I was reading an article by Jimmy Leppert on Skyd a second ago and was struck by some of the responses in the comments about a decision Texas had to make after the toss. Apparently, and I hope I am getting this correct since it is all second hand, UCF won the coin toss and decided to take the up-wind side on a very windy day. I guess kudos to Andrew Roca for choosing the correct side, but that was an easy choice. Then Texas, coached by Calvin Lin who has been through his share of games, decides to start on offense. Jimmy, the post's author, states that he was surprised by this decision and then people in the comments state that they would do the same thing.
So let's go over the rationale for receiving the pull going upwind to start the game:
-You can put your best players on the field going upwind with fresh legs
-You have to score upwind at some point anyway
-You hope that their defense isn't playing well early in the game
-You have the most amount of time to recover from the break that you give up by not scoring
I think most, if not all, of those fail to hold up to much scrutiny. Let's just give up on the last two, because I think those are the easiest to dismiss (although if I need to in more detail I'll be happy to do so in the comments).
Let's focus on the 2nd on because that is the one that was being supported in the comments. It is the one that seems to have the best chance of winning against scrutiny. Texas DOES have to score an upwind point to win the game since the lost the coin toss, but not all upwind points are the same. By receiving the pull Texas is likely to start at the brick (as the best scenario) or in the back of the endzone on the sideline (as the worst scenario). Somewhere in the endzone is most likely. Now Texas has to work upwind a full 70+ yards to score against a defense that is set and focusing on D. That is a tall order even though you might have the best pieces in place (point 1) to accomplish that task. UCF gets to set whatever defense they want and knows their assignments prior to the pull.
If that is how you are going to score your upwind point, the odds are pretty low. Instead lets looks at an alternative: you start on defense. This is the choice that Texas had and didn't take. Here are some of disadvantages:
-"Weaker" defensive players on the field
-You have to get a break from the opponent
-They can always punt to force you to go 70 yards
-Pulling upwind you are likely giving the offense a shorter field to score
These seem like good reasons to go with the offense, but are they really? The advantages of pulling are pretty decent too. You get to control the tone of the point by setting the defense and as a result you can hope for an unforced error or block such that you get a short field. That seems like the most compelling argument for pulling first.
If you pull you can try to get them stuck on a sideline and force either lateral throws to get off of the sideline or a straight punt. At worst, if they punt, you have to work no more than 70 yards against a transition defense that may not have their assignments figured out yet (or might have a particular match up you can exploit). At best you can block the punt or force backward passes to reduce your field even more.
So if you start with the pull you can at worst be in a situation better than if you started on offense, and at best have a situation that is better than all likely ones when you start on offense (I suppose there is a chance that your opponent will shank the pull and give you a short field, but those are super low odds).
If we go back through the list of advantages of receiving and think about them again I think the decision becomes clear:
-You can put your best players on the field with fresh legs: You can do that while starting on defense, and you can find a way to manufacture that later in the game if need be.
-You have to score upwind anyway: True, but not all upwind scoring opportunities are the same and the possible outcomes for an upwind score are better when you are starting on defense.
-You hope that their defense isn't playing well early in the game: O.k. but if that isn't the case then their transition defense isn't likely to be playing well either. Giving a slow starting defensive line the chance to play the defense of their choice with the opponent going upwind is a pretty friendly start to a game.
-You have the most amount of time to recover from the break that you give up by not scoring: True, but it would also be nice to not need that time.
I have ignored the mental aspects of starting down a break (likely 0-2 by the time the game gets back on track) mostly because those are so specific to a team's make up. In general it would seem like you would never want your team to be in a position of weakness, but I have played against plenty of teams that seem to find strength in those positions. The subject gets murky very quickly, so best to just leave that alone.
I guess my outcome is that it is almost always better to start on defense if you are forced to choose going upwind. Maybe I should ask Kyle, I'm sure he's solved this already.