When the Right Decisions Go Wrong in College Football

Alabama kicker Adam Griffith (99) attempts a 57-yard field goal at the end of the game vs. Auburn on Nov. 30 Photograph by Skip Martin/AP Photo

Two interesting and season-defining coaching decisions occurred Saturday during two of college football’s most intense rivalry games:

• Michigan, down 42-41 against Ohio State, went for a two-point conversion with 32 seconds to go.
• Alabama, with possession of the ball in a tie game against Auburn, attempted a 57-yard field goal to win as time expired.

Both teams attempting to score the decisive points made the “right” choices—and yet they both lost. Let’s take a closer look at this apparent paradox.

1. Statistically speaking, the right choice for Michigan was to go for the two-point conversion. Consider the options:

As the underdog team with a bad defense and an injured kicker, the right choice would be to end the game as soon as possible. Attempting this so-called gamble is the right move when you are at a disadvantage. Consider how casinos make money: The more bets people make over time, the more money the casino wins. The best strategy for the average gambler is to stop betting as soon as you’re ahead because you will inevitably lose money.

In the case of this football game, think of Ohio State as the casino and Michigan as the gambler. The numbers suggest Michigan had worsening chances of winning the longer the game continued. For Michigan to attempt the extra point and head to overtime would have extended the game, and that would have actually reduced the underdog’s chance of winning. Michigan’s attempt at ending the game in one play was the right way to go.

Another way to think about it: Michigan’s attempt at a two-point conversion introduced more volatility into the game’s outcome—and that’s just what an underdog should want. More volatility means more chances for unexpected results to occur. Low-volatility strategies (like kicking for one point) only help the favorite, who enjoys the same sort of “house edge” that makes money for casinos.

While there have been tons of articles written about the value of going for two-point conversions in general, Michigan in particular on Saturday had trouble with its kicker and run defense—the two most important things needed to survive an overtime played on a shorter field. That made the chances of winning in extended play decidedly lower than a coin flip.

According to historical NCAA stats (PDF), the completion percentage of one-point kick attempts has hovered around 94.5 percent in recent years. Two-point conversion attempts have a recent success rate around 42 percent. Michigan was making the bet that its 42 percent chance of making the extra point was higher than the product of making the extra point multiplied by the chance of winning the overtime period. That’s a fair choice to make.

Additional research in the National Football League has shown that going for running plays has a much higher conversion percentage than passing plays (albeit NFL two-point conversions are from the two-yard line, not the three-yard line like in college). Michigan chose to pass, which might have been the statistical error in the team’s decision-making.

2. More bizarre was the Alabama field-goal attempt at the end of regulation on Saturday. The game was tied, and so Alabama should presumably have had nothing to lose when attempting a 57-yard field goal. Make it and win, miss it and go to overtime. Presumably.

According to NCAA stats (PDF) from 1993 to 2009, field goals from 50-59 yards have been successful 36 percent of the time. And in the known history of NCAA football, prior to this weekend, only four missed field goals have been returned for touchdowns in the past 50 years. In that time span, there have been over 60,000 field-goal attempts: Four out of 60,000 is only 0.007 percent.

So when you look at that, Alabama was facing:

• 36 percent chance of winning
• 64 percent chance of going to overtime
• 0.007 percent chance of losing

Even if you thought Alabama’s backup kicker had nowhere near a 36 percent chance of making the field goal—maybe you’re extremely pessimistic and only gave him a 1 percent chance—that’s still about 150 times more likely than having the ball returned for a touchdown. Again, the right decision was made even though it turned out wrong.

That’s the problem with percentages and averages: You can make the “right” choice when the numbers back you up and still end up with the wrong result. Decisions that appear like gambles (the two-point conversion) are actually the safer bet, and decisions that look like safe bets (kicking a field goal) end up resulting in terrible, gamble-seeming consequences.

You can imagine every football coach in the country is now going to remind his players to cover the return man on a missed field goal. Time will be spent in practice working on this, time taken away from other, more basic and important football skills. The huge media attention given to Alabama’s misfortune (this article included) will be a reminder everywhere for how that outcome can happen. It will be talked about over and over again for a long time to come, any time there is a long field-goal attempt at the end of a game.

The problem is, such practice is a waste of time.

For an event that only happens 0.007 percent of the time, it’s not worth spending a lot of time practicing. The media’s focus on extreme events only makes them seem bigger than they are in reality. This is an availability heuristic: Because this event will very easily come to mind in the future, people will put too much weight on the chance of it happening again.

Consider this grim reality: A college football player is far more likely to die in a game than ever see a missed field goal returned for a touchdown.

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