The Mountain West Conference fell short on the football field for many different reasons last season. When 10 of 12 teams in a conference lose at least six games, a single statistic can’t account for the entirety of such a slide.
A portion of that decline, however? Sure.
Not scoring in the red zone is football’s equivalent of failing to score runners from third base with fewer than two outs … or the basketball version of leaving large quantities of points at the free throw line.
The most precise reason why these components of team sports are so markedly frustrating is that they flow from quality to a certain degree.
In baseball, putting runners on second and third with no outs is the product of an achievement by the first two batters in the inning. In basketball, earning free throws is usually (though not always) the result of outmaneuvering the defense and getting in position to score.
It’s little different in football: Possessing the ball in the red zone comes from a long drive, a kick return, a blocked kick, a long play from scrimmage, a forced turnover, or a combination of the above. Something good happens. The team does what it’s supposed to do.
If the job of a coach is to put his players in position to make plays, getting the ball in the red zone — at least to a certain extent — affirms a coach’s performance (unless it’s a garbage-time situation, of course). Teams and athletes have to do something well to approach the end zone, just as they almost always do something well to crowd the bases with no outs or get to the foul line.
For a team to then falter — precisely after it has gained leverage — represents more than failure itself. Not scoring in the red zone (like its companion examples in other sports) is especially deflating, and it often represents an inability to handle the combination of adrenaline and anxiety which surfaces when competitors know they have opportunities to do something valuable.
This unmasks one of the great truths of sports: It’s generally easier to perform (or at least evade nerves) in “calm” situations than in pressure situations.
It’s easier to gain nine yards on first down at one’s own 30 than on second and six from the opponent’s 15. A hitter will be more relaxed in the top of the second with none on and two out than with second and third and no outs in the bottom of the eighth, facing a one-run deficit. A free throw early in the second quarter isn’t freighted with significance to the extent of an endgame foul shot.
The great athletes and teams might not necessarily feel calmer at crunch time, but they handle the chemical cocktail in the cranium and power through the nerves.
Red-zone failures thereby magnify a counterintuitive reality of competition: While many losing teams and athletes succumb to a fear of failure, just as many — if not more — fall victim to a fear of success. The looming possibility of prosperity scares athletes just as much as a paralyzing worry about making a mistake. This is one subtext of red-zone inefficiency.
The Mountain West drowned in red-zone inefficiency in 2015. It’s one prominent reason why the league couldn’t hit its stride.
In the 128-member Football Bowl Subdivision, two conferences — the MAC (Akron, Ohio, Kent State, Massachusetts) and the SEC (Florida, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Missouri) — placed four teams at 100 or lower in terms of red-zone scoring percentage.
The Mountain West was the only league with more than four teams in the 100-128 range (Charlotte being removed from NCAA record keeping). The MWC improbably placed six of its teams — that’s half of its 12-team football membership — in that triple-digit basement. UNLV landed at 100, Wyoming finished dead last in the country, and four other teams fell in between. Fresno State (shown in the cover photo for this story) joined Wyoming in converting fewer than 70 percent of its red-zone possessions into points.
Only four Mountain West teams finished higher than 69th in red-zone scoring efficiency, only three higher than 44th. No wonder only one team — San Diego State — lost fewer than three conference games last season (including the league title game).
A more exhaustive analysis would uncover other problems in the 2015 MWC, but as the 2016 season arrives, red-zone scoring (or a lack thereof) is a fundamental crisis point the league must address.
The Mountain West must be unafraid of prosperity if it wants to experience more prosperity this fall.