses (PL) represent the average number of losses expected based on individual game win likelihoods in regular season games. Projected season outcome distributions are also provided, represented as the% chance of losing a given number of regular season games (0L is zero losses, 1L is one loss, etc).