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Clemson was the king of three-and-outs in 2016

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It seemed to pay off.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Clemson’s Wayne Gallman
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s Illinois preview at SB Nation, I drew reference to three-and-out rates (drives that feature three plays and a punt). I did this because Illinois’ were amazingly awful, but since I broached the topic I figured I should share the whole list.

As I put it in the Illini piece, creating and avoiding three-and-outs is merely step one toward having a good offense or defense. Purdue, for instance, was pretty good at moving the chains once and pretty iffy at everything else. Still, it’s something we draw reference to here and there, but it’s not a list I share frequently enough.

We’ll start with offense. Here’s a list of FBS teams and their three-and-out rates for 2016. I’m also including what I call three-and-out-plus, which features all possessions that ended in three or fewer plays and didn’t include points. That means a few end-of-half possessions for everybody, but more importantly, it includes quick turnovers, maybe the most deadly kind of possession in existence (and something Illinois was particularly bad at avoiding last year).

Offensive 3-and-outs, 2016

Offense Possessions 3&O % Rk 3&O+ % Rk
Offense Possessions 3&O % Rk 3&O+ % Rk
Louisiana Tech 169 21 12.43% 1 31 18.3% 1
Clemson 208 27 12.98% 2 52 25.0% 14
Western Michigan 156 21 13.46% 3 35 22.4% 5
Air Force 161 22 13.66% 4 39 24.2% 10
Navy 151 21 13.91% 5 36 23.8% 7
USC 164 23 14.02% 6 41 25.0% 14
Western Kentucky 183 26 14.21% 7 44 24.0% 8
Purdue 158 23 14.56% 8 40 25.3% 18
Oklahoma 167 25 14.97% 9 35 21.0% 2
Stanford 153 23 15.03% 10 40 26.1% 26
Tulsa 190 29 15.26% 11 49 25.8% 22
Washington State 161 25 15.53% 12 36 22.4% 3
Indiana 186 29 15.59% 13 51 27.4% 37
Idaho 164 26 15.85% 14 42 25.6% 20
Toledo 170 27 15.88% 15 43 25.3% 16
Army 150 24 16.00% 16 41 27.3% 36
Florida State 174 28 16.09% 17 46 26.4% 28
Southern Miss 179 29 16.20% 18 50 27.9% 43
Baylor 184 30 16.30% 19 48 26.1% 24
Kansas State 152 25 16.45% 20 37 24.3% 11
Appalachian State 162 27 16.67% 21 44 27.2% 32
Louisville 190 32 16.84% 22 53 27.9% 41
Wyoming 190 32 16.84% 22 56 29.5% 60
Alabama 195 33 16.92% 24 54 27.7% 40
San Diego State 175 30 17.14% 25 50 28.6% 49
Middle Tennessee 186 32 17.20% 26 54 29.0% 56
Memphis 180 31 17.22% 27 46 25.6% 19
Wisconsin 168 29 17.26% 28 40 23.8% 6
Nevada 133 23 17.29% 29 36 27.1% 30
Iowa State 150 26 17.33% 30 44 29.3% 58
West Virginia 173 30 17.34% 31 52 30.1% 68
Washington 178 31 17.42% 32 43 24.2% 9
Michigan State 143 25 17.48% 33 37 25.9% 23
California 165 29 17.58% 34 37 22.4% 4
Virginia Tech 199 35 17.59% 35 54 27.1% 31
Temple 176 31 17.61% 36 46 26.1% 25
Mississippi State 170 30 17.65% 37 43 25.3% 16
Texas Tech 169 30 17.75% 38 46 27.2% 35
North Carolina 156 28 17.95% 39 43 27.6% 39
Oklahoma State 178 32 17.98% 40 44 24.7% 13
BYU 161 29 18.01% 41 46 28.6% 49
East Carolina 158 29 18.35% 42 47 29.7% 63
Arkansas 162 30 18.52% 43 46 28.4% 45
Northern Illinois 172 32 18.60% 44 48 27.9% 42
Missouri 171 32 18.71% 45 46 26.9% 29
UL-Monroe 153 29 18.95% 46 47 30.7% 71
Boise State 152 29 19.08% 47 40 26.3% 27
Tennessee 183 35 19.13% 48 55 30.1% 67
Michigan 167 32 19.16% 49 46 27.5% 38
Auburn 156 30 19.23% 50 40 25.6% 21
Texas 181 35 19.34% 51 58 32.0% 80
Ohio State 170 33 19.41% 52 42 24.7% 12
Colorado State 164 32 19.51% 53 47 28.7% 52
South Alabama 164 32 19.51% 53 47 28.7% 52
Oregon 158 31 19.62% 55 43 27.2% 34
Ball State 157 31 19.75% 56 44 28.0% 44
San Jose State 151 30 19.87% 57 43 28.5% 47
Ohio 185 37 20.00% 58 53 28.6% 51
Bowling Green 172 35 20.35% 59 58 33.7% 97
Utah 172 35 20.35% 59 49 28.5% 48
Kentucky 167 34 20.36% 61 50 29.9% 65
Duke 162 33 20.37% 62 51 31.5% 73
Georgia Tech 141 29 20.57% 63 43 30.5% 70
Penn State 189 39 20.63% 64 55 29.1% 57
Eastern Michigan 169 35 20.71% 65 48 28.4% 46
Pittsburgh 167 35 20.96% 66 50 29.9% 65
Vanderbilt 162 34 20.99% 67 44 27.2% 32
Oregon State 157 33 21.02% 68 47 29.9% 64
NC State 161 34 21.12% 69 53 32.9% 88
LSU 146 31 21.23% 70 46 31.5% 74
Ole Miss 160 34 21.25% 71 46 28.8% 54
Florida 159 34 21.38% 72 53 33.3% 91
Georgia State 149 32 21.48% 73 49 32.9% 87
Notre Dame 149 32 21.48% 73 47 31.5% 76
New Mexico 153 33 21.57% 75 44 28.8% 55
South Florida 183 40 21.86% 76 58 31.7% 78
Nebraska 160 35 21.88% 77 54 33.8% 98
Utah State 150 33 22.00% 78 49 32.7% 85
UCLA 168 37 22.02% 79 60 35.7% 108
Texas A&M 184 41 22.28% 80 58 31.5% 75
Miami-OH 157 35 22.29% 81 58 36.9% 114
Troy 179 40 22.35% 82 53 29.6% 61
Houston 183 41 22.40% 83 61 33.3% 91
Akron 147 33 22.45% 84 46 31.3% 72
South Carolina 163 37 22.70% 85 48 29.4% 59
Georgia 167 38 22.75% 86 55 32.9% 89
Maryland 175 40 22.86% 87 61 34.9% 107
Hawaii 177 41 23.16% 88 60 33.9% 99
Massachusetts 159 37 23.27% 89 62 39.0% 120
Central Michigan 167 39 23.35% 90 56 33.5% 95
Florida International 154 36 23.38% 91 57 37.0% 115
Florida Atlantic 162 38 23.46% 92 58 35.8% 109
Arizona 156 37 23.72% 93 52 33.3% 91
UTEP 147 35 23.81% 94 47 32.0% 79
Central Florida 193 46 23.83% 95 64 33.2% 90
Minnesota 172 41 23.84% 96 56 32.6% 83
SMU 172 41 23.84% 96 56 32.6% 83
Cincinnati 155 37 23.87% 98 54 34.8% 106
TCU 179 43 24.02% 99 53 29.6% 61
Virginia 161 39 24.22% 100 58 36.0% 112
Colorado 193 47 24.35% 101 62 32.1% 81
Old Dominion 164 40 24.39% 102 50 30.5% 69
Wake Forest 172 42 24.42% 103 59 34.3% 101
UL-Lafayette 167 41 24.55% 104 57 34.1% 100
Buffalo 156 39 25.00% 105 51 32.7% 86
Miami-FL 171 43 25.15% 106 59 34.5% 103
Rice 161 41 25.47% 107 56 34.8% 105
Kansas 180 46 25.56% 108 70 38.9% 119
New Mexico State 168 43 25.60% 109 56 33.3% 91
Georgia Southern 148 38 25.68% 110 51 34.5% 102
Marshall 155 40 25.81% 111 49 31.6% 77
Northwestern 175 46 26.29% 112 63 36.0% 111
Tulane 164 44 26.83% 113 57 34.8% 104
Syracuse 175 47 26.86% 114 59 33.7% 96
Arizona State 175 48 27.43% 115 69 39.4% 121
UTSA 164 45 27.44% 116 53 32.3% 82
UNLV 156 43 27.56% 117 56 35.9% 110
Arkansas State 180 51 28.33% 118 67 37.2% 117
Iowa 162 47 29.01% 119 60 37.0% 116
Illinois 155 45 29.03% 120 65 41.9% 125
Charlotte 161 47 29.19% 121 58 36.0% 112
Texas State 167 49 29.34% 122 69 41.3% 124
North Texas 170 50 29.41% 123 70 41.2% 123
Connecticut 146 44 30.14% 124 56 38.4% 118
Kent State 159 51 32.08% 125 68 42.8% 126
Fresno State 155 52 33.55% 126 63 40.6% 122
Boston College 184 65 35.33% 127 85 46.2% 127
Rutgers 168 61 36.31% 128 80 47.6% 128
  • This pretty quickly clues you in to what helped Clemson win games last year. The Tigers were not particularly explosive (104th in IsoPPP), and they were only good, not great, at finishing drives with touchdowns (25th in points per scoring opportunity). But they did their defense a favor by moving the chains at least once before failing, and they eventually tilted the field in their favor with lasting effect.
  • Hello, Air Force and Navy. The spread option is such a wonderful neutralizer.
  • Three of four CFP teams ranked in the top 25 in three-and-out rate, and while Ohio State ranked a mediocre 52nd, the Buckeyes were also 12th in 3&O+.

The bottom of this list is mostly predictable — offenses like Rutgers, BC, Fresno State, Kent State, Texas State, etc., were going to grade out poorly no matter the category. But there were some interesting teams down there to me as well.

  • North Texas made a bowl but ranked in the bottom six! (So did BC, but that’s because the Eagles’ defense was as good at forcing 3&Os as opponents were.) The Mean Green leaned heavily on awesome punting to basically generate an extra first down per drive.
  • For all of its ball control, Ferentz-ball bona fides, Iowa was very far on the wrong end of this list.
  • Miami’s offense was legitimately strong in a lot of areas, but when the Hurricanes failed, they did so almost instantly.

Now to the defensive side of the ball:

Defensive 3-and-outs, 2016

Defense Possessions 3&O % Rk 3&O+ % Rk
Defense Possessions 3&O % Rk 3&O+ % Rk
Southern Miss 179 62 34.64% 1 79 44.13% 1
Michigan 169 57 33.73% 2 71 42.01% 6
Alabama 204 67 32.84% 3 85 41.67% 9
Clemson 208 68 32.69% 4 89 42.79% 4
Temple 168 53 31.55% 5 74 44.05% 2
Boston College 184 57 30.98% 6 77 41.85% 8
LSU 151 46 30.46% 7 60 39.74% 12
Appalachian State 161 49 30.43% 8 64 39.75% 11
Tulsa 192 58 30.21% 9 68 35.42% 33
Virginia Tech 200 60 30.00% 10 84 42.00% 7
Houston 177 53 29.94% 11 67 37.85% 20
Louisville 197 57 28.93% 12 85 43.15% 3
Central Florida 201 58 28.86% 13 75 37.31% 23
Toledo 163 46 28.22% 14 54 33.13% 47
Florida 161 45 27.95% 15 60 37.27% 24
Iowa 158 44 27.85% 16 58 36.71% 26
Oklahoma 172 47 27.33% 17 63 36.63% 27
Washington 176 48 27.27% 18 67 38.07% 17
Arkansas State 182 49 26.92% 19 65 35.71% 32
UCLA 169 45 26.63% 20 58 34.32% 38
Utah 173 46 26.59% 21 67 38.73% 14
Ohio State 171 45 26.32% 22 72 42.11% 5
Middle Tennessee 187 49 26.20% 23 63 33.69% 44
Tulane 161 42 26.09% 24 63 39.13% 13
Florida State 174 45 25.86% 25 66 37.93% 19
San Diego State 178 46 25.84% 26 68 38.20% 16
Indiana 183 47 25.68% 27 69 37.70% 21
BYU 156 40 25.64% 28 60 38.46% 15
Baylor 188 48 25.53% 29 68 36.17% 30
Army 150 38 25.33% 30 56 37.33% 22
Wake Forest 174 44 25.29% 31 64 36.78% 25
Michigan State 147 37 25.17% 32 53 36.05% 31
UTSA 163 41 25.15% 33 53 32.52% 56
Troy 175 44 25.14% 34 64 36.57% 28
Western Kentucky 186 46 24.73% 35 63 33.87% 43
Nebraska 158 39 24.68% 36 54 34.18% 40
Utah State 146 36 24.66% 37 47 32.19% 60
Colorado 195 48 24.62% 38 68 34.87% 36
Minnesota 175 43 24.57% 39 64 36.57% 28
Georgia 163 40 24.54% 40 66 40.49% 10
Air Force 160 39 24.38% 41 55 34.38% 37
Penn State 189 46 24.34% 42 63 33.33% 45
Northwestern 170 41 24.12% 43 56 32.94% 51
Texas 175 42 24.00% 44 60 34.29% 39
Oklahoma State 178 42 23.60% 45 58 32.58% 55
New Mexico 157 37 23.57% 46 50 31.85% 65
Wisconsin 171 40 23.39% 47 65 38.01% 18
Colorado State 159 37 23.27% 48 51 32.08% 63
Central Michigan 164 38 23.17% 49 54 32.93% 53
Stanford 152 35 23.03% 50 49 32.24% 57
Western Michigan 162 37 22.84% 51 52 32.10% 62
Duke 158 36 22.78% 52 49 31.01% 71
USC 167 38 22.75% 53 59 35.33% 34
Bowling Green 168 38 22.62% 54 52 30.95% 72
TCU 182 41 22.53% 55 54 29.67% 80
Kent State 160 36 22.50% 56 56 35.00% 35
Missouri 170 38 22.35% 57 53 31.18% 69
San Jose State 153 34 22.22% 58 52 33.99% 41
Arizona State 177 39 22.03% 59 57 32.20% 59
Rutgers 164 36 21.95% 60 47 28.66% 91
Tennessee 187 41 21.93% 61 58 31.02% 70
Northern Illinois 174 38 21.84% 62 46 26.44% 109
Texas State 170 37 21.76% 63 50 29.41% 84
Miami-OH 152 33 21.71% 64 45 29.61% 83
Syracuse 166 36 21.69% 65 50 30.12% 77
Fresno State 157 34 21.66% 66 52 33.12% 48
Notre Dame 149 32 21.48% 67 48 32.21% 58
Maryland 173 37 21.39% 68 48 27.75% 101
Wyoming 193 41 21.24% 69 64 33.16% 46
Old Dominion 165 35 21.21% 70 56 33.94% 42
Miami-FL 170 36 21.18% 71 56 32.94% 51
Auburn 156 33 21.15% 72 45 28.85% 89
Ohio 185 39 21.08% 73 61 32.97% 50
Kansas State 157 33 21.02% 74 52 33.12% 48
Memphis 181 38 20.99% 75 59 32.60% 54
North Carolina 162 34 20.99% 76 48 29.63% 81
Mississippi State 168 35 20.83% 77 53 31.55% 67
UL-Lafayette 165 34 20.61% 78 50 30.30% 74
Kansas 177 36 20.34% 79 52 29.38% 85
Boise State 158 32 20.25% 80 42 26.58% 106
UTEP 144 29 20.14% 81 42 29.17% 86
Vanderbilt 160 32 20.00% 82 45 28.13% 96
Cincinnati 157 31 19.75% 83 50 31.85% 65
Texas A&M 188 37 19.68% 84 59 31.38% 68
Pittsburgh 173 34 19.65% 85 49 28.32% 95
Oregon 163 32 19.63% 86 47 28.83% 90
South Alabama 163 32 19.63% 86 52 31.90% 64
SMU 174 34 19.54% 88 56 32.18% 61
Eastern Michigan 169 33 19.53% 89 51 30.18% 76
NC State 160 31 19.38% 90 48 30.00% 78
Massachusetts 155 30 19.35% 91 37 23.87% 122
Florida Atlantic 162 31 19.14% 92 48 29.63% 81
Arkansas 163 31 19.02% 93 44 26.99% 103
Akron 158 30 18.99% 94 46 29.11% 87
Ole Miss 158 30 18.99% 94 42 26.58% 106
Virginia 158 30 18.99% 94 44 27.85% 99
Charlotte 169 32 18.93% 97 48 28.40% 93
Oregon State 154 29 18.83% 98 43 27.92% 98
Connecticut 151 28 18.54% 99 45 29.80% 79
Purdue 162 30 18.52% 100 46 28.40% 94
South Carolina 164 30 18.29% 101 47 28.66% 91
Washington State 165 30 18.18% 102 50 30.30% 74
South Florida 188 34 18.09% 103 49 26.06% 111
Georgia State 155 28 18.06% 104 41 26.45% 108
UNLV 158 28 17.72% 105 44 27.85% 99
West Virginia 170 30 17.65% 106 41 24.12% 121
Georgia Southern 148 26 17.57% 107 45 30.41% 73
Rice 161 28 17.39% 108 40 24.84% 116
New Mexico State 168 29 17.26% 109 46 27.38% 102
Florida International 153 26 16.99% 110 43 28.10% 97
East Carolina 159 27 16.98% 111 40 25.16% 114
Marshall 150 25 16.67% 112 40 26.67% 105
Texas Tech 169 28 16.57% 113 40 23.67% 123
Kentucky 163 27 16.56% 114 40 24.54% 117
Georgia Tech 145 24 16.55% 115 37 25.52% 112
UL-Monroe 148 24 16.22% 116 36 24.32% 119
California 161 26 16.15% 117 42 26.09% 110
Iowa State 149 24 16.11% 118 36 24.16% 120
Illinois 157 25 15.92% 119 42 26.75% 104
Ball State 158 25 15.82% 120 40 25.32% 113
Hawaii 173 27 15.61% 121 43 24.86% 115
Louisiana Tech 173 27 15.61% 121 50 28.90% 88
Buffalo 148 22 14.86% 123 28 18.92% 128
Navy 148 22 14.86% 123 34 22.97% 126
Idaho 160 23 14.38% 125 39 24.38% 118
Arizona 156 22 14.10% 126 36 23.08% 125
North Texas 167 21 12.57% 127 39 23.35% 124
Nevada 133 14 10.53% 128 27 20.30% 127
  • Southern Miss had the most beautifully all-or-nothing defense in the country last year. Almost half of the Eagles’ defensive possessions ended in three or fewer plays and with no points. And they still allowed 32 points per game in the other half of those possessions. Seventh in success rate, 127th in IsoPPP. That’s downright reckless, and I wholeheartedly approve.
  • Like BC, Iowa was basically as good at forcing three-and-outs as opponents were.
  • Army’s offense wasn’t as steady as that of Air Force and Navy, but the defense was more successfully aggressive.
  • The best offense in the country at avoiding three-and-outs: Whoever Was Facing Nevada.

Best three-and-out margins in the country:

(As in, defensive percentage minus offensive percentage.)

  1. Clemson +19.7%
  2. Southern Miss +18.4%
  3. Alabama +15.9%
  4. Tulsa +14.9%
  5. Michigan +14.6%
  6. Temple +13.9%
  7. Appalachian State +13.8%
  8. Virginia Tech +12.4%
  9. Oklahoma +12.4%
  10. Toledo +12.3%

Worst three-and-out margins:

  1. North Texas -16.8%
  2. Rutgers -14.4%
  3. Illinois -13.1%
  4. Fresno State -11.9%
  5. UConn -11.6%
  6. Charlotte -10.3%
  7. Buffalo -10.1%
  8. UNLV -9.8%
  9. Arizona -9.6%
  10. Marshall -9.1%
Combined record of the top 10 teams: 111-31, with five conference titles and both spots in the CFP final.
Combined record of the bottom 10 teams: 30-89.

I believe there might be a correlation there.