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Florida State Football vs The ACC: Beyond The Yellow Flags


When most football coaches are asked what their team needs to do win a game, they will usually give the normal and typical coach-speak reply: "We must avoid turnovers and we can't commit any penalties."  While turnovers are momentum killers that can quickly change the direction of a game, they are usually caused by a players negligence or mistake, but just as often they are caused by a player trying too hard.  However, there is nothing more frustrating to the fans, the players and coaches than penalties.  Which brings us to today's topic.

Does Florida State’s past history of ACC dominance and their aggressive style of play contribute to and cause the officials to penalize FSU more often than our conference rivals, with questionable officiating?

For as long as I have been following FSU football, the perception has always been that the FSU football program was always one of the most penalized teams in college football when the final stats were released at the end of the season, without fail on a yearly basis.  

The perception also seemed to be that our coaching staff didn’t really appear too concerned, as the players were simply following the coaches orders by playing aggressively and up until the echo of the whistle. And if memory serves me correctly, it also seems many of the TV announcers covering FSU games have implied and often characterized the penalties and aggressiveness of our players as the Noles lacking discipline and accountability, playing recklessly, and out of control.

Some might argue that in the past, and even still today, many of the major penalties called against FSU were/are a direct result of the aggressive style of play and the reputation that FSU garnered during the Dynasty Years, especially on defense where aggressiveness was a staple under the attack defenses of Mickey Andrews.  

Over the years there has been much debate about the impact of defensive penalties.  There are those who argue that large numbers of defensive penalties are indicative of a strong, physical, aggressive defense.  You may see some evidence that this view might have some merit.

On the other hand, there are many others who believe that the teams that commit the most penalties will lose more often, and that penalties that occur during a game often determine who wins and who loses the game.

Today we will analyze a few statistics about penalties in college football.  The biggest answer we are seeking is to see if our analysis of the stats will point us in the right direction and towards the truth.  That being whether or not more penalties equals a worse record and more losses, and if this concept has any validity or is actually a myth. 

Texas coach Mack Brown, who previously coached at North Carolina, once said, "Usually, the best teams are the more penalized teams if you study it in the history of college football. I've said this before, but the most penalized team in our conference at the ACC was Florida State, and they were winning all the games at the time.  I always got confused about that, and it's because they were so aggressive."

While this was true, we must remember that during the Dynasty Years, the Noles were one of the country's elite teams, with elite talent, and played with extreme confidence.  Those great teams often played against weaker conference teams who were usually at a talent disadvantage.  Due to these factors, those FSU teams from the Dynasty Era could more often overcome penalties on defense, while those FSU offensive juggernauts of yesteryear could convert first downs consistently even after being penalized more often than their out-manned opponents. So even though those teams from the Dynasty Years often played and looked like the "Noles Gone Wild," they could usually overcome most penalties and still win, despite often making penalties that would be drive-killers and tear the hearts out of the weaker teams.

For example, in 1999 FSU was the most penalized team in the country by a large margin, tallying 109 penalties throughout the year for almost 85 yards a game.  This was 27 more penalties and 15 yards a game more than second-placed Clemson. This was also the last time FSU won a national championship. Coincidence?  You will be asked to decide on the validity of this theory shortly. 

There is little doubt that an aggressive style of play may lead the officials to err on the side of caution and make more "subjective or judgment call" penalties (such as pass interference or offensive holding) against the more aggressive team.  On several occasions in the past, officials have acknowledged that a high level of aggressive play by a team can result in a higher number of penalties, but this was always acknowledged under the condition of anonymity and off the record, of course. 

A popular opinion among the tin-foil hat wearers is that officials are more lenient and call less penalties on the weaker teams and the underdogs, especially when they are facing a ranked team or a heavy favorite.

Then there are others out there who believe that the ref's usually favor the home team, and the officials are quicker to throw the hanky against the visiting team.

And finally, there are those conspiracy theorist who believe that the ACC good ol' boy network favors and penalizes the teams from the tobacco belt with less frequency than teams from outside of the state of North Carolina. 

We will analyze the numbers to see if there are any stats that can lend any credence to any of these trains of thought, i.e. if the visiting team is flagged more often than the home team, if weaker teams get penalized less often than ranked or elite teams, and if there is any proof that the four teams residing near the ACC headquarters are flagged less often than the rest of the conference.  However, a teams level of aggressiveness is very subjective and very difficult to gauge.  Is FSU more aggressive than the rest of the ACC, or for that matter, the rest of the NCAA field?  Statistically, that’s impossible to answer, but your input is welcome as to whether or not you feel aggressiveness is a factor in the number of penalties called against FSU.


Please hit the jump to continue reading.


First let's start out by looking at the national rankings for the most number of penalties and the most yards in the ACC (and UF) for the past three seasons.


                          2010        2009          2008
TEAM               # - Yds     # - Yds      # - Yds

Boston Coll       53 - 63     22 - 23      20 - 19
Clemson           72- 85      35 - 49      59 - 61
Duke                 6 - 9        11 - 17       9 - 26
Florida St          96 -104    88 - 99     112 - 115
Georgia Tech     85 - 74     79 - 59      29 - 44
Maryland           11- 114    24 - 18      23 - 28
Miami (FL)        116 -115    96 - 72      64 - 55
N Carolina        108 - 95     71 - 84      29 - 36
NC State           25 - 5        18 - 15      58 - 36
Virginia             106 -113    32 - 59      17 - 18
Virginia Tech     30 - 36      58 - 51       55 - 13
Wake Forest     11 - 24      41 - 47      23 - 65
Florida              109 - 91    101 -84     112 -107

Some things that may jump out at you might include:

A)  FSU, Miami, and UF are among the most penalized teams in the country on a yearly basis.  Since the majority of the players from these 3 schools are from Florida, is it possible these players are taught a more aggressive style of play at an earlier age than players from other parts of the country?  Or is it more of a question of lack of discipline and maturity on the players and coaches part?

An interesting anecdote that may help support this theory is how the University of South Florida was also an annual fixture as one of the most penalized teams in the country this past decade, since starting to play Division I-A (FBS) football in 2001, although they did make a big improvement this past season.  From 2001 to 2008, USF was the only team to be ranked in the top 10 every year in average number of penalties per game.  During this same period, no other program has even been ranked annually among the top 20 most penalized teams.  USF led the nation in penalties in 2002, and were the second most penalized team in 2001, 2004 and 2007.

Does this bit of trivia, in addition to the fact that FSU, Miami, and Florida are consistently ranked as the most penalized teams in the country, help support the theory that Florida players are being taught to play with more aggressiveness at a younger age (or with less discipline), or was this just growing pains for the Bulls when they started playing big boy football?

Here are the University of South Florida national ranking and average number of penalties per game, per year.


2001  No. 2     10.0

2002  No. 1     11.6

2003  No. 6       9.4

2004  No. 2       9.6

2005  No. 6       8.9

2006  No. 3       8.0

2007  No. 2       8.6

2008  No. 5       8.5

2009  No. 31     7.0

2010  No. 67    5.7

2)  You may notice an occasional unusual disparity in some of teams ranking for number of penalties per game and ranking for yardage per game.  Keep in mind that this is obviously due to the number of yards assessed per penalty.  The offensive penalties are usually for fewer yards (illegal motion, false start, etc) except for holding, and most importantly they do not usually result in loss of down. On the other hand, defensive penalties are usually for more yards (pass int., roughing, defensive holding, etc), and in most cases gives the offensive team a first down.  These are just a couple of points to remember for the lack of correlation between number of penalties and total yardage rankings in the stats you will see.

D)  With a couple of exceptions, the weaker teams (Duke, Wake Forest, and Virginia) appear to be flagged less often than the rest of the conference.

VII)  Is it possible the tobacco belt team do indeed get penalized less often than those teams from outside of North Carolina?  What are your thoughts?

As previously mentioned, the 1999 National Championship FSU team was the most penalized team not only in the ACC, but in the nation.  Next, let's look at how FSU did in comparison to the rest of the country in the national rankings for average number of penalties per year and average yards penalized per game, from 2000 to 2010.

Year      Avg#/Gm	 AvgYds/Gm

2000 No. 111 No. 113 Of 114 teams. Not including bowl game.
2001 No. 95 No. 91 Of 115 teams. Not including bowl game.
2002 No. 88 No. 91 Of 117 teams. Includes bowl game.
2003 No. 71 No. 86 Of 117 teams. Includes bowl game.
2004 No. 117 No. 117 Of 117 teams. Includes bowl game.
2005 No. 111 No. 111 Of 117 teams. Includes bowl game.
2006 No. 100 No. 84 Of 119 teams. Includes bowl game.
2007 No. 115 No. 109 Of 119 teams. Includes bowl game.
2008 No. 113 No. 114 Of 119 teams. Includes bowl game.
2009 No. 88 No. 97 Of 120 teams. Includes bowl game.
2010 No. 77 No. 88 Of 120 teams. Includes bowl game.

Now let's look at the numbers for FSU and the rest of the ACC (including University of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech) and Florida, in total average number of penalties per year, average number of penalties per game, total average yards penalized per year, and average yards penalized per game, for the 11 year period from 2000-2010.


Bos Coll        70 (6)                6.4 (6)                 575.9 (7)              52.4 (7)
Clemson       65.7 (9)              6.0 (9)                 578.6 (6)              52.6 (6)        
Duke             66.5 (8)             6.0 (8)                 546.7 (10)            49.7 (10)
Florida St      87.3 (2)              7.9 (2)                763.7 (1)               69.4 (1)
Geo Tech      71.1 (4)              6.5 (4)                595.1 (4)               54.1 (4)
Maryland       64.1 (10)            5.8 (10)              544.9 (11)              49.5 (11)
Miami            87.7 (1)              8.0 (1)                748.8 (2)                68.1 (2)
No Car          70.1 (5)               6.4 (5)                583.5 (5)                53.0 (5)
NC State       79.8 (3)               7.3 (3)                658.7 (3)                59.9 (3)
Virginia          62.7 (11)            5.7 (11)              540.9 (12)               49.2 (12)
Virg Tech       67.3 (7)              6.1 (7)                574.1 (8)                 52.2 (8)
W Forest       61.6 (12)            5.6 (12)              562.6 (9)                 51.1 (9)
Florida           86.8                   7.9                     667.7                       60.7

*(Number in parenthesis is ranking in ACC for the 11 year period from 2000 to 2010)

During the 2010 season, FSU's opponents received 31 first downs as a result of a penalties. This was second, barely, to Maryland's 32 first downs given to opponents via penalties. Conversly, FSU was only awarded 20 first downs as a result of penalties.  Below are the number of first downs obtained and given by penalty for each ACC team as well as the University of Florida for 2010 and 2009.  While this stat may not have much relevance on the subject we are discussing, I thought I would still share them with you.

	                2010         2009
TEAM 1st Opp 1st Opp
Boston Coll 21 18 21 12
Clemson 25 25 13 25
Duke 13 15 16 10
Florida State 20 31 18 22
Georgia Tech 17 21 17 13
Maryland 24 32 11 17
Miami (FL) 18 20 11 22
N Carolina 28 5 14 22
NC State 17 17 29 13
Virginia 18 25 16 18
Virginia Tech 21 21 12 13
Wake Forest 16 15 22 10
Florida 17 20 14 21

So, does it appear to you that the ref's are out to get us?  Some of these numbers may be hard to swallow and might give ammo and cause for alarm to those who like to cry conspiracy.  But at the same time, we should keep in mind that despite consistently being among the national and ACC leaders in penalties and penalty yards for as long as I can remember, the Bobby Bowden led teams had one of the highest winning percentages in college football history.  So what gives?  Let's get some other opinions on the significance of penalties from some outsiders.

Back in 2009, Ed Gunther, who publishes The National Championship Issue (Perspectives On College Football), took a good hard look at penalties by analyzing 6,761 games from 2000 to 2008.

So let's look at what we've got so far. Again, we're looking at 2000-2008, which means 6,761 games. Two teams per game gives us 13,522 team-games, and if we're looking at just the most extreme cases of teams committing far more or far fewer penalties than they normally do, we end up with 725 team-games to look at. So again, we're dealing with the top 5% here. Another good thing is that we have every single D1-A team represented, averaging around 6 team-games each. Of those 725 games, 533 (nearly 75% of them) were instances in which a team was penalized more than their average, while just 172 of them were instances of a team penalized less than their average.

Earlier I wrote this:

Then there are others out there who believe that the ref's usually favor the home team, and the officials are quicker to throw the hanky against the visiting team.

Here is what Ed came up with on that subject.

One of the first places we can look for signs of irregularities is in home-field advantage. We know there is one in general, (this year it's hovering at about 65%), but is there one with penalties? Just for clarity's sake, the 725 games we're focusing on we'll call the outliers, and the others we'll call the averages.

Home / Away Penalties & Yards
category games avg penalties avg pen yards more penalties more %
Home (averages) 6,029 6.3 53.8 2,362 40.1%
Away (averages) 6,059 6.6 54.6 2,855 48.5%
Home (outliers) 356 9.3 87.9 243 49.2%
Away (outliers) 326 9.9 85.7 238 48.2%

Hmmm... it doesn't appear that there's any significant difference. The home team has a slight edge in the first few columns, but nothing irregular. Something notable is that in the average games, the home team usually takes less penalties, taking more than their visitor just 40.1% of the time. However, when we're looking at the outliers, the home team takes more penalties a higher percentage of the time, 49.2% to 48.2%. This could be due to the fact that in the average population there's more visiting team-games and in the outliers there's more home team-games, but the difference is pretty small. Overall, there doesn't seem to be much evidence here for the home team having a significant edge penalty-wise.

Regarding ranked teams, I wrote earlier:

Another popular opinion among the tin-foil hat wearers is that officials are more lenient and call less penalties on the weaker teams and the underdogs, especially when they are facing a ranked team or a heavy favorite.

Here are Ed's findings based off those 6,761 games.

Let's look at something else. What about any advantage given to the higher-ranked team?

Penalties & AP Rankings
category All Games Average Games Outlier Games
neither team ranked 5,596 5,286 310
same # of penalties 1,460 1,425 35
higher ranked, more penalties 3,372 3,157 215
higher more % 52.2% 51.9% 56.6%
higher ranked, less penalties 3,088 2,923 165
higher less % 47.8% 48.1% 43.4%

Well, if anything it seems that overall, the higher ranked team usually takes more penalties, and that's especially the case in the outliers. Interesting.

Ed's goal in writing Magical Yellow Flags: a Look at Penalties was:

We're simply going to be looking at the raw, inarguable stats - penalties that were called and penalty yards per game for the last nine seasons. Not how many penalties were called that shouldn't have been, not how many penalties the refs missed, not how much your team got screwed.

What conclusion did ED reach after compiling, sorting, and analyzing all this data?

And that's where I'm going to stop.

Why? For a lot of different reasons. First, I'm sure you noticed that in a way, this exercise is much like trying to prove a negative. We're looking for evidence of irregularities in penalties & games, but not finding any evidence of them isn't going to convince people that bias doesn't exist. We're not going to be able to prove they're not there no matter what we do. The two categories I did look at, home-field advantage and higher-ranked advantage, are the two places where I think most people believe we would be likely to find irregularities, if there were any. We could try other categories into infinity and still not be able to prove a bias doesn't exist. In addition, not finding bias in any particular category doesn't mean that it can't or won't be found in individual games. On the other hand though, good luck proving it.

With all that said, I fully believe that there are no conspiracies afoot to call games certain ways for certain teams, that the refs are not biased, and that the fix is not in in any way whatsoever. Honestly, that's just a bunch of junk people make up to make themselves feel better about losing. Have the SEC referees botched some high-profile calls this past month? Sure. But you know who probably feels worse about it than anyone? Those SEC referees.

Think about this realistically for a second. You don't get to the level they're at without having a huge amount of respect for the game in general. No matter what school they went to or which team they personally root for, I guarantee that every college referee has more respect for the game that overrides those personal ties by far. Do you set out in the morning intentionally trying to be bad at what you do? Probably not, and you probably wouldn't get far if you did. I'm pretty firm in my belief that refs give 100% every game and try to be as impartial and fair as possible, partly because it doesn't make sense for them to be otherwise.

Do they get a call wrong every now and then? Sure. But a lot of those can easily be avoided with the use of instant replay. Sure, some calls are subjective, like holding or interference. The referees have training and years of experience calling those plays - as long as they're consistent, I see no reason not to trust them and defer to their judgment in those cases. For situations like the Georgia-LSU celebration penalties, I think the refs are handcuffed by overbearing rules that are trying to damper down the spirit of competition.

But for the non-subjective determinations, like going out-of-bounds or the ball hitting the ground on an attempted shoe-string catch, use instant replay. Get a donor to give your school money for some LCD high-def TV's, put them in the booth, and use them. Talk to the networks and make them put cameras in more strategic locations so that you can give the guys in the booth the best angles to see the plays - shoot them down the sidelines and endzones, if nothing else. The college game gets it right by reviewing every play. (The NFL knows that would lengthen their games past the mandated 3 hours, so fairness has to take a back seat.) Do whatever it takes to get the call right. I don't want to hear any crap about the refs being human or bad calls being a part of the game. For subjective calls, fine - I can accept that. But with so much riding on games nowadays, the NCAA, conferences, and schools need to be doing all they can to make sure that the black & white calls are correct. Fans won't care if it adds an extra 15 minutes to the games, or if a booth review takes a while. Just Get. The Call. Right. They'll care a whole lot more if you get the call wrong, trust me. Those are things that people besides the refs can fix, so if anything you should be just as pissed at them for letting these things slide.

So where do all of these numbers and all of this ranting leave us? Well, the idea has been bandied about that we need a national refereeing corps that aren't affiliated with any one conferences. Would that help? Well, it would certainly help with the (I believe incorrect) perception that the refs call the games for certain teams. Sure - do it. Starting to fix some of the technological and non-subjective flaws would certainly help too. But for god's sake, can we stop with all the conspiracy bullshit? Until you've walked in the refs' shoes, how about cutting them a little slack. I'm sure a simple "thank you for the 99.9% of the calls that you get right" wouldn't hurt either.

OK, fair enough, Ed makes some excellent points about each teams fans perceived bias from the officials, instant replays, and the national refereeing corps, but what about the theory that committing penalties hurts your chances of winning.

In 2007, Matt Hinton at SMQ (Sunday Morning Quarterback), wrote an excellent 11-part series, with the finale named Stat Relevance Watch: Wrap-up and Analysis. He took the NCAA's rankings of 13 major statistical categories and ranked them according to importance and relevance of winning. He ranked them by record, by AP ranking,  for the ACC Conference, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big XII, the Pac-Ten, the SEC, for Non-Conference games, and for Bowl Games. While his sample size consisted of a limited time frame, he consistently found that the statistical categories in order of relevance to winning are as follows:

Rank Category Win %
1. Yards Per Pass .785 (241-66)
2. Total Offense .740 (231-81)
3. 3rd Down Efficiency .709 (212-87)
4. Turnover Margin .681 (156-73)
5. Rush Offense .678 (213-101)
6. First to Score .674 (213-103)
7. Yards Per Carry .673 (206-100)
8. Time of Possession .624 (179-108)
9. Pass Offense .556 (173-138)
10. Home Team .539 (126-108)
11. Fewest Penalty Yards .405 (119-175)

The only exceptions were 'First to Score,' which usually resulted in a correlation somewhere in the high sixties, and 'Fewest Penalty Yards,' which never showed the slightest indication of being important to victory. The complete irrelevance of penalty yardage again comes with the caveat that penalties are situational killers ... but cumulatively, there's no reason whatsoever to sweat a lot of penalties. It's when flags are thrown, not how many. The debate over the explanation has already begun elsewhere, centering on the idea that penalties are most closely linked to time of possession (offenses draw more flags than defenses), which is correlated to victory. The numbers are iffy on that, though, and SMQ is skeptical because he considers time of possession itself largely an ancillary indicator.

While the list seems counter to every time honored football belief (when was the last time you heard a commentator say "Well, I think the team with the most yards per pass will win this one Lee"), the statistical accuracy cannot be challenged.

In looking at the list, one statistic stands out in particular – Penalty Yards. In every other single statistic, the team possessing the more favorable side of the equation was more likely than not to have won the game. For Penalty Yards however, in every single conference the team with the greater number of penalty yards was more likely than not to have won the game.

In other words, if you were an alien, and arrived on earth to be introduced to college football for the first time, in looking at the statistics on what it took to win you would be encouraged to commit as many penalty yards as possible, or at least more than your opponent.

In fact, the average winning percentage of teams committing fewer penalties is 40.5%. If you "flip" this average percentage, you find that teams committing more penalties won on the order of nearly 60% of the time, making the commission of more penalty yards seemingly more important to winning than having a greater number of passing yards than your opponent or even having the home field advantage.

"Lee, I think the team committing the most penalties will win this game today."

My hypothesis in an earlier post that the team committing more penalties won more often was because the team with a longer time of possession had more opportunities to commit minor offensive penalties. These offensive penalties, in turn, were less harmful than defensive penalties to overall success, as while an offensive penalty rarely ever totally ruin a drive, defensive penalties more often than not extend drives, often disastrously.


Last winter, I found over and over again, in game after game, conference after conference, that penalty yardage had no correlation whatsoever with winning in games between two BCS conference teams, when every other stat category - even which team was at home and which team scored first - showed at least some non-trivial, positive correlation to victory. With penalties, in fact, the correlation was slightly negative: on a macro level, the twenty most penalized teams had a better aggregate record than the twenty least penalized teams, while on a game-by-game level, the team that was penalized more than its opponent had a slightly higher winning percentage.

Some mild gnashing of teeth occurred in the face of such counter-intuitive data, or, in Lou Holtz's case, some impressive fits of slobber in defense of an ancient coaching point. Are more penalized teams more aggressive? Are refs subconsciously "leveling the field" by throwing more flags against better teams? Do teams that hold the ball longer on offense commit more penalties, since most penalties are called against the offense?

From:  Stat Relevance Revisted:  Passing=Penalties? 

Some interesting ideas are thrown around about why the penalties are called, but the point that penalties are fairly irrelevant in college football, at least as far as winning, still stands tall.

In his first year as head coach, Jimbo Fisher and his staff managed to bring down the number of penalties and yards to a level that had not been been seen since 2003, and prior to that in 1995.  He has demanded discipline, accountability, and maturity from his players, and it showed in the number of penalties. No coach ever wants to see his players commit fouls on defense, since it gives opposing offense more opportunities to get into the end-zone and moves them closer to the goal line.  Also, no coach ever want to see his players commit self inflicted fouls on offense, since they could potentially be drive-killing penalties, or even worse, they could negate a touchdown, like the 47-yard Ponder to Reed touchdown that was nullified against NC State.

However, all of the documentation presented today suggest that the old saying that "penalties will get you beat" may not be as accurate as once thought.  You want your players to be as tough, physical, and aggressive as possible, but we should not get too upset when a player commits a penalty, especially if it is a effort type penalty such as a player attempting to make an extra block, and as long as they are making good decisions.

Finally, in 2006 the most penalized team in the Nation was Florida, who went on to win the National Championship. I already mentioned that FSU was the most penalized team during the 1999 National Championship run. Here is a breakdown of the two teams that played in every National Championship Game starting in 2000, along with their NCAA national ranking for average number of penalties per game and their ranking for average yards penalized per game.                                  

YEAR    TEAM       Rank#/Yds  vs   TEAM        Rank#/Yds
2000     Oklahoma   75 / 79             FSU            111 / 113
2001     Miami         112 / 114          Nebraska     22 / 42
2002     Miami         113 / 114          Ohio State    20 / 10
2003      LSU             82 / 73           Oklahoma     39 / 26
2004      USC            27 / 27            Oklahoma     62 / 68
2005     Texas            88 / 88           USC              70 / 84
2006     Florida        118 / 109          Ohio State     91 / 36
2007     LSU            117 / 97           Ohio State      25 / 14
2008     Florida        105 / 95            Oklahoma    105 / 104
2009     Alabama      17 / 14             Texas             84 / 86
2010     Auburn         46 / 68             Oregon         101 / 101

Year in an year out the majority of the teams with the least amount of penalties have losing records.  Many coaches point to penalties as the reason for a loss and something the team must eliminate and overcome, however the stats shown in this story paint a different story, that penalties may not really determine the teams level of success. 

The truth we spoke of at the start of this story, that we were seeking, may indeed be that the most penalized teams are often times the best teams. 

While penalties should always be avoided at all cost, and while there is no such thing as a good penalty, penalties may not necessarily be such a bad thing after all.