Battle at Bristol Observation

For those that didn’t see my earlier announcement, I’m coming out of retirement. This is my first real blog post in several years and, to no one’s surprise, it relates to Tennessee football.

Last Saturday I was in attendance for the Battle at Bristol to see the Vols defeat the Hokies by 21 points. That was all good and well, and I was certainly happy to see a Big Orange win, but that’s not what this post is about. I made an observation in the second quarter, and it’s something that I haven’t seen or heard anybody else mention, whether it be in the media or otherwise.

It wasn’t until Tennessee scored their lone touchdown of the third quarter that I was curious enough about my observation to finally turn to to my dad and say, “that’s the first time either team has scored any points in the south end zone.” What I had seen in the second quarter was that the setup of the lights on each end of the stadium (speedway) were completely different. The height, spacing, and angle of the lights behind the south end zone were different from the way they were behind the north end zone, as well as the number of lights that were behind each end zone. The height of the stadium itself was also different, and one end was much more symmetrical than the other.

The two pictures below are both from the Battle at Bristol, and one end of the stadium can be seen in each, so you can observe the differences for yourself. 



I still wasn’t convinced that it was anything more than coincidence that neither team scored in the south end zone until over halfway through the third quarter. However, it did intrigue me enough to dive a little deeper into the play-by-play data to see if there were any other oddities when it came to which direction the teams were facing on the field.

To start with the basic (and most obvious) difference, of the 69 total points that were scored in that game, 55 of them were scored in the north end zone.

The first seven points, of the 14, that were scored in the south end zone came with Tennessee’s third quarter touchdown. Tennessee started with the ball near midfield and scored as the result of two big plays (it was a five-play drive and the other three plays netted -2 yards) rather than as the result of sustaining a long drive. The other seven points came from Virginia Tech’s touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter (garbage time) when the Vols had their reserves in the game.

However, it wasn’t just the scoring that reflected the offenses’ increased success when going toward the north end zone. Four of Virginia Tech’s five fumbles happened when they were going toward the south end zone, Tennessee’s missed field goal was going toward the south end zone, and Virginia Tech’s weird/terrible 13-yard punt was going toward the south end zone as well.

Even the negative plays that happened when the teams were facing the north end zone seemed to occur when it was their first play or possession after switching sides of the field, as though it took the players a few snaps to adjust to facing the other end of the field. Virginia Tech’s one other fumble came on their first drive of the third quarter, Josh Dobbs’ only interception came on the first play of the fourth quarter, Trevor Daniel’s worst punt of the game was also his only punt in that direction.

Even if the players didn’t consciously realize it at the time, it appears that the differences in the two ends of the stadium may have been different enough to impact the players’ performances. During March Madness players have talked about being at different venues (some games are played in domed stadiums rather than in arenas that were actually built for basketball) and how it can throw off their shot because it messes with their depth perception, which has seemed to be especially true for players who are known for their prowess as three-point shooters.

I would imagine that football players competing on the infield of a speedway could fall victim to similar issues. Here are some basic stats to compare how well the teams did when the offenses was going toward the north end zone rather than the south end zone:

North South
Possessions 17 16
Plays 74 68
Yards 495 234
Yards/Play 6.689 3.441
Points 55 14
Punts 3 8
Turnovers 2 4

If you disregard the last possession of each half (the team on offense wasn’t trying to score in either case) and the Hokies’ late touchdown in the fourth quarter when they were driving against the Vols’ backups, then the differences were even more lopsided.

North South
Possessions 16 14
Plays 69 57
Yards 479 149
Yards/Play 6.942 2.614
Points 55 7
Punts 3 8
Turnovers 2 4

For the sake of curiosity, I ran a basic t-test to compare the average yards per drive for each direction, and the resulting p-value was 0.0579, which according to conventional standards (p<0.05) indicates the difference is not statistically significant. However, if the fine folks at Bristol Motor Speedway decide to host another football game at some point in the near future, I’ll certainly be intrigued to see if this trend holds true. Even though the results aren’t statistically significant based on conventional criteria, the p-value is lower than I had anticipated, and is certainly low enough to strengthen my initial thoughts on the matter.

Let me know if you think the differences in the two ends of the stadium could have impacted the teams’ performances or if you think it’s more likely a reflection of the typical ebb and flow of a football game. I’m eager to hear any and all of the opinions that you may have.

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