Conventional wisdom says that when you're down 14 points late in the game (say, 35-21, to take a random example), you need to score two touchdowns and two extra points, which will send the game to overtime. The problem is that conventional wisdom is often wrong. And in this case, it is. So if the Tennessee Vols are going to continue their strategy of digging holes and then climbing out of them again, they owe it to themselves to examine the case for bucking convention.
Last week, when Alvin Kamara crossed the goal line with 2:07 to play to cut the Texas A&M lead to 35-27, the Vols needed to go for two. Why? In college, the two-point conversion success rate is about 42%. The extra point success rate is about 95%. If the two-point conversion success rate is less than half the extra point success rate, isn't the extra point the better play? No, it isn't. And the reason it isn't is because if you need two touchdowns, you have two chances to hit the two-point conversion. You only need to go 1/2 to force overtime. So if you miss the first one and convert the second, you're headed to overtime. But if you hit the first, you don't need to try again. A simple extra point gives you a one-point victory.
Take a look at the math, assuming two successful touchdowns and no regulation score by the opponent.
|Success rate||Chance of regulation win if successful||Chance of OT win if successful||Chance of regulation win if not successful||Chance of OT win if not successful||Total chance of win|
|Kicking the XP down 35-27||95%||0%||.95*.50 = 47.5%||0%||.42*.50 = 21%||(.475*.95) + (.05*.21) = 46.2%|
|Going for two down 35-27||42%||95%||.05*.50 = 2.5%||0%||.42*.50 = 21%||(.975*.42) + (.58*.21) = 53.1%|
Of course, these numbers rely on national averages, and Tennessee's percentages will not perfectly match the national average. Perhaps you think that the experienced Aaron Medley is within rounding range of 100% accurate kicking extra points. Then the chance of winning if you kick the extra point jumps to 50%. But if you have a perfectly reliable kicker, then your chances of winning by going for two stay above 50% as long as your two-point conversion rate is above 38%. So unless your offense is inept at two-point conversions, going for two increases your chances of winning to over 50%.
This also assumes that the chances of winning in overtime are 50%. And perhaps you are confident about your team's chances in overtime. Maybe, for instance, you have an excellent defense and your opponent has a terrible kicker. In that case, playing for overtime might be the better call. But if you are confident about your overtime chances because of having an excellent offense, it stands to reason that you would be confident about your chances of converting a two-point attempt.
So unless you have the superior overtime team, and your overtime superiority is based on the strength of your defense and kicking game, it's probably best to just go ahead and go for two when you cut the lead to eight.
That Butch Jones failed to make the correct decision in this case can be forgiven, since nearly every coach in the country would have made the same mistake. But, with Tennessee playing so well on offense and suffering so many injuries on defense, the decision to kick the extra point against Texas A&M to cut the lead to 35-28 was clearly a mistake. That said, the nice thing about mistakes is that once you see them, they can be corrected.
So the takeaway lesson for Tennessee is simple. If the Vols again find themselves down 14 points late in the fourth quarter, and they score a touchdown, go for two!