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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
The Big Board: FSU's punting problems

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The narrative for Saturday's game has already been sketched out by most fans and pundits, and the rationale is reasonable.

Both teams have stellar defensive units, and last year's ugly 21-7 FSU win provides the template for how this year's game will unfold. The Seminoles have the luxury of a more stable quarterback situation, but Florida's defensive front will be the most athletic EJ Manuel has faced. The Gators will put the onus on their running game, but FSU rarely allows much on the ground.

Kyle Christy
Florida sophomore Kyle Christy ranks fourth in the nation, averaging 46.3 yards per punt.
It's a recipe for a close game, and the battle for field position is already front and center. That's where Florida fans see a distinct advantage.

A quick perusal of the national rankings for punters shows why the Gators are enthusiastic about winning a field-position battle. Florida's Kyle Christy ranks fourth nationally, averaging 46.3 yards per punt. On the flip side, FSU freshman Cason Beatty has helped the Seminoles to just a 35.9 yard average, 121st in the nation.

That's about a 10 yard advantage per punt for Florida. If we assume it's a defensive struggle, with both teams punting often (they combined for 18 punts a year ago), we're talking about a significant shift in yardage.

But is it really that big a deal?

“[Beatty] is not hitting that 60-yarder, but he’s doing a lot more to win that field position battle," Jimbo Fisher said.

Indeed, a deeper look at the numbers illustrates that the difference between FSU's punting game and Florida's may not be quite so vast.

(*Average pre-punt field position is the average field position of the punting team at the time of the kick, while post-punt field position is the spot on the field the opposition begins its ensuing drive after a punt, with national ranking in parentheses.)

On average, Beatty has had a 3-yard advantage in field position before he punts, and the end result of all those kicks has been just 5 yards of field position for the opposition. Add in a 2.5-yard per return advantage for FSU's punt returners, and the fact that FSU has punted, on average, two fewer times per game than Florida this season, and the difference essentially disappears.

And if we look even deeper into the specifics, it's clear that, while Christy has certainly been excellent for the Gators this season, Beatty's weaknesses haven't resulted in a stark difference in big plays in the punting game.

Yes, Christy has made some big plays for Florida, but he's pinning the opponent deep roughly as often as Beatty, as a percentage of total punts.

There are special teams concerns for FSU to be sure. Five fumbles (four lost) by the punt returners have haunted the Seminoles. Two of Beatty's punts this year have been blocked when the line didn't do its job. FSU has been flagged for myriad penalties on special teams.

But when it comes down to simply punting and covering the kicks, the difference has largely been minimal thanks to FSU's strong offense that has put relatively little pressure on Beatty to boot a big kick in a crucial situation. If Saturday's game does come down to Beatty's leg, it's hard to be sure whether he'll get the job done, but it also probably means there are other problems on offense that are a much bigger concern.