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College football’s kickoff touchback rule is changing the sport without changing it

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The new rule appears to be having the intended effect.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes your eyes tell you one thing, and the data tells you another.

In a few select college football games in recent weeks, I’ve found myself wanting to yell at the TV because a kick returner didn’t take advantage of the new touchback rule, which allows you to call fair catch anywhere inside the 25 and take a touchback out to the 25.

The NCAA designed the rule to limit the number of kick returns, because they are believed to be maybe the most dangerous play type in football.

My eyes were telling me people weren’t using the new rule enough.

For instance, in Week 5’s marquee game, Ohio State at Penn State, the host Nittany Lions started drives at their 21-, 18-, and 9-yard lines after kickoffs. That’s 27 yards of lost field position in a game that PSU lost by one point.

That same Saturday, Clemson lost 20 yards of free field position in a narrow win over Syracuse, Michigan lost 17 in a narrow win over Northwestern, and Kansas State lost 28 in a five-point loss to Texas.

Is this a thing? Are teams not taking advantage of this enough?

Looking at the data, there has indeed been a shift under the new touchback rule, but by no means a massive one.

Teams are returning kickoffs a little bit less, and field position isn’t changing much.

I took a look at kickoffs data after the first week of the season and didn’t see any massive changes in field position despite more fair catches and touchbacks. A few weeks later, the numbers have shifted a hair but not much.

In that initial post, I compared 2018’s first week to 2017’s full-season data. Let’s stretch that sample out a little bit and compare 2018’s first six weeks to all of 2015-17.

College football kickoffs, 2015-18

Season 2015-17 2018 (6 weeks)
Season 2015-17 2018 (6 weeks)
Touchback rate 39.3% 46.6%
Return rate 55.8% 41.4%
Fair catch rate 0.9% 8.2%
Out of bounds rate 3.2% 2.8%
Avg. net yards 38.9 40.5
Avg. resulting field position 26.1 24.5
Kickoff success rate* 71.6% 77.5%
Avg. kickoff distance 61.0 61.3
Kick return average 21.0 21.1
Kick return success rate* 43.5% 45.1%
Big return rate (>40 yards) 2.7% 1.9%

* Success rates, as they pertain to special teams, are discussed and defined here. In short, a kickoff is either a success for the kicking team or the returning team, depending on whether it crosses the 25 or not.

My anecdote doesn’t really ring true.

Never mind the obvious info here — touchbacks and fair catches are up by more than seven percentage points — when teams choose to return kicks, they are, on average, doing it slightly better than before. There are fewer big returns, but the returns that take place are slightly more likely to be “successful” than they were before.

Hell, even for one of my example teams above, Penn State, choosing to let KJ Hamler return kicks instead of taking touchbacks worked wonderfully for the first few weeks of the season before his success ground to a halt.

I would venture to say that return teams could go even further in their use of the fair catch rule, and maybe that will take place as return men get a better feel for what types of kicks (distance, elevation, etc.) are good for returning and which aren’t.

But for now, the rule has both cut down on returns overall and resulted in only a minor change in field position.

My eyes lied to me.