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Clemson’s Offense Isn’t Just About 3rd Down Success

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 03 Virginia at Clemson Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the trends we’ve seen, and has been noticed in the comments, is Clemson’s apparent reliance on converting 3rd-and-long situations with huge plays. The concern is that relying on explosive plays on 3rd down exposes the Clemson offense to a lot of risk against better opponents.

So, armed with this concern, we decided to take a look at Clemson’s success rate across all downs. Now to catch everyone up, “success rate” is a component of S&P+, an advanced metrics ranking put together by former SB Nation writer and current ESPN man Bill C. Success rate is based on the idea of moving the ball and staying ahead of the chains. In old school terms, if you are successful on first down it gives you a 2nd and 5-ish which allows you to run anything in your play book. A successful second down means you have 3rd and short. And a successful third down of course means that you now have a new set of downs.

The technical definition of a successful play is one that gains 50% of the remaining yards on 1st down, 70% of the remaining yards on 2nd down, and 100% of the remaining yards on 3rd and 4th down. The table below has the success rate for Clemson’s offense by down for each opponent.

A couple of notes on the data. First, this is only for FBS opponents. I’m sorry, but The Citadel just doesn’t count because we aren’t South Carolina. Also, I’ve only counted snaps where Trevor Lawrence was in at QB. For me, if Lawrence is in then we are running fairly close to our first team offense. I don’t think there is a lot of value in calculating our offensive performance with all of the backups in. Finally, all of the play data comes from ESPN’s play-by-play of the game, so there could be some inconsistencies. Now, on to the table!

Clemson Success Rate by Down

Team Wake Forest UVA Miami Georgia Tech Totals
Team Wake Forest UVA Miami Georgia Tech Totals
1st Down Plays 31 30 39 22 122
1st Down Successes 19 15 21 12 67
1st Down Success Rate 61.29% 50.00% 53.85% 54.55% 54.92%
2nd Down Plays 22 23 27 14 86
2nd Down Successes 12 8 13 7 40
2nd Down Success Rate 54.55% 34.78% 48.15% 50.00% 46.51%
3rd Down Plays 11 13 15 9 48
3rd Down Successes 7 9 8 6 30
3rd Down Success Rate 63.64% 69.23% 53.33% 66.67% 62.50%

So everyone is probably going to look at the UVA game and Clemson’s inability to do well on second down. It is pretty rough, but the odd part is the 1st down success rate isn’t that off of the numbers against Miami and Georgia Tech. We’d have to look at the film, but it seems like UVA was either keying on specific tendencies that prevented the Tigers from being successful, or Clemson just wasn’t executing on their plays.

I also find it interesting just how successful Clemson has been on third down as a first team offense. As a reference, Alabama has the best overall 3rd down conversion percentage at 61.9%. So for our first team offense to exceed that is pretty good.

Now another piece of information I want to bring into this is the average yards gained per down. Same caveats as the above table apply, but below is the average yards gained per down by game.

Average Distance Gained by Down

Team Wake Forest UVA Miami Georgia Tech Total
Team Wake Forest UVA Miami Georgia Tech Total
Average 1st Down Distance Gained 6.65 6.1 6.72 12.55 7.6
Average 2nd Down Distance Gained 9.23 3.83 5.44 9.07 6.57
Average 3rd Down Distance Gained 6.45 13.46 8.33 10 9.6

So, not a lot of surprises here, but the 2nd down number against UVA does show just how dire we were against them. And the high yards gained on third down does suggest the team was balling out when they needed it most. But against Miami the team was slightly below average, though that may or may not be a result of a sample size of 4 games.

At this point in the season I think this data makes me less concerned than I was just from watching the games. It certainly is possible there is a problem where the offense is relying on explosive plays late, but I think we need more data to definitively say that. As is, it appears Clemson finds a good amount of success on 1st down, and the do or die approach on third down ends up being a direct result of Clemson’s success on 2nd down. What would be interesting to see is how Clemson’s difficulty running in the A gap is affecting this. If we can only get 1-2 yards on A-gap runs that can lead to failures on second down, which puts the team in a difficult position on 3rd down. But that’s entirely conjecture on my part.