Just How Special are Special Teams in College Football?

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Just How Special are Special Teams in College Football?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer

When you think of special teams, you probably think of Beamer Ball at Virginia Tech. Hokie head coach Frank Beamer is considered the master of special team play because of his teams' consistency in scoring points from a unit other than the offense. 

Beamer's 216-104-2 record after 26 years in Blacksburg, Virginia makes him "the winningest active coach in the FBS with 258 career wins," according to Hokie Sports. But Beamer hasn't won a national championship, either. More from Hokie Sports:

Under Beamer, Tech football has enjoyed unprecedented success with 20 consecutive bowl appearances, four ACC titles, five ACC Coastal Division crowns, three BIG EAST Conference titles, six BCS appearances, two “major” bowl victories and a trip to the national championship game. 

That's an impressive resume but again, no national championship in there. So just how special is special teams play? It's definitely a game changer or at the minimum, a momentum-changer, but how important is it in terms we all understand?   

We've gone ahead and looked at the last five BCS Championship games and compared how the two teams fared in four special team categories: field goals, PATs, opponent punt returns and opponent kickoff returns. 

The graphs' first two categories show the teams' rankings (percentage-wise) among their FBS peers in average punt /kick return yards allowed per game while the second two bars indicate their actual percentage of field goals and PATs made. 

Is there any correlation between outstanding special teams play and BCS Championship victories? You might be surprised as the results. 

 

2012 BCS Championship: Alabama 42 Notre Dame 14

Online Graphing

Alabama (red) clearly had Notre Dame (green) beat in special teams categories.

Game notes: Notre Dame's kicking team was called for a 15-yard kick-catch interference foul which gave Alabama excellent field position at its own 39-yard line in the first quarter. Alabama took advantage of that Irish mistake by scoring a touchdown and taking a 14-0 lead.

Early in the second quarter, Notre Dame's Davonte' Neal fumbled a Tide punt but recovered it at the Irish's own 8-yard line. Later in the second quarter, Alabama's Cody Mandell's 55-yard punt gave Notre Dame poor field position again, this time at its own 4-yard line. In both of those instances, Notre Dame failed to get to midfield.

 

2011 BCS Championship: Alabama 21 LSU 0

Online Graphing

Alabama (red) was behind LSU (green) in every statistical category yet won the game. 

Game notes: LSU punter Brad Wing's first two punts of the game were 59 and 54 yards. Alabama's Jeremy Shelley kicked a 23-yard field goal to give the Tide a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, Shelley's 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked, but a 34-yard field goal and 41-yard field goal were both good giving Alabama a 9-0 lead at the half.  

In the third quarter, Shelley connected on a 35-yard kick, missed a 41-yard attempt and made a 44-yard kick to give Alabama a 15-0 lead going into the fourth quarter. Alabama running back Trent Richardson would later score a touchdown but the PAT was missed by Shelley.  

 

2010 BCS Championship: Auburn 22 Oregon 19

 

Online Graphing

Oregon (green) was even with Auburn (red) in kicking and PAT percentages but behind Auburn in punt return averages. 

Game notes: The first points of the game weren't scored until the second quarter when Rob Beard's 26-yard field goal gave Oregon a 3-0 lead. Auburn's Wes Byrum also kicked a 28-yarder to give Auburn a 19-11 lead. The game was tied 19-19 late in the fourth quarter but with two seconds left on the clock, Byrum kicked the game-winning 19-yard field goal. 

 

2009 BCS Championship: Alabama 37 Texas 21

Online Graphing

Alabama (red), for the most part, didn't have very impressive special teams play while Texas' (green) was a little better.

Game notes: Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was injured early in the first quarter on a sack and didn't return to the game. Texas successfully recovered an onside kick after a field goal and in the ensuing possession, Hunter Lawrence kicked a 42-yard field goal to give Texas a 6-0 lead.

In the second half, poor punting by Texas' Justin Tucker gave Alabama excellent field position. In three different series, Alabama started on its own 42, 49 and Texas' 29-yard lines which resulted in 10 points for the Tide.

In the second half, the Tide's Leigh Tiffin missed a 52-yard field goal attempt—the Longhorns would pull within three points in the next series after scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion. Late in the fourth quarter, P.J. Fitzgerald's 30-yard punt pinned Texas inside its own 10-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, quarterback Garrett Gilbert fumbled the ball after a sack—Alabama recovered the ball and scored a touchdown three plays later to make the score 31-21.

 

2008 BCS Championship Florida  24 Oklahoma 14

 

Online Graphing

Florida (red) had the better special teams compared to Oklahoma (green).

Game notes: Late in the third quarter down 14-7 to Florida, Oklahoma kicker Jimmy Stevens' 49-yard field goal attempt was blocked. Early in the fourth quarter with the Gators and Sooners locked up at 14 apiece, Jonathan Phillips kicked a 27-yard field goal to give Florida a 17-14 lead. 

Conclusion

One of the better examples of how special teams play can win a championship was in the 2009 BCS Championship game. Texas punted eight times while Alabama punted seven times. This was a game of field position and eventually Alabama capitalized on that due to some poor punting by Texas and an outstanding performance by its defense which forced four interceptions and a fumble recovery. For what it's worth, Texas was ranked nationally at No. 80 in punting, averaging less than 40 yards a punt that season. 

In the 2011 BCS Championship, all that was necessary to win the game was one field goal by Alabama—the Tide connected on five. 

The best example of how great special teams play can be the deciding factor was in the 2010 BCS Championship game. A game-winning field goal as time expires on the clock is about as special as it gets. Miss the kick and the game goes into overtime. Make it, and you're holding a crystal ball in your hands. 

In the end, the obvious—and what the SEC has been claiming—rings true.

Defense wins championships.

But if the offense stalls, special teams play can and will impact the final score of the game. 

In the last five BCS Championship games, special teams play, as well as good defense, determined the victor.

Frank Beamer is on to something.

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