Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain’s strategy directly responsible for his success in close games

The Florida Gators have been lucky the past two years.

That’s the refrain from critics of Florida coach Jim McElwain, who see the offensive struggles combined with defensive excellence of the past two seasons as just a continuation of the Will Muschamp era. The only difference: Florida is 7-1 in close games — games decided by seven points or less — while Muschamp was 9-10 in such games.

Overall in the SEC, teams have won these types of games 55 percent of the time while the Gators are winning 88 percent of the time. The next closest team (Georgia) has only won 69 percent of those games. So that settles it. The Gators have just been lucky.

Except McElwain was 8-3 in such games at Colorado State.

That’s a 79-percent winning percentage in 19 close games as a head coach. A lot of randomness can occur over five or even 10 games. But a 19-game sample size starts to indicate that perhaps McElwain has found a way to gain an edge in these types of games that gives his team a better-than-average chance to win.

Here are a few things that stand out:

Fourth-down strategy

Last season against Florida State, Florida took the opening kickoff and marched right down the field. The drive stalled at the 2-yard line and Jim McElwain decided to go for it on fourth down.

My twitter feed lit up with Gators fans who disagreed with the decision. “You put points on the board early,” was their thought process.

Except that thought process is wrong.

Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics explains this much better than I can, but the short version is that the expected points of going for it on fourth down often outweighs the value of the points from the field goal. Burke extends this even further, suggesting that for fourth-and-2 or less, a coach should go for it all the way back until his own 30-yard line.

This analysis also factors in where the opposition will get the ball for a failed attempt. So deep in enemy territory, the opposition will have to drive the full length of the field to put points on the board. If the defense can get a stop, the resulting punt will give the offense good field position. Or if the defense gives up some yardage, it becomes more difficult for the opposition to score.

This is exactly what happened against FSU. After the incompletion from Florida quarterback Austin Appleby, FSU took over at its own 2-yard line and drove 66 yards to set up a 49-yard field goal attempt. The attempt missed, giving Florida good field position. Had Florida kicked the field goal and FSU had the exact same drive after a touchback, the Aguayo attempt would have been from 26 yards and from the 9-yard line, FSU would have had a similar decision to the one Florida made.

McElwain’s decision-making strategy was sound on this attempt. Just because the attempt was unsuccessful doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision.

Muschamp versus McElwain strategy

The difference in strategy between McElwain and Muschamp can best be illustrated by looking at their actual records versus what would be expected by the team’s point differential.

Expected vs. actual winning percentage for Jim McElwain vs. Will Muschamp at Florida. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

These statistics are against FBS opponents only (collated from www.teamrankings.com). While Florida has a stronger point differential under McElwain, that’s not what is important in the above chart. Instead, focus on the difference between each coach’s performance.

While Muschamp should have won 61 percent of his games, he only won 57. And while McElwain should have won 64 percent of his games, he has won 70 percent. I contend that this 13-percent difference in winning percentage can be tied directly to his aggressiveness.

Fourth-down attempts and conversion percentage for Jim McElwain and Will Muschamp as head coaches. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

The above chart compares fourth-down attempts per game and fourth-down conversion percentage for McElwain and Muschamp in their careers. This includes the 19 close games for McElwain at Colorado State and Florida and the 25 close games for Muschamp at Florida and South Carolina.

McElwain clearly goes for it more often on fourth down than Muschamp on a per-game basis. This gap was even more pronounced at Florida, as Muschamp averaged 1.08 fourth-down attempts per game in his time with the Gators. Perhaps not coincidently, Mushchamp averaged 2.0 fourth-down attempts in 2016 with South Carolina and the Gamecocks went 4-2 in close games.

The lower conversion percentage of McElwain compared to Muschamp is actually a good sign because it indicates aggressiveness. Muschamp goes for it on fourth-and- short when the rate of conversion is higher. But that means he leaves opportunities out on the field — or at least did at Florida — by punting or taking field goals in situations where he should go for it.

Interestingly, a 50 percent fourth-down conversion percentage is average. So McElwain isn’t converting any more fourth downs than his opponents. He is just converting more total because he is taking more shots.

Game examples

This isn’t just a statistical exercise. McElwain’s decision-making shows up on film in these close games as well.

In 2015 against Kentucky, the Gators won 14-9 but only outgained Kentucky 245-241. The difference was that Kentucky kicked three field goals while Florida was more aggressive.

On fourth-and-goal from the 1, McElwain went for it. Grier was able to run for the TD, and Florida had an early lead.

Right at the end of the half, Will Grier completed a third-down pass to tight end Jake McGee just short of the sticks. With 2:36 left in the half and the ball at the Kentucky 36- yard line, most coaches punt or attempt a 53-yard field goal. McElwain instead went for it, made it, and Florida converted the drive into its second touchdown and was able to hold on to win the game.

I want to emphasize the 2:36 left. If that attempt was unsuccessful, Kentucky would have had good field position and plenty of time to take the lead or cut it to 1 point. McElwain didn’t worry about that, instead opting to be aggressive, and it paid off.

Against Tennessee in 2015, Gators fans all remember the fourth-down conversions on the last two drives, particularly the game-winner to wide receiver Antonio Callaway.

But the play they likely don’t remember — even though it started the chain of events for the comeback — was with 6 minutes left in the third quarter, down 20-7 and a fourth-and-6 at the Tennessee 25.

McElwain turned down a 42-yard field goal attempt to “stay close” to the Vols and instead went for it. Kelvin Taylor scored a TD on the next play and there’s no way Florida wins the game had they been down 27-10 instead of 27-14 in the fourth.

Florida’s offense had been terrible all day up until this point, but McElwain still went for it even though he needed 6 yards. It was the right call based on the math, and it set up the win for the Gators.

Characterizing McElwain as just aggressive probably isn’t correct. Even when he decides to punt, he clearly has a firm grasp on the numbers. Against LSU in 2015, he punted near midfield after the Gators had closed the game to 28-21. It was a fourth-and-4 at the Florida 44, and a miss here would have opened him up to significant criticism. More than that, Burke’s numbers indicate that this situation is a complete toss-up from a decision-making standpoint. With Florida’s defense being the clear strength of the team, punting here makes sense given the context of the game.

This decision worked out, too. Florida was able to stop LSU and Callaway returned the ensuing punt to tie the game.

This game against LSU is the one close game McElwain has lost in his time with the Gators. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the key play was a fake field goal on a fourth-and-13.

Les Miles could have taken the three points from 33 yards out. Florida was able to move close to field goal range late in the fourth quarter, but after an intentional grounding penalty, he decided to punt rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal that would have only brought the deficit to four points. Had Miles settled for the field goal, that attempt would have tied the game.

The theme of understanding the numbers has repeated itself over and over for Florida under McElwain. Against Vanderbilt in 2015 to clinch the SEC East, he went for it on fourth-and-goal on the opening drive and failed, faked a field goal up 6-0 with a pitch to C.C. Jefferson that succeeded except Jefferson fumbled the ball, and failed on another fourth-and-1 in the second half when Treon Harris threw an interception.

But that didn’t change his strategy. While I’ve talked about decision-making in terms of fourth-down aggressiveness, strategic decision-making can also be critical in other areas, like timeout usage.

After all of his fourth-down decisions had blown up in his face, McElwain made a decision that won’t show up in the box score but won the Gators the SEC East. Vanderbilt was facing a third-and-17 with 5:48 left in the fourth quarter. They decided to run the ball to run clock, but McElwain called timeout.

When Florida got the ball back, they had more than five minutes left to work with. While they settled for the Austin Hardin field goal, McElwain’s correct use of timeouts allowed for flexibility in the offensive play-calls. Florida ran five plays to get into scoring position, three of them runs. Because he preserved the time, McElwain was able to keep Vanderbilt’s defense from pinning its ears back and knowing a pass was coming.

Contrast that to Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason. He had two timeouts left when Florida failed to convert on third down and there was 3:15 on the clock. Instead, he let the clock run and Hardin nailed the kick with 2:22 remaining, a wasted 53 seconds. This was important because Vanderbilt ended the game with 145 yards rushing and only 30 yards passing. Mason needed time not just to run the ball, but to allow the run to be a threat.

Instead, Vanderbilt was pinned deep after the ensuing kickoff. Mason called a QB read option on first down and didn’t call a timeout after that, either. The clock read 1:42 by the time the ball was snapped for its second-down play.

The game was extended by two defensive penalties, defensive holding on a fourth down and targeting on a sack. But once the clock got down under two minutes and Florida knew that Vanderbilt couldn’t run the ball anymore, the Gators defensive ends pinned their ears back and harassed the Vanderbilt QB.

Mason didn’t call a timeout until there were 52 seconds left and Vandy had no shot. When they failed to convert on fourth down on that final drive, Mason still had one timeout remaining. Unfortunately for him, they don’t carry over from one game to the next.

Takeaway for 2017

None of this matters for the 2017 season if McElwain doesn’t continue following the numbers when making his strategic decisions. His aggressiveness on fourth down in 2015 was certainly enhanced by a lack of confidence in his field goal kickers. There was a significant drop in fourth down attempts per game in 2016 (1.2 vs. 1.9 in 2015). And while some of that is attributable to being in fewer close contests, some also is likely attributable to the arrival of kicker Eddy Pineiro.

And that is where the decision-making in the Florida State game from 2016 that I referenced above should be so encouraging. Instead of settling for a sure three points with Pineiro, McElwain continued to be aggressive. That approach to decision-making is why Florida has outperformed its scoring differential under McElwain.

And that approach to decision-making – and not luck – is why McElwain has been so effective in close games.

The post Florida Gators coach Jim McElwain’s strategy directly responsible for his success in close games appeared first on SEC Country.

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