The All-Important Statistic: Third Down Defense (A Florida Case Study)

Nick The OnlyAnalyst INovember 5, 2008

Early this year I wrote an article detailing my thoughts on the 2007 Florida Gators' defensive struggles.  As I discussed in the article, solid third down defense is one of the most important aspects of a championship caliber team.

I wrote about last year's Florida team not only because I am a Gator fan, but also because I thought Florida's third down defense was their primary weakness last year.

While their defense was awful, the 2007 edition of the Florida Gators were still somewhat of an offensive juggernaut, leading the nation in third down conversion percentage while facing the fewest number of third downs.  On the other hand, Florida's defense was near the bottom of the SEC in third down conversions.

The result was a 9-4 season that was viewed as disappointing by some, but should have been expected considering the nine new freshman and sophomore starters on the defense.

This year, Florida is demolishing opponents because improved third down defense has changed the Gators' fortunes.

Third down defense is so crucial because each third down stop forecloses one of the limited scoring opportunities that a team has in a 60-minute game, while simultaneously allowing the ball to go back to the opposition.  A stop closes the door for your opponent while swinging it back open for you.

In other words, a third down stop is a "traditional turnover."

As the counterpart to third down defense, third down efficiency on offense is also vitally important.  For all intents and purposes, third down is usually the only down that matters.

A defense can look great on first and second down and force a third and long, but all momentum gained by the defense immediately swings back to the opposing offense with a conversion.  On the flip side, an offense can have a third and inches, but the offense gets nothing if the defense makes the third down stop. 

A look at Florida's improvement in third down defense explains much of Florida's overall improvement from the 2007 season (finished 9-4) to the 2008 season (currently 7-1).  Last year, Florida finished 75th in the nation by allowing 41.2 percent of opponents' third down conversions.  Their defense yielded 25.5 points per game as a result. 

This year, Florida sits at 22nd nationally in third down defense at 32.4 percent.  The nearly 10 percent improvement in third down defense literally equates to two touchdowns less per game for the opposition, as Florida's defense is allowing only 11.6 ppg in 2008. 

Florida's offense, meanwhile, remains near the top of the nation in scoring but has dropped considerably in efficiency (53.4 percent to 45.6 percent).  How has Florida been able to maintain their scoring despite the drop in offensive efficiency?

The answer is simple: Florida now has more opportunities to score because of their excellent third down defense.  With two to three more third down stops per game, Florida's offense gets two to three more opportunities to produce points. 

The minor difference of getting one to two more stops per game can be the major difference in winning three or four more games.  The 2008 Florida Gators are the illustration of the importance of third down defense, but a look at the leaders in third down stops reveals that the statistic is vitally important to all championship contenders.

The traditionally weak-on-defense Texas Tech (at 32.5 percent) is right behind Florida.  The other undefeated BCS teams, Alabama and Penn State, are second and 12th in the nation at 25.2 and 30.4 percent.  Oklahoma is 10th at 30 percent, and USC is fifth at 28 percent.

The one title contender who is missing from the top of the standings is Texas, who is 55th, allowing 37.7 percent of opponents' third downs to be converted.

Sorry, Longhorns fans.  Based on the all-important third down defense statistic, Texas is not a strong contender.  The rest of the championship contenders seem to have what it takes.