|Phil Steele Blog • July 16, 2015|
Turnovers = Turnaround.
One of the most popular articles that appears annually in my magazine is entitled “Turnovers=Turnaround.” The basic premise of the article is simple: teams that benefit from a large turnover margin in a particular year are not likely to enjoy that same margin in the upcoming year. As a result, a team’s record is more likely to decline if it relied heavily upon turnovers as a core basis for winning. Conversely, a team that struggles with an unfavorable turnover margin will often experience a reversal of fortunes. Since turnover margin is such a critical factor in a football game, a change in turnover margin can lead to dramatically different results.
This is not to say that turnovers are a complete fluke. In fact, certain teams have been able to create turnovers somewhat consistently on a year-to-year basis, usually via interceptions as opposed to fumbles. Again, fumbles are not completely random and some teams are better than others at stripping (or protecting) the ball, but it is a bit of a toss-up as to whether a team will be able to recover a fumble once an oblong ball starts bouncing around on the ground.
In addition, since players in college football have limited eligibility, there is a good deal of roster change each year, particularly at the quarterback position. As such, a team might be able to limit its turnovers in a given year because it is led by a veteran QB who is adept at protecting the ball. In the next year, however, that same team might be forced to play a freshman or sophomore, which leads to an increase in giveaways.
Even within a season, a team’s turnover margin might vary wildly from game to game. For example, Arizona State out gained UCLA by 46 yards last year but lost 62-27 due to a -4 turnover margin, including a crushing 95 yard INT return for a touchdown at the end of the first half, which was essentially the deathblow. The Sun Devils, however, bounced back to defeat USC in the next game as a 12 point underdog, while UCLA fell at home to Utah despite being a 13 point favorite.
By digging a little deeper as I do in my magazine (p. 30), we can quantify the probability that a large turnover margin, either positive or negative, will lead to a change in performance. Specifically, in the last 24 years, 332 teams have had plus “double-digit” turnovers. Please note that I use the term “double digit” in quotations because I have recently adjusted my formula to define double digit as +11 or more, which reflects the fact that teams are playing more games than they did in years past and most major conference teams also play an FCS opponent. Of those 332, 215 have had weaker records in the following year (65%). Only 78 teams (23%) have improved their record and the other 39 finished with the same record. By tightening the parameters to +14 TOs and looking only at the last four years, there are only 3 teams out of 33 (9%) that improved their record after enjoying this level of turnover margin.
Using this method, I create my “Going Down” list in the magazine. This list contains all of the teams with a +11 or greater turnover margin, thereby making them likely to have the same or a worse record. Heading into last year, there were 18 teams the "Going Down" box, 15 of which had a weaker or same record in 2014. There were several big drop offs, including North Texas, which finished 9-4 (+11 TOs) in 2013 and slipped all the way down to 4-8 (+0 margin) and South Carolina, which benefited from +13 TOs in 2013 and went 11-2. Last year, the Gamecocks were -2 TOs and needed a bowl win to finish with a winning season (7-6).
As mentioned above, the flip side holds true; i.e., teams that received bad breaks the year before are usually headed for better fortune the following season. In the past 24 years, there have been 271 teams that have finished the season at negative double-digits in turnover margin. Of those 271 teams, 180 (66.4%) have improved their record in the next year! In total, teams with a negative double-digit TO ratio have had the same or stronger records 79% of the time since 1991.
Last year, I included 11 teams in my “Going Down” box, which includes all teams with a -10 or worse turnovers. Unlike positive turnover margin, I have continued to use a pure double-digit turnover margin as opposed to -11 because TOs against an FCS team could conceivably cost a team a game, as was the case for Louisiana Tech against Northwestern State. Unlike my "Going Down" box, however, the results were mixed for my "Going Up" teams, as only 7 of the 11 teams either saw their record stay the same or get better. The biggest improvement was California, which was -15 in TOs in '13 and 1-11, but improved to 5-7 to miss narrowly in its quest for a bowl berth last year. Notably, there were 5 teams that just missed making the list (-9 or -8 in TOs), all of which improved their record. In particular, Memphis and Western Michigan improved from a combined 4-20 to 18-8, while Arkansas went from from 3-9 to 7-6 (from -9 TOs to +7 TOs).
The examples are limitless but the core theory is simple and has proven to be accurate year-in and year-out. From the magazine, here are this year’s “Going Up and Going Down” lists based on 2014 statistics:
Michigan State +19
Louisiana Tech +16
Arizona State +14
Northern Illinois +12
Georgia Tech +11
Georgia State -22
Eastern Michigan -18
Washington State -17
West Virginia -15
New Mexico State -13
Texas Tech -13
San Jose State -12
Southern Mississippi -10
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