When reporters pestered Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya about his focus for 2015 at last month’s ACC Kickoff, he never hesitated with an answer.
"For me, it's scoring more in the red zone, coming away with seven points instead of three," Kaaya said. "A lot of this offseason, we've worked a lot of tight windows, red zone plays and anticipation routes."
Kaaya shouldn’t be alone in focusing on the red zone, but his concerns about Miami’s performance in that area -- on both sides of the ball -- are certainly warranted.
A year ago, Miami finished second in the ACC in yards per play (6.68) and third in yards-per-play allowed (4.79), and yet the Hurricanes finished in a seventh-place tie with Boston College in point differential (plus-4.9 per game) and ended the season with a 6-7 record. One big reason was the red zone.
As good as Miami was between the 20s, it was equally bad inside the red zone. Miami averaged just 4.41 points per red zone drive, 10th in the ACC. On defense, the Canes allowed touchdowns on 64.4 percent of their FBS opponents’ red zone drives, good for 11th in the conference. Opportunities were there for Miami, but it failed to cash in far too often.
But again, this isn’t a problem unique to the Hurricanes. While a few ACC teams clearly excelled in the red zone -- NC State averaged 5.44 points per drive in the red zone and scored touchdowns 72 percent of the time, both tops in the league and top 10 nationally -- there were plenty of teams whose seasons were defined by their red zone failures.
Last week, we looked at the similarities in performance between Virginia (picked last in the Coastal this year) and Arkansas (a top-25 team in the preseason), and found that perhaps the most striking difference was the red zone.
Against Power 5 opponents, Arkansas scored touchdowns on 57.5 percent of its red zone trips, while Virginia’s rate was a lowly 40.5 percent. Had UVa matched Arkansas’ red zone production over the course of the season, it would’ve meant an additional 33 points scored -- a substantial total for a team that lost three games by a touchdown or less and came one win shy of a bowl berth.
While UVa’s offensive woes in the red zone may have killed its bowl hopes, Pitt’s potential for a big year in 2014 was nixed by its defensive struggles.
Overall, the ACC represented well defensively, with Louisville (3.70 points), Virginia Tech (3.97), Syracuse (4.26) and Florida State (4.28) all among the top 10 in points allowed-per-drive in the red zone.
At the bottom of those standings, however, is Pittsburgh, which allowed 5.21 points per red zone drive (49th) and an alarming 71.1 percent touchdown rate (61st). And while you might think Pat Narduzzi’s arrival will change those stats, it turns out Michigan State was even worse last season -- ranking 63rd in points allowed per drive and 62nd in TD rate.
And those numbers can make a huge difference. Louisville’s offense struggled at times, but it won nine games by being great in the red zone on D. Pitt had a dynamic offense, but it struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone. Give the Panthers the same red-zone rates as Louisville though, and they would’ve allowed 58 fewer points over the course of the season. This for a team that lost five games by five points or less.
Perhaps the most intriguing team, however, is Clemson.
Last year, the Tigers scored a woeful 3.77 points per red zone trip (worst among Power 5 teams) against FBS foes and had a lowly 43.2 percent touchdown rate (tied-62nd). Nearly a third of Clemson’s red zone drives resulted in no points at all, which again marked the worst performance by any Power 5 program. Look no further than the loss to Florida State for an example of how big those missed chances can loom as the season goes along. Still, it’s almost astounding that the Tigers won 10 games. In the last decade, their 2014 red zone scoring is by far the worst of any Power 5 team to reach double-digit victories.
But it’s certainly fair to think that the performance will be better in 2015 with a healthy Deshaun Watson. Just a year earlier with Tajh Boyd at quarterback, the Tigers scored a much more respectable 5.10 points per red zone drive, good for 27th out of 65 Power 5 programs, and QB mobility is a big asset in the red zone. The top teams in the ACC in red zone scoring (NC State, Pitt, Georgia Tech, UNC) all had quarterbacks that ran well. The bottom of the league (Clemson, Syracuse, Wake Forest, UVa, Miami) all had less mobile options. This should actually provide some encouragement for both Clemson and Syracuse, as they’ll go from primarily using inexperienced or pocket QBs to a more versatile option in 2015.
And big turnarounds do happen. NC State went from 3-9 to 8-5 and its red zone improvement was a big reason why. The Wolfpack saw a 32.4 percent increase in red zone points per drive (best in the ACC) and an 18.1 percent decrease in red zone points allowed (second in ACC) from 2013-14. If Clemson, Pitt or Miami can do the same in 2015, they could be playing for a conference title in December.