Just for kicks

Just for kicks
By Terry Bowden, Yahoo Sports
September 7, 2007

Terry Bowden
Yahoo Sports
Like many of you, I have been eager to see how the new rule of kicking off from the 30-yard line would impact college football.

The rule was implemented to increase the probability that kicks will be returned, not downed for touchbacks. The idea is to bring more excitement to the game.

Although it will take several weeks to see if the rule changes the game, we are already seeing patterns develop in terms of field position.

Statistics for the first weekend show that the average field position on a kickoff return has changed from the 27-yard line to the 30. More dramatically, and more importantly, the percentage of kicks being returned has increased from 70 to 88.

The biggest result of the rule change is in field position at the beginning of the game. The first quarter, especially in big games, is often like a chess match – both teams playing it close to the vest and waiting for the other guy to make the first mistake. If that mistake is made on the opening kickoff, with the receiving team being backed up in their own territory, the resulting poor field position often leads to points for the other team.

On the other hand, if the receiving team has a great runback, with the kicking team making a mistake in their kick coverage, the field position advantage will go to the receiving team. The team that scores first always gets the upper hand, and will win the game more times than not. That is why this new kickoff rule is so important. The best coaches will be the ones who do the best job of returning and covering kickoffs.

Although every team would like to score on their opening drive, they also would like to establish early field position. When you are backed up – as opposed to playing in the middle of the field (between the 30s) – it impacts play-calling and the consequences of a turnover. The cost of making an offensive mistake that might lead to points for the other team outweighs the benefits of a big play that might lead to a first down.

Bad field position to open the game, quite often leads to more bad field position because a team is forced to be conservative in its play-calling and does not move the chains. Then, when they punt, even if their defense holds, the ball is kicked right back where it was before. Of course, the possibility of good vs. bad field position repeats itself every time a team scores and has to kickoff again.

When you watch a game this weekend, watch the results of kickoffs closely. Don't take a break or you might miss a return for a touchdown, or more importantly, the key element to field position. If you want to play "expert analyst" you can use the same criteria I am going to use to critique the games that I broadcast:

1. If a kickoff is returned to less than the 25-yard line, based on the averages I have seen from the first weekend, I will consider it a negative play for the return team and a successful one for the coverage team.

2. If it is returned to the 35, I will consider it a success for the return team and a failure by the coverage team.

3. And if the return falls between the 25 and the 35, I will consider it a wash where neither team won or lost this particular phase of the kicking game.

Obviously, if a team has a kicker who can still boot the ball deep into the end zone for a touchback, they will be at an advantage. For example, Ryan Succop of South Carolina led the nation by blasting four out of five of his kickoffs into the end zone last Saturday, four resulting in touchbacks. That not only gave the Gamecocks great field position, but also gave Coach Steve Spurrier less to worry about in terms of practice and personnel.

You win football games by taking care of the little things, and the kicking game/field position battle is a prime example. But it might not be that little after all.

Terry Bowden is Yahoo! Sports' college football analyst. For more information about Terry, visit his official web site.

Send Terry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Sep 7, 2007 7:16 pm, EDT

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