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Turnover Margin and Fumble Recovery in the SEC

Kevin C. Cox

While he was head coach at Auburn, John Heisman stressed the need to avoid turnovers. "Gentlemen," he told his Tiger team, "It is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football."

More than a century has passed since he felt the need to admonish his squad but the importance of turnovers - fumbles in particular - are certainly as strong today. And nowhere is this more evident than the SEC where the high level of play magnifies the effect of such game-changing events.

While almost every factor that goes into the Turnover Margin statistic depends on skill, strategy and coaching except for one - fumble recovery. That, as we'll see below, is almost completely random and, as such, may offer a peephole into the prospects of certain team's fortunes next season.

To start, though, lets look at the overall numbers. This graph shows the average turnover margin per game for each SEC team in 2010:

2010 Average Turnover Margin/Game

Source: CFB Stats

The bottom of the chart makes the most sense; Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vandy all finished in the cellar of their respective divisions. Past that, things are somewhat perplexing.

Despite winning the East division with a 5-3 conference record, the Gamecocks only broke even on turnover margin. It's not coincidental that Stephen Garcia lead the SEC in interceptions last year. Georgia, on the other had, had the second best turnover margin in the conference but could only muster third-place finish in the SEC East. Puzzling to say the least.

LSU at the top portion of the chart isn't overly shocking and Auburn's positive placement is in line with the Plainsmen's record (six wins by less than a touchdown). It's Alabama's best-in-the-conference turnover margin that is most out of whack with the Crimson Tide's fourth-pace finish in its own division.

The standout turnover margin, as we discovered over at Roll Bama Roll, was primarily due to a phenomenal performance the secondary and solid mistake-free effort by Greg McElroy. But it's the detail in the fumble stats that shed a little light on the Crimson Tide's losses last season and, possibly, provide a hint of what to expect from Alabama and a few other teams in the conference in 2011.

The guiding hypothesis from here on out is Football Outsider's contention that fumble recovery is a random event.

Stripping the ball is a skill. Holding onto the ball is a skill. Pouncing on the ball as it is bouncing all over the place is not a skill. There is no correlation whatsoever between the percentage of fumbles recovered by a team in one year and the percentage they recover in the next year. The odds of recovery are based solely on the type of play involved, not the teams or any of their players.

So while a team can focus on limiting the number of fumbles it commits, once the ball hits the ground the law of averages takes over. While this means it is impossible to guess what a team will do any given year, it does suggest that unusual outliers will return to the mean.

Or, more simply, if you suffered terrible fumble luck or had good fumble fortune one season, don't plan on it happening again the next. This matters for teams whose season success (or failure) were in part affected by fumbles. Like Alabama.

Here is the opponent fumble recovery percentage for each SEC team last season (the proportion of times an SEC squad was able to pick up the ball when the opposing team dropped it):

2010 Percentage Fumble Recovery

Source: CFB Stats

Alabama's numbers weren't just the worst in the conference last season, they are the worst in all of college football. Almost 80% of the time a Tide opponent dropped the football, they got it back. That's simply absurd. If there's one thing you can plan on for 2011, it is that the Crimson Tide is going to recover more fumbles next season. Add to that the Alabama secondary returns the SEC interception leader from 2010 and from 2009 and it's a pretty safe bet the Crimson Tide should have a good turnover margin in 2011.

Vanderbilt, similarly, should see more bounces go their way next season although their showing here is partially due to the sheer number of drops they dealt with. The Commodores' fell on less than a quarter of the fumbles made by their opponents, only five teams in all of college football did worse. On the other hand, Mississippi State might pencil in some heartache for 2011. There is little likelihood of the Bulldogs will be able to reel in 83.33% of their foes fumbles again next season.

The next category is the percentage of a team's fumbles that were lost to the opposition last season. Here's the breakdown (keep in mind, the larger the percentage, or top of the graph, is bad while the further toward the bottom is good).

2010 Percentage Fumbles Lost

Source: CFB Stats

Once again, Vanderbilt is the outlier. The Commodores lost less than a quarter of the fumbles they made last season. Only Ohio State had better fumble luck last season. This is even weirder considering they matched Florida for most fumbles in the conference last season with 34. While the Mike Pouncy/John Brantley experience is the likely culprit in Gainesville, whatever the reason behind this in Nashville isn't likely to recur next season.

Kentucky, and to a lesser degree Ole Miss, should see a more reasonable number of their fumbles fall back into their hands in 2011. The Wildcats got back slightly more than a third of their drops last season, a record of futility bested by only three other FBS teams.

One final note about these fumble figures, Auburn is located quite snugly at the median in both of them. Whatever factors coalesced to create the Plainsmen's undefeated run through the 2010 slate and the National Championship, fumbles weren't a factor. While Auburn didn't suffer untoward fumble luck last season neither did they have a marked advantage when the ball hit the turf.