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2009 Florida State Place Kicking Preview: How Much Will FSU Miss Graham Gano?

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If you are a Florida State football fan and reading this post, it is understandably difficult to think about field goals without the heartbreak of past defeats springing immediately to mind. 

Going into the 2008 campaign, those wounds were still fresh as ever.  By way of example, this article from TBO.com, titled "As FSU Kicker, Gano Expects Questions" appears to be calculated to remind Graham specifically - and FSU fans generally - of the pressure and legacy of the Miami kicking game debacles.  

In the process of shattering this self-defeating spiral (or maybe it was the 2005 Miami Muff that put this one to bed for good) it is almost hard to remember that after losing dependable Senior Gary Cismesia  to graduation, Florida State was without a clear-cut frontrunner at the place kicker position. 

While the question of who would be tapped to replace Cismesia's offensive output (which accounted for 36% of FSU's points in 2007) was not completely settled, Graham Gano appeared to have the inside track.  Or he did, at least until he tore the meniscus and some of the cartilage in his right knee, reportedly by attempting a rugby punt off the wrong foot during August practice. 

Continue the story and read some (light) statistical analysis from the author, plus excellent commentary and advanced statistics from FSUncensored, after the jump.

Despite this adversity, Gano battled back, retook the starting place kicking job, and went on have the most prolific season of any place kicker in 2008.  Graham captured the Lou Groza Award, made 24 out of 26 field goals (tying him for first nationally in made field goals), lead the nation in field goals per game (2.18), and was tops among all kickers in scoring at 9.55 points/game.  Gano's only two misses came on a pair of 50+ yard attempts, against Wake Forest and Boston College respectively.  

Nearly as impressive as those raw numbers was the fact that Gano made a Florida State record 18 consecutive field goals, and managed to punch 5 kicks through the uprights at a distance of 50 yards or greater.  Lest anyone think that Graham was one-dimensional, he also became the first Seminole in school history to handle all kicking duties (punt, place kicking, and kickoffs) in the same season, pulling down top punter honors in the ACC, and quite possibly the only player in school history to have his own top level domain name website, http://www.grahamgano.com.  Gano punctuated his season with a ridiculous display of punting precision, earning him MVP honors, a seat at the post-game Champs Sports Bowl Press Conference, and anecdotal consideration for a Sports Emmy.

 

College Football - ''Champs Sports Bowl Florida State vs Wisconsin'' (Recorded Dec 27, 2008, ESPN) (via fsujl11)

To sum up Gano's importance, one need only look as far as the words of Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden:

"Someone asked me the other day in a television interview, it might have been Bob Griese, what player has meant the most to this team [2008] and it was Gano. He's had something like 18 in a row out there and we won ball games. He gave us field position all year and during the Champs Bowl, that was a great example of field  position."

- Bobby Bowden

 

Having discussed the storybook senior season for Gano, the question looking forward becomes what sort of production should FSU expect from the place kicking position in 2009, and how will these expectations translate into wins, losses, and decision making by the Seminole coaching staff?

As a preliminary matter, I believe we can all agree on the basic premise that FSU will not be capable of completely filling the void left by Gano.  Clutch would be a great word to describe Gano, but in the context of his dream season, automatic would probably be better.  Gano made kicks in several tight conference victories, including 2 of 2 against Miami (final score 41-39) 3 of 3 against Virginia Tech (final score 30-20), and 4 of 4  against NC State (final score 26-17).  Moreover, Gano's accuracy from long-range  (and excellent punting ability) had the undisputable effect of altering the calculus of whether or not to go for it on fourth down. 

Statistically speaking, Gano made 92.3% of his field goal attempts, making him the most accurate kicker in the country.  Only 4 kickers total achieved accuracy of 90% or better in 2008.   What is even more remarkable about this accuracy is the fact that Gano attempted more than 2 field goals per game.  In contrast, the next most accurate kicker who attempted 2 or more field goals per game was Ryan Harrison of Air Force, who was 19th in the nation in accuracy (converting on 1.8 of his 2.2 attempts/game).

Comparing Gano to previous (recent) FSU kickers, we find that Cismesia made 79.4% of his attempts in 2007, making him the 33rd most accurate kicker in college football that season.  In 2006, Cismesia made 70% of his field goal attempts, good enough for 60th in the nation in accuracy.  In 2005, Cismesia made 70.8% of his attempts, putting him alone in 52nd place.  In 2004, FSU's placing kicking duties were handled by Xaiver Beitia, who converted on 64.0% of his field goal attempts, giving Beitia the inglorious distinction of being the 67th most accurate kicker in the country that year.

FSUncensored jumps in...

I just wanted to express just how good Graham Gano was.  Let's ask a guy who studies this stuff for a living, Brian Fremeau:

In the process of calculating Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AOE) and Ajudted Defensive Efficiency (ADE), recall that I discard all garbage possessions and then extract each drive's offensive points earned based on national efficiency expectations for both the drive start and end field position, adjusting for opponent.  Now let's take a closer look at the leftovers. I prefer not to combine the efforts of all traditional special teams units (kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, field goal, and extra point) into one metric. Instead, I am presenting a special team scoring efficiency and a field position efficiency metric independently.

The Special Teams Scoring Efficiency (STSE) metric is designed to measure the success of each team's " points-after" units, both those that trot onto the field following touchdowns and those that line up after offensive drives that stall in opponent territory. The post-touchdown attempts are pretty straightforward -- an extra-point kick is worth one full point on the scoreboard, but since the national success rate for these kicks is so high, I reward the offense with 6.958 points for their score, leaving 0.042 points to be earned per extra point attempt (and 1.042 points to be possibly earned for each two-point attempt).

Non-touchdown offensive drives are credited for advancing into opponent territory according to both national field goal attempt and punt frequency rates combined. For an offensive drive that stalls at the opponent 34-yard line, for instance, I measure the " points-after" success based not simply on the success rate of 51-yard field goal attempts, but rather divided by the sum of all 51-yard attempts and punts from the opponent's 34-yard line.

Now, admittedly, separating STSE and FPE in this way is not perfectly precise. The decision to punt from an opponent's 30-yard line may be a wise strategic play even when a team has an excellent field goal kicking unit. But it does help outline the decision in score expectation terms. A team with average offense, defense and special teams units can expect to net 1.318 points from an attempt at the opponent's 30-yard line. Giving up the ball at the 30-yard line grants the opponent a drive-score expectation of 1.885 points for their next drive. Punting to the opponent's ten-yard line grants the opponent a score expectation of 1.239 points. If the punt is a touchback, the opponent score expectation elevates to 1.535 points. Factoring the strength of the opponent offense and the team's own defense changes the calculus, but you get the idea.

As of November 12th, FSU led the nation by  a huge margin, with a score of .146  The next best score was .081.  The difference between FSU and the 2nd best team, was bigger than the difference between the #2 team and the #40 team.  Why was that?  

Florida State leads the way in STSE, having made all but one of 18 non-garbage field goal attempts this season, including four from more than 50 yards. An average unit would expect to score 30.3 points on those 18 possessions; FSU's Graham Gano has contributed 51 points with his leg.

Here's the season's final chart, with some examples of other BCS conference teams.

1 Florida State 0.107
2 Syracuse 0.086
5 UCLA 0.052
8 Miami 0.045
10 Wisconsin 0.038
11 LSU 0.037
16 North Carolina State 0.021
23 Texas 0.016
29 Pittsburgh 0.012
37 Duke 0.008
44 Florida 0.004
48 Clemson 0.001
51 Virginia Tech 0
52 Vanderbilt -0.002
53 Maryland -0.002
56 BYU -0.004
57 North Carolina -0.005
61 USC -0.006
70 Georgia Tech -0.012
71 South Florida -0.012
83 Rutgers -0.021
93 Virginia -0.029
94 Wake Forest -0.029
106 Boston College -0.044
120 Auburn -0.093

So Florida State still wins by a large margin and are the only team to reach the ".01" threshold.  

Okay, now back to the original author...

 

While it is not the design of this article to speculate on who might the starting place kicking job in 2009, in light of the signing of top kicking recruit Dustin Hopkins, it is worth taking a brief look at some freshman place kicking numbers from last season.  Only 8 of the top 50 kickers in the country last season in terms of accuracy were freshman (with only 2 in the top 20), and only 8 of the top 50 kickers in the country in terms of field goals made were freshman.  Only one freshman kicker, James Aho of New Mexico, averaged more than 2.0 attempts/game or greater (Aho made a very respectable 75% of those attempts).

Given that unscientific plunge into place kicking accuracy, I would submit that FSU fans should expect to see the following differences between this season and 2008:

A) FSU will work to limit the kicker's attempts.  While this is usually an unspoken goal of any good offense, FSU had the luxury of falling back on Gano, especially in long yardage situations.  This should make for more "exciting" football, with FSU going for it more often on marginal fourth downs.  A shift toward a more aggressive approach should be compounded by the fact that Gano's punting was a serious weapon in and of itself, which had above average potential to pin opposing offenses deep inside their own territory. 

B) All other things being equal, FSU will likely lose at least one close game in 2009 which could have been put in the win column if the place kicker had delivered a clutch field goal.  Earlier in this post, three conference games where Gano's perfect kicking was the catalyst to victory were identified (Miami, VT, NCST).  The laws of statistics and averages are strongly against this kind of repeat performance, particularly in light of the fact that Gano made field goals of 50 yards or longer in each of those wins.

C) FSU fans heartbeats will once again become dangerously critical on or around Labor Day, 2009.

Note:  Ironically, it is possible that in 2009, FSU might be expected to score more points with a similarly capable offense and kicker who is less accurate, since it has been well documented that teams who are aggressive in these situations (i.e., going for it on fourth down in marginal field goal territory) should expect to score more.  For a more detailed discussion of this hypothesis, see http://www.econ.berkeley.edu/users/dromer/papers/PAPER_NFL_JULY05_FORWEB_CORRECTED.pdf

 

 

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