Florida vs. Tennessee: The importance of third down conversions

Trey Burton runs in a touchdown in Knoxville, September 15, 2012 - John Sommers II

Third down conversion rate has proven to be a deciding factor so far in determining success on both sides of the ball for Florida, even amidst the abundance of turnovers and penalties.

As we prepare for a weekend the in which the Gators take the field seeking redemption, I dug through some statistics, as telling/useless as they can be,to find something that might shed some light as to what might happen this Saturday at 3:30.pm ET. One possibly deciding factor in the game could be each teams ability to convert 3rd downs.

Through three games in 2013, the Volunteers have posted a modest 44.44 percent third down conversion rate, with the numbers coming from Austin-Peay (7/11, 63.64%), Western Kentucky (4-10, 40%), and Oregon (5-15, 33.33%).

As it stands, it appears the Vols will be satisfied to achieve their season average of 44.44% against the nation's top third down defense. One of the most impressive statistics the Florida Gator defense has put up this year is the number two: That's the number of times their opponent has converted a third down attempt.. Part of the reason for this gaudy statistic is the Gators defense's ability to put their opponents (two very capable and fairly highly-esteemed offensive attacks) in difficult situations on third down, with only two attempts coming from shorter than seven yards through two games. One highly surprising detail to the Gators' statistics on third down: They have not allowed a single conversion on 3rd down by committing a penalty.

What you can get from these numbers is that the Gators thrive when they create long passing situations on 3rd down, largely due to their ability to force arid throws by the quarterback and obviously supported their pristine defensive backfield that generally keeps everything in front of them* (this feature could become much more significant with Jaylen Watkins move towards playing more reps at the safety position over less able pass defender, Marcus Maye). Creating these long 3rd down situations is bound to lead to more turnovers in the future for the Gators' defense, as seen in the tape of Florida vs. Miami where there are numerous (upwards of 5) dropped or at least tipped interceptions. Along with the tight coverage in the back comes more pressure on the quarterback and sacks as well, essentially turning the Gators' defense into a 'pick-your-poison' type of predicament for opposing offenses in the event they are stuck with 3rd and long.

As far as the Gator offense, they appear to have similar success to the Vols with a 44.44% 3rd down conversion rate as well. The main issue with the Gators' 3rd down offense is a noticeable struggle, though not necessarily a complete ineptitude, with definite passing situations on 3rd down and long. Thus far, the Gators have committed six turnovers, four fumbles and two interceptions, and four of these turnovers occurred on 3rd down. Of these specific four third down turnovers, three happened on 3rd and 6 yards or more, with the other (3rd and 3) being the interception where Jeff Driskel threw into a hoard of Miami defensive players in the endzone near the end of the first half, after scrambling in the backfield for several seconds. Overall, on 3rd down plays of 5 yards or shorter, the Gators' offense has converted ten of fifteen times (66.67%) as opposed to a much worse two of eleven (18.18%) on 3rd down plays of 6 yards or longer. As far as the Volunteers 3rd down defense, besides their performance against Austin Peay, it has been a fairly pedestrian 41.03% through three games in 2013.

A possibly revealing number comes from their matchup with Western Kentucky where they surrendered 53.33% of the Hilltopper's attempts on 3rd down a number that is even lower than the percentage of conversions they allowed this past week in Eugene against Oregon (50% on 6/12, despite running a whopping 76 plays; possibly a result of Oregon not requiring 3 downs to move the ball past the Volunteers' defense for first downs). The Gators, however, have had a tendency, spanning back to last year, of shooting themselves in the foot with penalties that have killed drives by putting Driskel in difficult passing situations where opposing defenses could simply stack the secondary the way they stack the box on early down plays due to predictable play call. If the Gators can shorten the field on 1st and 2nd down, creating short 3rd down situations, it could prove to be a long day for the thin depth of the Tennessee defensive line as the Gators look to return their power running game to form and as they look to trim down the number of turnovers and penalties.

As far as my hypothesis, I would venture to say that, given a relatively even turnover margin (+/- 2), the team with better success on 3rd down will see to a victory if it turns out being a close game. Based on that general hypothesis, its relatively easy to predict that the Gators comes out on top of the Volunteers who have similar offensive woes, but lack severely what the Gators do not on the defensive side of the ball.

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