Everyone loves to watch an explosive offense. “Defense wins championships” is one of the oldest adages in the sport. These opposing phases of football dominate the conversation, and rightfully so. They do make up the vast majority of every game. Meanwhile, there’s a third phase of the game that endures nothing but ridicule. I’m talking about football’s red headed stepchild: special teams. Every few years, some Skip Bayless type talking head will say that kickers and punters aren’t football players, all the other shows will turn it into a few days of content, and Pat McAfee will be the only one defending the specialists. Even though it’s easy to make fun of college kickers, the results don’t lie. Good special teams is a requirement to win a championship.
This year’s playoff picture is a great example of how important special teams play is. I picked out the ten games that I felt had the biggest impact on the playoff. Most of these were either matchups between contenders, like Michigan’s win over Ohio State, or major upsets that kept a team out of the CFP, like Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina. In those ten games, the team with the higher special teams EPA (an advanced metric which rates each individual play) went 8-2. Plus, the two losses both came on a last second two-point conversion (LSU over Alabama, Utah’s first win over USC). Special teams played an integral role in some of those outcomes as well. Alabama gave Tennessee an extra possession through a muffed punt, which the Vols turned into a touchdown in their shootout win. Clemson fumbled on two different returns against South Carolina, and consistently started with terrible field position thanks to SC’s Kai Kroeger putting in one of the best punting performances I’ve ever seen. When two top-level teams meet, oftentimes special teams can make the difference.
Single game stats can be misleading, so let’s step back and look at the season-long stats. Here are the SP+ special teams rankings for the four playoff teams:
Ohio State- 7th
TCU is a clear outlier, which makes sense given the fact that they had a lot of close calls during the year. Now for comparison, let’s look at the rankings for the four teams that were on the playoff bubble at the end of the year:
Tennessee and USC’s rankings speak for themselves, while Bama and Clemson require some context. Special teams units are typically made up of guys who don’t see the field otherwise. Therefore, it makes sense that the most talented teams, who have the most depth, are typically near the top of the special teams rankings. This is where we have to circle back to the single game stats. In Alabama’s loss to Tennessee, they had a special teams EPA of -7.8, which is abysmal. Clemson’s special teams crapped the bed in two games, putting up a -7.7 and -6.8 in their losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina, respectively. That Palmetto Bowl loss was especially rough, as the Tigers lost fumbles on both a kickoff and punt return, the latter of which iced the game. This season proved that no matter how talented you are, struggling on special teams will come back to bite you at some point.
The average college football viewer does not care about special teams, probably now more than ever. Fourth down is dominated by offenses more and more, with punts and field goal attempts being seen as a failure, and rightfully so. However, don’t underestimate how impactful a good special teams unit can be. Whether it’s blocking punts, returning kicks for a free touchdown, or pinning your opponent deep and forcing them to drive 95 yards, a great special teams performance can be the difference between victory and defeat. Don’t believe me? Just ask those teams that missed the playoff this season.
(Photo courtesy of SBNation)