CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If No. 23 North Carolina happens to win the coin toss ahead of Saturday’s kickoff at No. 12 Florida State, bet the house that Larry Fedora will defer his option to the second half.
NCAA rule 3-1-1-e details the options for teams winning the coin toss: (1) designate which team to kick off, (2) designate which goal line to defend and (3) defer the selection to the second half.
Fedora has coached 56 games in his tenure at UNC, and he’s elected to defer 27 of the 28 times the Tar Heels have won the coin toss. The last time he elected to receive was the first time UNC won a coin toss during his tenure – at Louisville in September 2012.
Prior to each game, Fedora confers with offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic and defensive coordinator Gene Chizik about handling the coin toss.
“At this point, the decision has been that we’ve wanted to defer,” Fedora said this week. “Until Gene says he wants to do it differently, we probably will continue to do that.”
There are a couple of reasons coaches are becoming increasingly more likely to defer their choice after winning the coin toss. Most importantly, receiving the ball to open the second half guarantees at least as many possessions as your opponent in the final 30 minutes. Teams are more likely to waste a possession at the end of the first half with conservative play calling or even taking a knee to run the clock out.
The knowledge of receiving the second half kickoff factors into the strategy utilized just before halftime.
“It depends on what’s going on in the game and my gut on where we are on the field, what’s happening and how many timeouts we’ve got, knowing that I’m going to get the ball back,” Fedora said. “I got some good advice from a coach that’s won many national championships who told me he’s lost more games at halftime than he’s won. So we try to be smart right before the half.”
That coach was Alabama’s Nick Saban. Interestingly enough, Saban typically elected to receive the ball when winning the coin toss prior to the 2015 season. He changed that approach last season, citing his team’s poor starts.
Saban’s equivalent at the NFL level – New England head coach Bill Belichick – has elected to receive to open a game when winning the coin toss just twice over the past eight seasons.
There’s also the opportunity to score on back-to-back possessions overlapping halftime. UNC’s Nick Weiler’s connected on a 34-yard field goal as time expired at halftime of Saturday’s win over Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels also received the second half kickoff, failing to convert with a three-and-out.
“You always like having the ball to start the second half,” Kapilovic said. “We didn’t take advantage of that last week. That was obviously our worst series as an offense, so you don’t want that to happen. I’m with [Fedora] on that. I think it’s good to get the ball to start the second half in most situations.”
The players tend to agree with the coin toss strategy.
“Yeah, it’s a big plus,” senior wide receiver Ryan Switzer said. “Granted, we didn’t do anything with it [against Pitt], but the coaches feel like it’s an advantage for us, especially if we’re not playing well.”
Fedora, who is a stat geek of sorts, told reporters he’s looked into the statistical research behind the option and has found little evidence to suggest deferring is a better option than receiving to start a game. A Sports Illustrated report in 2012 found that NFL teams receiving the opening kickoff won 46.2 percent of the time over a three-year period, thereby giving a clear edge to teams that received the second half kickoff.null