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Who rules third down in college football?

Indiana v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

In today’s Ohio State-Wisconsin preview at SB Nation, I noted that Paul Chryst’s Badgers have thrived this year on third down. On offense, they create third-and-manageable, then spread the ball around to move the chains; on defense, it doesn’t matter — they sack you on third-and-10, and they stuff you on third-and-2.

Of course, Ohio State is pretty good on all downs. Opponent adjustments aren’t particularly kind to the Buckeyes and suggest a third-down advantage for Wisconsin, but since I reference average third down yards to go in the SBN piece, I thought now might be a pretty good time to share some raw averages.

Every football announcer and analyst in the history of the world has at one point or another espoused the importance of third downs to your success. But they frequently address the topic as if the first two downs don’t matter. The first two downs define the third, and Ohio State has dominated because of it.

The correlation between third-down distance and third-down success is obvious. Here, I am sharing both figures.

Offense Avg Dist
(Off)
Rk 3D%
(Off)
Rk Avg Dist
(Def)
Rk 3D%
(Def)
Rk Distance
Margin
Rk Conversion
Margin
Rk
Southern Miss 6.21 14 46.9 25 9.75 1 19.4 4 3.54 1 27.4 3
Ohio State 5.61 1 52.9 5 8.26 11 29.0 15 2.65 2 23.9 5
Toledo 5.92 6 56.8 1 8.48 6 19.4 3 2.56 3 37.4 1
Michigan 5.96 8 48.2 19 8.42 8 12.2 1 2.46 4 36.0 2
Florida 5.63 2 50.6 11 8.00 20 27.9 11 2.37 5 22.7 8
Texas A&M 6.05 9 38.7 72 8.30 10 34.0 36 2.25 6 4.7 51
Virginia Tech 6.35 21 44.4 39 8.59 5 19.2 2 2.24 7 25.3 4
Ball State 6.08 11 45.5 34 8.22 13 38.3 58 2.14 8 7.2 36
Arizona State 5.75 4 42.7 47 7.85 26 35.7 48 2.10 9 7.0 39
Air Force 6.05 9 48.1 20 7.94 23 39.7 78 1.89 10 8.3 30
Nebraska 6.24 17 53.0 3 8.05 19 30.7 20 1.81 11 22.4 9
NC State 6.36 23 46.2 29 8.08 18 28.2 12 1.72 12 18.0 15
Wake Forest 5.65 3 42.4 50 7.36 53 36.4 51 1.71 13 6.1 42
Clemson 5.93 7 46.7 28 7.51 46 26.0 8 1.58 14 20.6 10
Western Kentucky 7.17 71 36.6 90 8.69 3 45.9 107 1.52 15 -9.3 111
Utah 6.86 50 40.9 63 8.21 15 39.7 76 1.35 16 1.2 70
Boise State 7.06 62 50.0 12 8.37 9 37.0 55 1.31 17 13.0 22
Houston 6.66 37 51.4 8 7.96 21 28.6 14 1.30 18 22.9 7
Duke 6.66 37 37.9 76 7.95 22 33.7 33 1.29 19 4.2 56
Alabama 6.94 54 48.8 16 8.22 13 31.6 24 1.28 20 17.2 16
UL-Lafayette 7.00 58 36.5 93 8.14 16 34.1 37 1.14 21 2.4 65
Arizona 6.54 28 36.6 91 7.68 33 47.6 117 1.14 22 -11.0 116
Missouri 5.82 5 45.5 35 6.96 77 40.2 83 1.14 22 5.2 49
Army 6.20 13 44.3 41 7.33 55 33.9 35 1.13 24 10.4 26
Navy 6.50 27 46.9 25 7.60 39 41.1 85 1.10 25 5.8 45
Offense Avg Dist
(Off)
Rk 3D%
(Off)
Rk Avg Dist
(Def)
Rk 3D%
(Def)
Rk Distance
Margin
Rk Conversion
Margin
Rk
UNLV 7.41 89 38.8 70 8.46 7 40.0 80 1.05 26 -1.2 81
Mississippi State 6.76 42 30.9 119 7.77 28 38.9 62 1.01 27 -8.0 107
Texas 6.48 25 39.2 69 7.48 48 42.7 92 1.00 28 -3.4 86
UL-Monroe 6.68 39 42.5 49 7.67 34 48.6 121 0.99 29 -6.1 97
Wisconsin 6.60 33 41.6 56 7.57 42 23.0 5 0.97 30 18.6 13
Miami-FL 7.78 108 41.5 58 8.73 2 28.2 13 0.95 31 13.3 21
Louisville 7.29 82 48.5 17 8.23 12 24.7 6 0.94 32 23.8 6
Baylor 6.59 31 46.9 23 7.52 44 39.3 71 0.93 33 7.6 33
Stanford 6.60 33 41.5 57 7.52 44 47.8 118 0.92 34 -6.3 98
Central Florida 7.79 109 33.7 109 8.67 4 29.8 17 0.88 35 4.0 57
Auburn 6.22 15 47.3 22 7.04 73 31.5 23 0.82 36 15.7 17
Western Michigan 6.17 12 51.2 9 6.97 76 38.7 61 0.80 37 12.5 25
Pittsburgh 6.48 25 43.5 43 7.18 67 35.4 45 0.70 38 8.1 31
Tulsa 6.56 29 37.7 78 7.25 64 32.6 30 0.69 39 5.1 50
Rutgers 7.10 64 29.0 122 7.77 28 38.6 59 0.67 40 -9.6 113
Boston College 7.26 79 36.0 96 7.90 25 30.0 18 0.64 41 6.0 43
Louisiana Tech 6.65 36 50.7 10 7.29 61 46.8 112 0.64 42 3.9 58
Penn State 7.49 93 27.4 123 8.12 17 37.5 56 0.63 43 -10.1 115
Charlotte 6.35 21 30.9 120 6.93 81 50.0 127 0.58 44 -19.2 126
New Mexico 6.70 40 36.2 95 7.27 62 43.9 99 0.57 45 -7.7 106
Appalachian State 7.12 68 30.0 121 7.63 37 35.4 44 0.51 46 -5.4 93
Wyoming 7.18 74 34.6 104 7.67 34 39.4 73 0.49 47 -4.8 90
West Virginia 6.32 19 45.6 33 6.81 88 46.5 111 0.49 48 -0.9 80
Ohio 7.26 79 37.4 83 7.73 30 34.9 43 0.47 49 2.4 64
Troy 6.86 50 37.5 79 7.33 55 27.4 10 0.47 50 10.1 27
Offense Avg Dist
(Off)
Rk 3D%
(Off)
Rk Avg Dist
(Def)
Rk 3D%
(Def)
Rk Distance
Margin
Rk Conversion
Margin
Rk
Arkansas 6.91 52 43.4 44 7.37 52 48.0 119 0.46 51 -4.6 89
Florida State 7.18 74 46.9 23 7.61 38 41.4 89 0.43 52 5.5 46
Iowa 7.17 71 36.8 89 7.59 40 32.6 28 0.42 53 4.3 55
Old Dominion 6.82 48 39.8 67 7.23 65 32.6 28 0.41 54 7.2 38
Kansas 7.30 85 34.7 102 7.70 31 32.4 27 0.40 55 2.3 66
Oklahoma 6.62 35 49.2 14 7.01 75 40.0 80 0.39 56 9.2 28
TCU 6.96 56 47.9 21 7.30 60 43.3 95 0.34 57 4.6 52
Connecticut 6.82 48 37.4 84 7.10 71 42.2 91 0.28 58 -4.8 91
Florida International 7.11 65 37.0 88 7.33 55 39.3 71 0.22 59 -2.3 83
Washington State 6.76 42 52.0 6 6.95 80 39.1 66 0.19 60 12.9 23
Tennessee 6.59 31 42.4 51 6.77 94 33.7 34 0.18 61 8.7 29
Illinois 6.75 41 31.2 118 6.90 82 43.5 96 0.15 62 -12.3 120
Colorado 6.44 24 46.9 25 6.59 104 33.0 32 0.15 63 13.9 19
Northern Illinois 6.76 42 35.7 98 6.90 82 42.1 90 0.14 64 -6.4 99
Northwestern 7.17 71 36.4 94 7.31 59 36.4 51 0.14 65 0.0 75
Georgia Southern 7.19 76 45.8 32 7.32 58 27.1 9 0.13 66 18.7 12
Washington 6.33 20 49.2 15 6.42 116 31.2 22 0.09 67 18.0 14
Temple 7.11 65 34.7 103 7.12 70 30.3 19 0.01 68 4.3 54
LSU 6.80 45 42.6 48 6.78 92 29.1 16 -0.02 69 13.5 20
Minnesota 7.73 104 45.3 37 7.70 31 39.5 74 -0.03 70 5.8 44
USC 7.38 88 38.8 71 7.35 54 39.1 69 -0.03 70 -0.4 78
Purdue 6.22 15 51.8 7 6.15 124 50.6 128 -0.07 72 1.1 71
Virginia 7.26 79 41.4 60 7.18 67 47.4 115 -0.08 73 -6.0 95
San Diego State 8.05 119 33.9 108 7.93 24 30.7 21 -0.12 74 3.2 60
South Alabama 7.11 65 38.4 74 6.96 77 32.1 26 -0.15 75 6.2 40
Offense Avg Dist
(Off)
Rk 3D%
(Off)
Rk Avg Dist
(Def)
Rk 3D%
(Def)
Rk Distance
Margin
Rk Conversion
Margin
Rk
BYU 6.56 29 48.3 18 6.40 117 41.0 84 -0.16 76 7.3 35
Oklahoma State 7.98 115 41.8 53 7.81 27 35.6 46 -0.17 77 6.2 41
Rice 7.66 102 34.2 106 7.46 49 41.2 87 -0.20 78 -7.0 104
Middle Tennessee 6.81 47 53.0 4 6.59 104 32.9 31 -0.22 79 20.1 11
Colorado State 7.08 63 36.0 97 6.83 87 48.4 120 -0.25 80 -12.5 122
Syracuse 6.92 53 41.4 59 6.61 102 36.2 50 -0.31 81 5.3 48
South Florida 6.25 18 45.4 36 5.94 127 37.8 57 -0.31 81 7.5 34
Kent State 7.90 111 34.7 101 7.59 40 34.1 37 -0.31 83 0.7 72
Memphis 7.56 99 37.5 79 7.23 65 24.7 6 -0.33 84 12.8 24
Vanderbilt 7.87 110 33.7 109 7.51 46 40.2 82 -0.36 85 -6.5 101
Maryland 8.02 118 37.5 79 7.65 36 32.1 25 -0.37 86 5.4 47
Kansas State 7.76 107 43.8 42 7.39 50 35.9 49 -0.37 87 7.8 32
Ole Miss 7.29 82 42.4 52 6.88 84 39.7 78 -0.41 88 2.6 62
SMU 7.12 68 34.3 105 6.70 97 39.6 75 -0.42 89 -5.3 92
Eastern Michigan 6.95 55 44.7 38 6.49 110 43.0 94 -0.46 90 1.7 69
Buffalo 6.80 45 38.2 75 6.33 120 44.6 100 -0.47 91 -6.4 100
Hawaii 8.08 120 35.2 100 7.57 42 45.1 104 -0.51 92 -9.9 114
Georgia 7.00 58 40.0 66 6.49 110 36.6 54 -0.51 92 3.4 59
Oregon 7.69 103 45.9 30 7.17 69 47.4 114 -0.52 94 -1.5 82
Georgia Tech 7.61 101 41.7 54 7.04 73 45.7 106 -0.57 95 -4.0 87
UCLA 7.29 82 37.2 86 6.71 96 34.7 41 -0.58 96 2.5 63
Oregon State 7.22 78 41.3 62 6.61 102 43.9 98 -0.61 97 -2.7 84
Tulane 7.16 70 26.7 125 6.55 109 39.0 65 -0.61 98 -12.4 121
East Carolina 6.99 57 37.8 77 6.37 118 35.6 47 -0.62 99 2.1 68
Utah State 7.52 94 41.4 61 6.87 86 39.1 69 -0.65 100 2.3 67
Offense Avg Dist
(Off)
Rk 3D%
(Off)
Rk Avg Dist
(Def)
Rk 3D%
(Def)
Rk Distance
Margin
Rk Conversion
Margin
Rk
UTSA 7.54 98 39.4 68 6.88 84 39.0 64 -0.66 101 0.5 73
North Carolina 7.00 58 44.4 39 6.34 119 44.8 101 -0.66 101 -0.4 77
Marshall 7.94 112 32.5 114 7.26 63 43.8 97 -0.68 103 -11.4 117
Idaho 7.53 95 31.4 115 6.80 91 46.0 108 -0.73 104 -14.6 123
Michigan State 7.56 99 38.6 73 6.77 94 45.2 105 -0.79 105 -6.6 102
Iowa State 7.43 91 41.6 55 6.62 101 41.1 86 -0.81 106 0.5 74
Cincinnati 7.03 61 43.0 46 6.22 122 47.5 116 -0.81 107 -4.5 88
Florida Atlantic 7.42 90 31.3 116 6.58 108 46.0 108 -0.84 108 -14.7 124
North Texas 8.22 121 36.6 92 7.38 51 44.9 103 -0.84 109 -8.3 108
San Jose State 7.53 95 40.7 64 6.65 100 36.4 51 -0.88 110 4.3 53
Indiana 7.37 87 37.3 85 6.46 113 34.2 40 -0.91 111 3.2 61
Texas State 7.75 105 32.9 113 6.78 92 39.7 76 -0.97 112 -6.8 103
Bowling Green 7.53 95 25.5 127 6.45 114 48.8 123 -1.08 113 -23.3 127
Akron 8.23 122 35.7 98 7.10 71 41.3 88 -1.13 114 -5.6 94
New Mexico State 7.75 105 40.5 65 6.59 104 49.3 124 -1.16 115 -8.8 109
South Carolina 8.01 117 27.1 124 6.81 88 39.1 67 -1.20 116 -12.0 119
California 7.20 77 43.1 45 5.97 126 46.2 110 -1.23 117 -3.0 85
Central Michigan 8.28 123 45.9 30 6.96 77 38.6 60 -1.32 118 7.2 36
Nevada 7.31 86 49.4 13 5.98 125 49.4 125 -1.33 119 0.0 76
Fresno State 7.95 113 33.0 112 6.47 112 39.1 67 -1.48 120 -6.1 96
Arkansas State 8.34 124 23.9 128 6.70 97 48.8 122 -1.64 121 -24.9 128
Georgia State 7.44 92 37.1 87 5.80 128 44.8 102 -1.64 122 -7.7 105
Texas Tech 8.34 124 53.1 2 6.69 99 38.9 62 -1.65 123 14.2 18
Miami-OH 8.53 126 31.2 117 6.81 88 42.7 93 -1.72 124 -11.5 118
Notre Dame 7.99 116 33.3 111 6.24 121 34.1 37 -1.75 125 -0.7 79
Kentucky 7.95 113 34.2 106 6.17 123 49.5 126 -1.78 126 -15.2 125
UTEP 8.99 127 37.5 79 6.43 115 46.8 113 -2.56 127 -9.3 112
Massachusetts 9.28 128 25.6 126 6.59 104 34.7 41 -2.69 128 -9.1 110

Perhaps the most interesting parts of this table are the differences. For the most part, the correlations are obvious. Offenses like Ohio State, Toledo, and Florida have been great at creating short third downs and converting them. Defenses like Southern Miss, Toledo, and Michigan have been great at creating long third downs and stopping them. And for teams like Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Georgia State, it's been the opposite.

Some teams buck the trend, though. Texas Tech's third downs are drastically long, and the Red Raiders convert them better than almost anybody anyway. Texas A&M, meanwhile, is in the opposite boat. And on defense, teams like Auburn and Tennessee are allowing opponents to create shorter third downs but are stopping them all the same, while Western Kentucky, Air Force, Boise State, and Arizona are leveraging teams into third-and-long and then letting them off the hook.

Louisiana Tech v Texas Tech
Pat Mahomes is better on third-and-long than most are on third-and-short.
Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

Certain styles of offense and defense can make up (or lose) ground on third downs, but most see their success defined by how well they’re doing on first and second.