Points scored in overtime are not real points

I should know better than to write about college football, a sport that I pay little attention to. But it’s a particularly egregious example of an irritating phenomenon.

On November 24, 2018, in American college football, Texas A&M and LSU were tied 31–31 at the end of regulation, and Texas A&M won in overtime. But that is not how it was reported.

Overtime in college football is a crazy shootout-like contest, bearing only a passing resemblance to actual football. Each team gets one possession from a position where it is pretty easy to score. If the teams score the same number of points, they play a second overtime, then a third, and so on, until the teams score different numbers of points.

Okay, whatever. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, for all scoring and statistical purposes, nearly everybody pretends that overtime is the exact same game as regulation. Points scored in overtime are added to points scored in regulation, even though they are very different animals.

The official score of the Texas A&M – LSU game I mentioned was 74–72, thanks to 7 overtimes. It was reported as if it were eye-poppingly high scoring, which it was not.

The way that overtime points are dealt with doesn’t affect the winner of the game, so does it matter? Well, it matters a whole lot in sports gambling, for example, and fantasy football. And it might or might not affect the judgment of the people who decide which teams make the playoffs.

It matters to statistics geeks, and to players trying to set records. I’ve had trouble confirming this, but as far as I can tell, the usual practice is to mix overtime stats together with regulation stats. A player who scores an easy overtime touchdown gets just as much credit as one who scores a difficult regulation touchdown.

Although this probably doesn’t apply to college football, there are sports leagues in which margin of victory, and/or total points scored, is used as a tiebreaker when determining which teams advance in the playoffs. Now it really matters. It means that if you hold a slim lead late in the game, your best strategy may be to lose that lead, and try to win by a larger margin in overtime. Or from the other side: You may prefer to lose by a slim margin in regulation, rather than play overtime and risk losing by a big margin.

I can think of two recent SB Nation videos recounting games in which this situation actually occurred:

Clearly there’s some sort of problem with the rules that makes this conflict of interest possible, yet it seems like hardly anyone ever pins down precisely what the problem is, or how to fix it properly. I’ll state my opinion clearly: Every overtime game should be considered to be closer than every game that is decided in regulation.

For a win in overtime, you should be awarded at most one point. Preferably less than one. As an example scoring system, you could get 1/2 point for a win in overtime (no matter how much you win by), 1/3 point for a win in 2OT, 1/4 for a win in 3OT, etc. At least, a system like that should be used to settle playoff-related tiebreakers, even if it’s not the way the score is reported publicly.

How statistics in overtime are handled will have to vary from sport to sport, depending on how similar the overtime game is to the regulation game, and other things. But college football overtime is way over the line. Its statistics ought to be tracked separately, like a shootout in soccer or hockey.

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