2012 In Review: First In Its Class

First downs represent another statistic that can, at times, be nothing more than junk food for any evaluator of numbers. Navy pulled off an amazing double feat in 2012: It simultaneously reinforced how meaningless first downs can be while also translating first downs into prosperity. How did Navy finish first among the FBS service academies last season? First downs were part of the puzzle.


First downs, more often than not, will point to the winning team in a football game, if only because they will normally reveal the team with more yards and more sustained drives. However, any practiced observer of college football can tell you that first downs will sometimes amount to a lot of empty calories. One team starts a bunch of drives inside its own 20, moves the ball to the red zone, stalls, gets three points, and collects six first downs that don't add up to much. Another team gains five first downs on a drive but then turns the ball over inside the 10. Another team falls behind by 30 points in the second quarter on a few kick returns and defensive touchdowns by the opposition (plays that don't generate any first downs), only to rack up 400 second-half passing yards and over 25 first downs. You can see why (and how) first downs can be deceiving.

In 2012, there were 659 FBS games in which one team finished with more first downs than the other (38 games involved a statistical tie). In these 659 games, the team with more first downs won 449 times, while the team with fewer first downs won 210 times. That seems really decisive, and to an extent it is, but it's not as overwhelming a margin as you might think: 68.1 percent. That's basically two out of three times. It's not 75 or 80 percent or anything approaching 90 percent. First downs, like many other statistics, can tell lies.

For Navy, the successful 2012 season – the one that brought the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy back to Annapolis – was marked by the Midshipmen's ability to live on both sides of the first-down divide. Navy exposed how first downs fail to tell the full story of a game, but the Midshipmen also made first downs their ally on other occasions.

First, let's look at the two CIC games Navy played last year: The Midshipmen gained only 19 first downs against Air Force, compared to 26 for the Falcons. They won, anyway. Against Army, Navy lost the first-down battle and once again conceded 26 first downs to its opponent. Navy collected only 18 first downs against the Black Knights. No matter – the Midshipmen sang their alma mater second and left Philadelphia in triumph. In two CIC games, Navy gave up 52 first downs and registered 37 of its own. The Mids' record? 2-0. Take that, statistics.

Yet, while Navy overcame the numerical facts in its CIC games, the Midshipmen went 4-1 in the games when they posted more first downs than their opponent. Air Force went 3-4 in games when it accumulated more first downs than its foes. Army went 2-5 in games when it tallied more first downs than its adversary. Navy was both rule-maker and rule-breaker in 2012. Teams that manage to survive and thrive in different statistical contexts are the ones that hold trophies in December.

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