Throwing the Flag on the Impact of Penalties on Winning in College Football

The difference between winning and losing often comes down to the intangibles. Certainly the axiom of defense winning championships generally holds true, but it is the intangibles that ensure the success to make it to the championship game—finishing blocks, form tackling and especially avoiding penalties.

Or so we are told.

It is widely held that the teams that avoid penalties are the ones that win games and maintain long-term success. But this a “truth” to which fans blindly subscribe. It is not as though the opposite is true, but that in terms of a successful season, there appears to be little correlation between winning and the avoidance of penalties.

Through three games in 2011, the team with the most penalties is Florida (34), yet the Gators are 3-0 in the young season. At the bottom end, East Carolina is 0-2 despite only having three penalties!  However, if we move down the line, then we will see that undefeated Alabama only has seven penalties, while 1-2 Toledo has committed 29 penalties.

But that is too small of a sample set. Let’s take a look at the last five years of penalties—2006-2010. The deeper that one looks at these numbers, the more one will see that there is no direct correlation between penalties and winning.

Over the last five seasons (not including 2011), the team with the best winning percentage is Boise State. Yet, in terms of total penalties over those five seasons, the Broncos rank 78th in average penalties per game (where higher ranking means fewer penalties). Here is Boise State’s average penalties per game by season compared with its regular season winning percentage for the given season:

  • 2006: 5.67 penalties per game (58th); 1.000 winning percentage
  • 2007: 7.33 penalties per game (101st); 0.833 winning percentage
  • 2008: 7.42 penalties per game (108th); 1.000 winning percentage
  • 2009: 6.15 penalties per game (61st); 1.000 winning percentage
  • 2010: 5.92 penalties per game (60th); 0.917 winning percentage

At least in Boise State’s case, winning is not contingent on avoiding penalties. So, what about the opposite end of the spectrum—Eastern Michigan. The Eagles have five-year wining percentage of 0.167 (10-50). Yet, the are middle of the pack in terms of penalties per game (6.06 per game for a 62nd ranking). Again, it is difficult to draw any conclusions from such numbers.

It is worthwhile to simply look at the teams with the best penalty per game average to see how those teams fared on the field.  In this case, “best” means that the team averages a low number of penalties per game.  Below are the top 10 teams in terms of average penalties per game, along with their respective regular season winning percentage over the last five seasons.

  1. Navy: 3.64 penalties per game; 0.705 winning percentage (43-18)
  2. Penn State: 4.17 penalties per game; 0.733 winning percentage (44-16)
  3. Army: 4.43 penalties per game; 0.333 winning percentage (20-40)
  4. Iowa: 4.68 penalties per game; 0.617 winning percentage (37-23)
  5. Michigan: 4.8 penalties per game; 0.567 winning percentage (34-26)
  6. Air Force: 4.85 penalties per game; 0.600 winning percentage (36-24)
  7. Alabama: 4.871 penalties per game; 0.742 winning percentage (46-16)
  8. Wisconsin: 4.883 penalties per game; 0.783 winning percentage (47-13)
  9. Ball State: 4.902 penalties per game; 0.492 winning percentage (30-31)
  10. Colorado State (tie)4.95 penalties per game; 0.317 winning percentage (19-41)
  11. Northwestern (tie)4.95 penalties per game; 0.567 winning percentage (34-26)

It makes sense to see the service academies in the top 10, as one would expect those teams to be the most disciplined. But geographically speaking, it is interesting to not that six of the remaining eight teams are located in the Midwest. And given that Alabama is led by Nick Saban, it is not a surprise to see the Tide on this list, especially since Alabama went from 5.83 penalties per game in 2006 (62nd in the country) to 4.58 penalties per game in Saban’s first season in 2007 (fourth).

Still, while there does appear to be general success here, it is still hit and miss, with Army and Colorado State representing poor performances, Alabama, Navy, Penn State and Wisconsin representing great performances and the rest being in the middle.

So, what about the opposite end of the penalty poll? How do teams that commit many penalties per game fare in terms of regular season winning percentage? In this case, “No. 1” has the worst/highest penalties per game average in the FBS.

  1. Arizona State: 7.883 penalties per game; 0.533 winning percentage (32-28)
  2. South Florida: 7.733 penalties per game; 0.633 winning percentage (38-22)
  3. Florida International: 7.683 penalties per game; 0.250 winning percentage (15-45)
  4. Western Kentucky: 7.653 penalties per game; 0.224 winning percentage (11-38)
  5. Florida: 7.635 penalties per game; 0.825 winning percentage (52-11)
  6. Texas Tech: 7.617 penalties per game; 0.683 winning percentage (41-19)
  7. UL-Monroe: 7.55 penalties per game; 0.417 winning percentage (25-35)
  8. Troy: 7.433 penalties per game; 0.650 winning percentage (39-21)
  9. Southern California: 7.311 penalties per game; 0.770 winning percentage (47-14)
  10. Toledo: 7.233 penalties per game; 0.433 winning percentage (26-34)

Again, certainly seeing teams like FIU and Western Kentucky reflects how penalties can hurt a team’s chances at a successful season. But, that Florida and Southern California also are listed counters that argument. Again, a healthy number of the teams listed here are middle of the pack.  In other words, there appears to be no correlation between penalties—or the lack thereof—and a team’s success (see the graph below).

Before digging deeper into individual teams, I think it is worth noting an interesting geography that develops with these numbers.  As opposed to the “more disciplined” teams, most of the teams with high penalty averages are southern teams, especially from the Sun Belt conference.  The outlier here is Toledo from the MAC.

This begs the question as to whether or not penalties are regional, or at least conference-related.  Here are the conference numbers in rank from lowest penalty per game average to highest.  I will also include the conference’s overall regular season winning percentage.

  1. Big Ten: 5.172 [0.585 winning percentage]
  2. ACC: 5.875 [0.553 winning percentage]
  3. MAC: 5.994 [0.433 winning percentage]
  4. SEC: 5.997 [0.611 winning percentage]
  5. Mountain West: 6.017 [0.516 winning percentage]
  6. Conference USA: 6.075 [0.463 winning percentage]
  7. WAC: 6.258 [0.499 winning percentage]
  8. Big East: 6.301 [0.595 winning percentage]
  9. Big 12: 6.386 [0.585 winning percentage]
  10. Pac-10: 6.531 [0.536 winning percentage]
  11. Sun Belt: 7.04 [0.395 winning percentage]

Just by looking at the numbers, one could figure out that the Big Ten has the third-best winning percentage because it has the lowest penalties per game average, while the Sun Belt struggles to win because its teams average over seven penalties a game. Yet, the MAC (third on the list) has the second-lowest winning percentage among all conferences. On the other side, the Big East (eighth) and Big 12 (ninth) have the second and fourth best winning percentage respectively. Again, it is difficult to draw a solid correlation.

As a side note, anchored by Army and Navy, the Independents actually have the best penalties per game average (4.657).

Finally, I want to look a bit deeper at a few teams. That Florida is among the teams with the highest penalties per game average should be somewhat surprising if looking solely at on-the-field success. The Gators won two BCS championships during the time frame examined. On the other side, Florida International is right there with the Gators and yet has one of the worst records over the last five years, despite recent improvements.

In fact, looking at the five most recent BCS champions, three have ranked worse than 100th in penalties per game while averaging over eight penalties per game—Florida twice (118th in 2006 and 102nd in 2008) and LSU (119th).  Auburn was 53rd last season. with an average of 5.692, while Alabama had a 4.923 average, which is good for 17th in the country.  Even the opposing teams in the BCS Championship Game had averages all over the board, ranging from Ohio State (21st in 2006 and 22nd in 2007) to Oklahoma (109th), Texas (81st) and Oregon (103rd).

Do heavily penalized teams actually win championships? Not likely, as the numbers are still inconclusive. But if there is no correlation with general success, what about game-by-game success?

In order to examine this measure, I took four random teams from the 2010 season—Colorado State and Wisconsin as teams with few penalties, and Nebraska and Virginia as teams with many penalties. Nebraska and Wisconsin represent teams that possessed a winning record last year. while Colorado State and Virginia represent teams with losing records. I also included a fifth team—Alabama—as a team that is considered to be “disciplined.”

It should be noted that I looked at both offensive and defensive penalties and did not examine penalties on kickoffs.

The point is to see whether or not the lack of penalties translated to wins, while an abundance of penalties translated to losses. First, what was the average penalties per game in a given team’s win?

  • Alabama: Five penalties per win
  • Colorado State: 4.67 penalties per win
  • Nebraska: 6.2 penalties per win
  • Virginia: 6.5 penalties per win
  • Wisconsin: 2.45 penalties per win

And now, average penalties per game in a team’s loss.

  • Alabama: 4.67 penalties per loss
  • Colorado State: Three penalties per loss
  • Nebraska: Nine penalties per loss
  • Virginia: 7.38 penalties per loss
  • Wisconsin: Three penalties per loss

Finally, the differential between average penalties per loss and average penalties per win. In this case, a positive number means that penalties increase in losses, while a negative means that penalties decrease with a loss.

  • Alabama: -0.333
  • Colorado State: -1.667
  • Nebraska: +2.8
  • Virginia: +0.875
  • Wisconsin: +0.545

What can be drawn from this? Well, it is still difficult to draw any indisputable conclusions. Alabama actually saw its penalties decrease in wins, as did Colorado State. In fact, with the exception of Nebraska, each team had its season high in penalties occur in a game in which they won (although Virginia did tie the mark in a loss as well).

Additionally, the outlying numbers of Colorado State and Nebraska are skewed due to a single game with an incredibly high number of penalties. Colorado State beat Idaho despite committing 10 penalties, while Nebraska committed 16 penalties in its loss to Texas A&M. That Colorado State is a low-penalty team with a losing record and Nebraska is a high-penalty team with a winning record speaks to this oddity.

The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle, where the change in penalties from game to game appears to have only a marginal impact on the outcome of the game itself.  Even when looking at the timing of the penalty in terms of down and distance, there appears to be little difference in the outcome of the game.

What all of this tells us is that in general penalties do not seem to play a direct role in the outcome of games or affect a team’s overall success. Certainly, committing 16 penalties in a game or having a penalty negate a touchdown can doom a team’s chances to win the game.  But, the frequency of penalties per game does not play a direct role in a team’s success (or failure).

What teams like Nebraska and Florida tell us is that talent—and to a certain extent, coaching philosophies—can overcome penalties. It is why Florida succeeds with so many penalties, while teams from the Sun Belt struggle to overcome such “setbacks.”

In the end, the lack of penalties tell us something that most of us already know—that a team is well-disciplined.  Be it the service academies or a team coached by Nick Saban or Joe Paterno, fewer penalties means discipline.

But, apparently, the lack of penalties does NOT tell us of a team’s success. In fact, based on three of the last five BCS champions, more penalties might actually equal more success!

NOTE: this article originally appeared at Bleacher Report, but I opted to remove it from that site in order to feature it here.

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