Here’s a fun statistical examination from SB Nation Washington State blog Coug Center: how do FBS schools stack up in terms of their willingness or lack thereof to kick the ball on fourth down? In each of the last two seasons, NC State has ranked in the top 15 in fourth down attempt percentage.
That makes Dave Doeren one of the bigger gamblers in college football, at least recently. Last season, for instance, NC State went for it on fourth down about 28% of the time, which was the 13th-highest rate among FBS teams. It was a similar story the year prior.
Doeren’s Wolfpack teams have been in the top 25 in 4th down attempt rate in three of his four seasons, with 2014 being the exception—State ranked 113th that year.
There are a lot of situational factors that can affect the rate at which a team attempts fourth-down conversions. There’s field position, for one; a team might end up in the no man’s land between the 30 and 40 more often than usual one year and go for it more often as a result. A team might have no confidence in its place kicker (see: NC State in 2015 and 2016, wow what a coincidence here). Both might be primary contributing factors to State’s results in this area the last two seasons.
What’s difficult to explain is 2014, when State was near the bottom in attempt percentage despite the presence of Jacoby Brissett and Nik Sade. No doubt the Kyle Bambard era has affected Doeren’s thinking when it comes to fourth downs, but he had both a stable quarterback and a good kicker in ‘14. I’m not sure what to make of that.
Looking only at ACC teams, NC State has ranked 2nd, 11th, 2nd, and 1st in fourth-down attempt rate during Dave Doeren’s tenure. Is there insight into Doeren’s coaching approach in here somewhere, or is this all noise made of circumstance?
The other factor the consider is sheer talent. Florida State consistently ranks near the bottom of the league in fourth down conversion attempt rate, and while I definitely think Jimbo Fisher skews toward conservative in general, when you have a team that is usually more talented than your opponent, there’s not a lot incentive to take risks. FSU has embodied that principle more than anybody else in the league over the last half decade.
Clemson has been a little more erratic but still has tended to be less disinclined to go for it on fourth down: again, looking only at the ACC rankings, and even with Deshaun Watson, they were 10th, 11th, and last year 4th in attempt rate.
Teams with superior talent are probably, in general, less inclined to take risks in this regard, especially between the 40s, and while you could make an opposing argument—you have more talent, you’re better, so your gambling odds are better—it doesn’t play out that way.
I think you could argue that Jimbo is a little too far toward one extreme, but even so it hasn’t cost him a ton in terms of results.
With some exceptions, Jimbo Fisher being one, and triple option teams being another, it feels like the invisible force of chicken-or-the-egg reasoning drives a rather loose variation year-to-year. A lot of times you’ve got a strong offense and a weak defense or vice versa, which in general leads coaches to make the choices they do. Sometimes this inadvertently helps them act more efficiently by going for it on fourth more often, and sometimes not.