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Narrative Check: Using Drive Distance & Success Rate Data to Compare CFB’s Contenders

Graham Coffey

College Football is driven by a mixture of biases. Half of it comes from the preseason narratives that were established over the summer (Example: Look at all of the talent returning on that Ohio State offense… They’re going to be one of the best in college football history!). The other half comes from recency bias. (Example: Did you see Tennessee score FIFTY-TWO on Alabama! That was exciting! The Vols are the BEST offense in college football!).

If you’ve followed me for any period of time then you know that I love nothing more than looking into the data on a granular level and seeing what it says. A lot of people pull stats that fit their narrative (Example: CJ Stroud leads the FBS with 28 passing touchdowns!). What’s wonderful about college football in the Information Age is that better stats are available to us. We have much more context on what happens situationally, which yards are meaningful, etc.

I was driving to the grocery store on Sunday and listened to The Cover 3 Podcast’s review of last Saturday’s games. When talking about Iowa at Ohio St hosts Bud Elliott and Tom Fornelli pointed out how different the final score (OSU 54-Iowa 10) was from the actual performance of OSU’s offense. The Buckeyes, benefactors of 6 freshly baked turnovers from Brian Ferentz and the assiest offense in the Power 5, did not impress on offense nearly as much as one would think. 

Here’s a list of the yardage on OSU’s drives on Saturday against Iowa: 1, 75, 4, 17, 22, 24, 0, 5, 15, 55, 90, 40, 9

Fornelli made an observation that I agree with- Ohio State is bogging down against better defenses. They did it against Iowa and they did it in Week 1 against Notre Dame. For all of their flash, talent and explosiveness, the Buckeyes aren’t clicking on defense like one would expect.

This made me ask some questions about college football’s best teams. What is their average drive length? What is their average scoring drive length? How do those numbers differ against teams who are Top 25 in total defense?

This question is important because turnovers are not statistically repeatable or predictable. If you are relying on them then you will eventually find yourself in trouble. I looked at the Top 6 teams in college football and compiled their drive data. I don’t care if you mashed Akron or Hawaii or UT-Martin so I only compiled drive data from games against Power 5 opponents. The results surprised me. Let’s take a look…

Drive Data


Look at Georgia… The Bulldogs have the longest average drive distance of any of college football’s current top contenders by a wide margin. The Bulldogs average drive (51.6 YDS) is longer than anyone else by nearly 5 yards. Against opponents who are top 25 in total defense UGA’s average drive is over 9 yards longer than anyone buy Clemson. UGA also has the longest average scoring drive distance against all P5 opponents (67.1 YDS) and against top 25 defenses (65 YDS). The only team who is anywhere close is Tennessee with 64.5 yards/scoring drive versus top 25 defenses.

So what does this tell us? Well, the public identity of the Georgia program has been its defense ever since Kirby Smart took over. Many people see UGA put up 55 on Vandy and assume the offense was given a bunch of short fields. 2022 Georgia isn’t doing business that way. This offense’s average scoring drive is 67.5 yards. In fact, the UGA offense has been protecting the UGA defense much more than the other way around. UGA’s average drive distance of 51.6 yards means the Georgia defense is rarely having to defend short fields if the offense fails to score. 

A couple other observations…

- Alabama’s average drive distance is 38.7 yards. That is last to everyone on this list not named Clemson even though the Tide have yet to play a team who is ranked in the top 25 in total defense.

- Clemson has actually sustained drives better against good defenses than bad ones

- You’ve heard about Heisman Candidate Hendon Hooker and how it “Feels like 98” up in Knoxville a lot lately. They’re a good football team, but that 28.1 yard average drive against top 25 defenses are worth paying attention to as the Vols have two top 25 defenses looming in Kentucky and UGA. 

- 2022 Georgia belongs in the conversation with the best offenses in the sport. It compares favorably to OSU, Tennessee, etc. no matter how you slice the metrics. 

Offensive Success Rate Data

So we’ve seen the data on average drives, but I was told all offseason that UGA won’t have an upper level offense because it doesn’t have a CJ Stroud or a Bryce Young under center. Kirby Smart is a defensive guy, so Georgia can’t have an elite offense, right? To make sure the drive metric I am playing with is actually correct I wanted to look at Offensive Success Rates for these same six teams. 

Reminder: Success Rate is a situational measure of effectiveness. If your team gains better than half of the yards it needs to get a first down on a 1st or 2nd down play that play was successful. If it gains a first down on a 3rd or 4th down play then that play was successful. Passing Downs are defined as 2nd & 7+ or 3rd & 4th downs with 5+ yards to gain


That’s right folks… UGA leads these teams in… Offensive Success Rate, Standard Down Success Rate, Passing Down Success Rate, Rushing Success Rate, and Pass Success Rate. Some observations…

- Georgia is 1st in the FBS in Offensive Success Rate. Michigan is 3rd, Ohio State is 4th, and Tennessee is 6th. There is a sizable drop off between those 4 teams and Alabama/Clemson. 

- Georgia is 2nd in Standard Down Success Rate. Ohio State is 3rd, Michigan is 4th, and Tennessee is 6th. 

- UGA is 2nd in the FBS in Passing Down Success Rate. Syracuse is 1st, Bama is 5th & Michigan is 6th… The book on Stetson Bennett in 2021 was to get UGA in 3rd and long situations and make him win the game. The Passing Down Success Rate numbers tell us that so far this year he has been better in those situations than Stroud, Hooker, McCarthy & Uiagaleilei. (The time where Bryce Young was hurt is baked into Alabama’s stats so I do not know how he and Bennett would compare, but the fact their production is comparable in those Passing Downs is a credit to Monken and Bennett). 

- There have been some valid questions about Georgia’s running game and offensive line in 2021. It hasn’t all clicked at times. Despite that, when the chips are down this run game has been very situationally successful. The Bulldogs are 1st in Rushing Success Rate in the FBS. Michigan is 4th, Ohio State is 5th and Tennessee is 9th. For all of the talk about Hendon Hooker and those UT wideouts, the success of the Vols rushing attack is the thing that has allowed them to ascend.

- Oregon is 1st in Standard Down Success Rate. The Ducks are 2nd in Rushing Success Rate and overall Offensive Success Rate. They have reached that despite what happened in the UGA game. There is no better win in college football this year than UGA’s 49-3 victory over Oregon. The Ducks moved the ball better on UGA than anyone has, but they bogged down in the red zone when the field shrank. Oregon’s system is very similar to Tennessee’s. It will be interesting to see if UGA can have similar success in the red zone against the Vols. 

- Much like with the Drive Data, the Success Rate numbers for Alabama and Clemson are a notch below the ones that UGA, Ohio State, Michigan and Tennessee are showing so far.

Defense Success Rate

You might be wondering if I’ve forgotten that all of these teams have defenses too. Don’t worry, I didn’t totally neglect the other side of the ball. Here are the defensive success rates for the same six teams. 



- The thing that is interesting here is Ohio State. For all of the talk around their offense, that defense has been fantastic situationally thus far. What’s the best offense the Buckeyes have played to date? Here are the total offense rankings of their opponents thus far… Notre Dame 77th, Arkansas State 102nd, Toledo 65th, Wisconsin 72nd, Rutgers 113th, Michigan St 104th, Iowa 131st. The mighty Rockets of Toledo are the best offense the Buckeyes have faced so far. Maybe they’re an elite unit, but I would wait before making that determination. 

- 2021 UGA was the best defense we have seen in college football in the last decade. It allowed a defensive success rate of 32.3%. We will see how the coming weeks change these numbers, but all of these teams will see better offenses over the next month. 

- This is where things breakdown for Tennessee. The offense is high level. It isn’t quite as elite as many have made it out to be on the heels of the Alabama win, but it is very good and it’s going to put up numbers against most defenses. The problem for that offense is that it will be under a lot of pressure to hold serve in games against other good teams. Even if the UT defense is getting stops its offense is likely to have long fields to drive. They will have to improve their output against top 25 defenses to have a chance of staying undefeated. 

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