It was a surprise for many when Penn State came in at No. 12 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season Tuesday. Before that, neither major poll had placed the Nittany Lions higher than No. 20, and the Coaches Poll only got around to ranking them — at No. 23 — this past Sunday, a week after their signature win against then-No. 2 Ohio State.
As we talked about in this space before the Ohio State game, though, the computer ratings have been ahead of the polls on Penn State for weeks. One formula, Football Outsiders’ S&P+ index, had the Nits at No. 20 going into the win against the Buckeyes and No. 15 going into Tuesday’s rankings.
We can’t know for sure how much the playoff committee took such ratings into consideration. Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that they were a big part of the decision. What, then, do the computers find so appealing about Penn State that the polls are missing?
Field position is probably a good place to start. It is one of five components of the S&P+ ratings, and it’s an area in which Penn State has excelled and improved a lot this season from the past two.
According to College Football Analytics, the Nits have enjoyed the 13th-best starting field position nationally, with the average distance from the end zone to start their drives being 65.17 yards. They also rank in the top 30 of opponent’s average field position at 71.84.
That’s a pretty big swing of almost seven yards per exchange, and there are three vivid reasons contributing to it.
One is turnovers, where Penn State has done a nice job taking care of the ball, turning it over at a rate of just 2.28 percent of their offensive snaps. Quarterback Trace McSorley has been even better, throwing interceptions on just 1.33 percent of his pass attempts, which puts him in the top 10 nationally.
The defense, meanwhile, is producing turnovers on 2.19 percent of its snaps. That ranking is basically middle of the pack, but combined with the ball security on the other side, it’s ensuring that Penn State is minimizing opponents’ opportunities to take advantage of short fields while creating its own at a healthy clip.
Solid punting is having an effect, too, at the same time it’s benefiting from better field position. Punter Blake Gillikin’s 41.4 yards per punt average is nothing special nationally, but it’s a result of often kicking into short fields to pin opponents deep. For instance, 14 of his 39 kicks this season have been downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line while another four have gone for touchbacks. Six more have gone for 50-plus yards, meaning a nice majority of his kicks are either pinning opponents deep or flipping the field in a significant way.
Then there is, perhaps, the biggest driver of the superior field position: the offense. Penn State has boosted its yards per possession average by about 11 percent this season to 27.89. This means that even when it starts a drive with bad field position, deep inside its own territory, it’s able to at least get out of the shadow of its own goal posts and punt from a position that gives opponents neutral field position at best on exchanges. And as Gillikin’s stats suggest, it often does a lot better than that, gaining enough ground to give him a chance to set the defense up with a lot of field to work with.
The Ohio State win, which many have written off as fluky, was perhaps the best example of Penn State’s solid field position at work. In that game, the Nits punted from inside their own 31-yard line just once. Consequently, the Buckeyes started drives from beyond their own 30-yard line just once following Penn State punts, meaning they frequently were facing fields of 70-plus yards.
That takes a toll on offenses over the course of 60 minutes, even units as good as Ohio State’s, and it conversely gives Penn State’s offense a nice head start on many drives.
The payoff? Almost 36 percent of the Nits’ possessions have reached the red zone this year, up from about 25 percent a season ago and 24 percent in 2014. With a kicker in Tyler Davis who almost never misses and an offense that’s scoring more touchdowns, this pretty well explains Penn State’s near 10-point surge in points per game average.
So, at least as far as field position is concerned, Penn State’s success is not as fluky as the polls might suggest. If it continues to maintain these kinds of margins in its last four games, it’s going to have a significant advantage against every team it faces.
That doesn’t mean the Nits will win every time, but it does mean opponents will be flying into stiffer headwinds, which is always a great place to start.