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Maybe FGs are okay? A look at when college football coaches should (and shouldn’t) go for it

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The answer may surprise you.

Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

There are two things we particularly hate hearing around here: "19-yard field goal", and "36-yard punt, touchback."

I think most fans see plays like these, give or take a few yards, and think they are the worst calls. In fact, I watched Iowa and Iowa State as I typed this, and as I was writing, Kirk Ferentz took a delay of game on fourth-and-1 at the 50 so the Hawkeyes would have more room to punt … in the first quarter.

Special game circumstances aside, it's considered safe. It's playing not to lose. It's flaccid and without courage. It likely won't get you heat from media or fans and it's certainly not gonna generate heat under a coach's seat.

Honestly, who doesn't want their coach to have huge, swingin' Dantonios? Not me. Not you. Not Tom Herman. So, in order to arm all of you with message board material as to why you want a coach fired, I wanted to take a quick look at which coaches consistently make these calls.

As I was going through this exercise, I started thinking, "When is it more valuable to go for it than punt it or kick a field goal?" A quick Google search brought me to one person's attempt to answer this question, but I had some problems with their approach: using only three weeks of data in 2012, not filtering out non-D1A games, and binning the yards to go.

So I gave my own version a whirl. After finishing up my analysis, I then came across this great analysis from NYT Upshot of the same question, but for NFL data. They even created, a very cool 4th Down Bot — his (or hers, or its) decisions are listed there for every NFL team.

Before we get to all the nerdy stuff, let's go ahead and answer my original question of what coaches aren't being aggressive enough — who's creating all those 19 yard field goals and 36 yard punts for touchbacks.

For simplicity, we'll look at a go-for-it percentage in a few situations: fouth-and-short between the opponent’s 45 and 30 yard line, and fourth-and-short inside the 5. The tables below are using all data from 2010-16.

Go-For-It percentage: fourth-and-short between 30 and 45-yard line

Some other notables:

Now let's look at all those-18 yard field goals.

Field goal percentage, fourth down inside 5-yard line:

It’s surprising to see Jimbo at the bottom of these two lists.

Anyway, here are other notable coaches and their ranks:

Ok, time for the nerdy stuff. How would we want to calculate when it is more valuable to go for it instead of punt or kick a field goal? Let's look at the punt situation first. To start, remember the notion that we can assign a point value to every yard line based on the average number of points a team scores by starting a drive on that yard line.

Now, let's say a team is at midfield on fourth-and-1. The value of going for it and making it is pretty easy to figure out — it's the probability of making a first down, multiplied by the value of starting a drive at the 47-yard line*. First-and-10 at the 47 is essentially starting a drive at the 47, no matter how you got there.

* Why 47? I'm using the average yards gained on fourth-and-1 conversions. Statistically speaking, this yard line point value times probability is called the "expected" point value

Let’s compare that with the risk of points given to opponent by going for it and missing. This value is a little more complex. This would essentially be the point value difference between where the opponent would have started a drive after a punt, and the value of the opponent starting the drive at the 50 (failed first down). If the expected points to be gained by going for it and converting is larger than the expected points given to the other team by going for it and not converting, then we'll say the team should have gone for it.

Now, field goals also come into the equation, but it is similar to punts in terms of calculation.

Compare the expected points scored on a field goal at the spot (3 x average FG make percentage at that spot) versus the expected point value of going for it and converting (again, the probability of conversion multiplied by value of starting a drive at the yard line to gain).

When you throw all of that together, you get the chart below.

What surprises me is that inside the 25 or so, it's always more valuable to kick the field goal, unless its fourth-and-goal from the 1. This really went against my initial intuition.

Also surprising is that it's more valuable to go for field goals of more than 47 yards than go for it on 4th-and-short. This happens for a couple reasons. The disparity in college kicking skill is huge, and you're only attempting a 47-yard field goal if your kicker can get it there (a lot can't).

When they do attempt those long field goals of more than 45 or so yards, the success rate is about 35-50%. If your kicker can only hit from 42 yards and in, change all those "FG" boxes after the 25 yard line to "GO."

There is a large disparity in my go-for-it chart versus The Upshot’s, and I think I can explain most of that with the fact that NFL offenses are much more likely to convert on fourth-and-short. In the NFL analysis, it's recommended to go for it on fourth-and-1 from anywhere on the field, while this NCAA analysis says anywhere near midfield and closer.