Coaches Wrestle With Coin Toss Decision

We already know that Alabama will make the head or tail call when the Crimson Tide goes to Auburn Saturday for the final regular season game of the year. About three minutes before kickoff, both teams will have captains at midfield for the ritual and the visiting team gets to make the call.

And then what?

The side that wins the coin toss then has a menu of decisions from which to choose, including one of the most popular – the right to defer the decision until the start of the second half. By far the most prevalent decision other than defer is to receive the opening kickoff. It is also possible for a team to select an end of the field to defend (not near as common as decades ago), or even to kick off (one would be hard-pressed to think of a time when this would ever be a good choice).

Don’t think for a minute that the players go to midfield and then figure out what choice to make. That is a prior decision by the head coach, or perhaps by the coaching staff. Would you be surprised to learn that at Alabama there is a Friday wrestling match between Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin and Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart to determine what the choice will be?

Okay, so there’s no wrestling match.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, “We always have a staff meeting early in the morning on Saturday before a game, and that’s when the decision gets made. It gets thought a lot about before.

“Last year we took the ball almost every chance we got. This year we’ve probably deferred more often than we’ve taken the ball when we’ve won the toss.” True. In 2014, Bama won the toss seven times and elected to receive four of those seven. To date, Bama has won the toss six times and has deferred four times. One of the exceptions was in Saturday’s 56-6 win over Charleston Southern when the Tide took the ball and then marched right down the field to a touchdown.

Saban said the decision to defer more often this year is because earlier in the season “when we took the ball, we didn’t start out very well.”

It may be the primary factor for most coaches is the wind. Every coach would like to have the wind in the fourth quarter, particularly if it’s a significant wind. Prior to Saturday, the only game in which Saban had elected to receive rather than defer was against Middle Tennessee State, when the wind was over 10 miles per hour. It was insignificant in all others, including last Saturday.

“If you defer, you may not have the opportunity [to have the wind in the fourth quarter], because in the second half you’ve got to take the ball and they get to pick which way they kick.”

Saban illustrated his desire to have the ball in the fourth quarter with a story from his first year as a head coach at Toledo, playing Central Michigan. He described the situation of being behind late in the fourth quarter and playing into a 40 miles per hour wind with Central Michigan leading by a point. Toledo drove to the 20-yard-line with a field goal to win it.

“We’ve got a good kicker, but the wind is blowing 40 right in his face. If he makes the kick, we could have won it. He could have made it from 60 yards with the wind, and couldn’t make it from 20 against it. He kicked it and got about three-quarters of the way there, and just went straight down, and we lost.

“So I kind of decided then we need to have the wind in the fourth quarter if you’ve got the chance.”

Previously, Saban has said he would prefer to be on offense first. The chances of having the wind in the fourth quarter, though, are usually greater if the opponent receives the opening kickoff, either by choice or by a deferment. By taking the ball to start the game, though, that team can make the decision to play into the wind in the third quarter and have it in the fourth quarter. That is not usual. A team ordinarily would not want to give the ball and the wind to the opponent to start the second half.

Incidentally, the drainage and overall condition of a football field in great part eliminates rain as a factor in the coin toss decision.

One factor for many teams is the strength of the opponent on offense. Some – and Saban has been in this camp at times – is that if the opponent is very strong on offense, Saban might elect to take the ball first if given that option.

The decision can also depend on match-ups, or even if a team is starting a new quarterback. A possible factor is the effectiveness of the kickoff men in the game, though the change that puts a kickoff touchback on the 25 rather than the 20 may offset that.

Whether home or away can be a factor, since a crowd is usually more animated to start the game than to start the third quarter. (The crowd, notably the location of the students, is a possible factor in an overtime coin toss situation when choosing at which end of the field to play.)

Perhaps a major factor is the possibility of what happens at the end of the second quarter. More and more there is talk about which team will get the ball to start the second half, and the importance of that if there is a score late in the second quarter.

If you are the team that is getting the ball to start the second half and you score right before intermission, you have the only opportunity to have back-to-back possessions with the chances of back-to-back scores. And if the opponent scored just before halftime, you do not want to be giving them the ball to start the third quarter. Thus, if you win the pre-game toss, you might want to defer. If you lose it, you might want to hope the opponent elects to receive.

The next chance to see what happens at a coin toss will be about 2:30 p.m. CST Saturday at Auburn. Alabama (10-1 overall, 6-1 in Southeastern Conference play) takes on Auburn (6-5, 2-5) with CBS televising the game.

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