2021 Update: Third Down Conversion Rate by Distance to Go

After the 2020 season, I wrote an article about third down conversion rates after adjusting for how many yards the team had to earn on that third down. The reason for this was because too often on broadcasts a team’s third down conversion rate is shown without any regard for how many yards the team has to earn on their current third down attempt. Fans, teams, and commentators know that a 3rd and 2 is more likely to be converted than a 3rd and 9, but they do not often differentiate between these two situations when talking about third down conversion rate. Luckily, that is what Staturdays is here for.

In my last article I gave some additional context on why this difference is so important as well as some potential uses for this research, so I encourage you to check out that article as well for more information. First, below is a chart that shows the third down conversion rate by distance to go for all teams in college football. As expected, shorter third down field position results in a higher third down conversion rate.

With these numbers in hand, we can start to look at each team’s third down conversion rate at these distances and how it compares to the league average. The y-axis is each team’s 3rd down yards to go above/below average at each bucket. So, if a team is in the upper half of the chart, that means on average their third downs have been slightly longer than the average team’s at the same distance bucket. If they are in the bottom half of the chart, that means on average their third downs have been slightly shorter than the average team’s at the same distance bucket.

The x-axis shows the team’s third down conversion rate at the bucket above/below average. Being on the right side of the graph means that a team converts third downs at that distance at a higher rate than the average team — being on the left side means the opposite.

Summarizing:

  • Upper left hand corner: longer average third downs at that distance; lower conversion rate.
  • Upper right hand corner: longer average third downs at that distance; higher conversion rate.
  • Lower left hand corner: shorter average third downs at that distance; lower conversion rate.
  • Lower right hand corner: shorter average third downs at that distance; higher conversion rate.

Here is the chart for 2021 through all regular season games with Independents and Power Five schools shown (yeah, Cincinnati is not on this plot, but they are 14% below league average at converting third and 7&8’s and 16% above average at converting third and 3&4’s — they are within +/- 10% of the average for the other distances). Minimum 10 plays at each bucket distance to be included.

There are a lot of interesting insights that can be taken from this, but some of the highlights include:

  • The worst team at any distance in the Power 5? Penn State! Converting 43% of third and 1&2’s when the league average is 67%. I have to imagine this stat was not considered when James Franklin received his latest contract extension.
  • The best team at any distance in the Power 5: Utah, converting 86% of third and 3&4’s (+36% from average). Other notable mentions include Alabama on third and 9&10 (+32%) and 7&8 (+31%) and Ohio State on third and 5&6 (+27%).
  • The team with the overall shortest third down yards to go on average is Army with an average yards to go of 4.1. Ohio State checks in at number two with an average of 4.7 yards to go on third downs — the average is 5.3. The worst teams include Texas State (6.1), Toledo (6.1), and Penn State (5.9).

With conference championship games this week and bowl games just around the corner, you are now armed with more precise third down conversion rate information to impress your friends. Let me know how your favorite team stacks up in the chart, and if they are not Power 5 or Independent tag us on Twitter @Staturdays and I will let you know their stats.

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