The Big Board: FSU's penalty problem

Last week, ESPN ACC blogger Heather Dinich suggested one of Florida State's primary concerns entering the 2012 season is discipline.

Not surprisingly, the comments section of the post included a few hundred Seminoles supporters who took some exception with that notion -- a reasonable reaction considering the veteran leadership of players like EJ Manuel and Brandon Jenkins, players who far exceed the typical expectations for discipline and maturity among college athletes.

But there's no denying the raw numbers here. Florida State finished tied for 118th out of 120 FBS teams in penalties last season, and combined with a few offseason, off-field incidents, it's easy to paint a dreary picture. In fact, it's one FSU players are all too willing to paint.

"Last year, penalties killed us in the Clemson game and Wake Forest game," Jenkins said. "Mental mistakes, being in the wrong spot -- it was just two or three plays that kept us from being great."

Jenkins, like most people, view penalties on a micro sense. They remember the ones that came at the worst possible time, and the flags then become an easy scapegoat for poor performance.

In that micro sense, however, odds are, every team can point to at least one or two penalties that came at bad times, flags that have stuck with players and coaches throughout an offseason as a painful "what if" moment. Penalties are like bad putts in golf. Everyone has a few, and they tend to linger.

But do penalties really have a dramatic impact on the bottom line?

Most coaches will rail against those ugly penalties, too, but they're also quick to remind players to stay aggressive. Those two notions are often at odds, and that shows up in the numbers.

Take a look at last year's stats, breaking the overall penalty rankings into four groups.

(*National ranking in penalties per game)

The top 25 percent of teams, in terms of fewest penalties committed, had an average point differential of -0.2 points per game (i.e. points scored minus points allowed). In other words, as a group, those teams were a bit below the break-even point.

The bottom 25 percent -- the 30 teams that committed the most penalties -- actually fared much better. Overall, those teams averaged a point differential of 1.5 per game, well over the break-even point.

That might not actually mean much either. If we look back during the past three seasons, the teams in the bottom quarter for penalties all tend to be right around that 1.5- to 2-points-per-game differential, but the rest of the groupings fluctuate pretty wildly -- though the teams that comprise those groupings rarely do. Navy, for example, has been first or second in fewest penalties each of the past three years and has seen its point differential shift by nearly a touchdown per game. Arizona State, meanwhile, has been dead last in two of three (and 115th the other) and yet the Sun Devils have added a field goal per game to their scoring differential.

In fact, here's a better way of summing it up: The top 30 teams in point differential last season averaged 5.98 penalties per game. The bottom 30 teams in point differential last season averaged 5.99.

In other words, on a macro level, penalties make virtually no difference whatsoever in how many points a team scores or allows over the course of a season. Good teams will be good, regardless of whether they're averaging four flags per game or seven. But no matter how good or bad they are, chances are there will be a few times throughout the season when a dumb flag costs them some yardage and, in turn, some points. (And odds are that will also be offset at another point in that same game by a dumb penalty by the opponent.)

But if you're still worried about FSU's flags, there's more reason for optimism. After all, penalties are nothing new for the Noles. Over the past five seasons, they've finished last in the ACC in flags four times -- the lone exception being 2010 when they ranked eighth. But what was new for Florida State in 2011 was the offensive line, which committed 25 holding penalties -- the most in the nation by a wide margin. Only Indiana (22) had more than 20.

So if the O-line takes a step forward, as many believe it will, the penalty figures should dip marginally -- and that's probably all FSU needs to remain aggressive but avoid too many of those "what if" moments.