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Examining Luck in the 2012 SEC Football Season

There are a number of ways to measure luck. Here are three of them.

He really couldn't catch a break.
He really couldn't catch a break.
Sam Greenwood

More than any of us care to think about, luck plays into the outcome of football games. There are a number of ways to measure luck, and here are three of them for the 2012 season.

Fumble Recoveries

Forcing fumbles is a skill. So is ball security. Actually recovering the ball when it's on the ground is almost entirely luck. The ball bounces in unpredictable ways due to its shape, and there's no way to control the mix of players around it when it's fumbled.

Over the long haul, a team should recover about half of the fumbles in its games. Over the course of one season, a team can have good or bad luck in this category. Here is how the SEC's 14 teams managed in 2012:

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Mississippi State nabbed 65.8% of the fumbles in its games, Auburn recovered 60%, and LSU and Missouri picked up between 59% and 60% of the loose balls in their games. On the other end of the spectrum, three teams ended up with less than 40% of the fumbles in their games: Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Net Close Wins

Winning close games is another thing that requires some good luck. It's certainly possible to blow a close game with mental mistakes or bad coaching, but a lot of the time it comes down to some factors of fortune. Will the kicker who makes 90% of his field goals have that one bad one in 10? Will the receiver who averages one dropped ball a game have a drop on first down, fourth down, or not at all? Did a decision made in the first half have some sort of butterfly effect-like impact on the end game?

Looking at net close wins is something that Phil Steele is famous for in his magazine. He updates his figures every year, so we'll get to see how they stand in a few months. A close win is a win by seven or fewer points; a close loss is a loss by seven or fewer points. The SEC teams fared like this in close games:

Team Close Wins Close Losses Net
Florida 4 0 +4
South Carolina 3 1 +2
Vanderbilt 3 1 +2
LSU 4 3 +1
Texas A&M 3 2 +1
Alabama 2 1 +1
Georgia 2 1 +1
Mississippi State 1 0 +1
Missouri 3 3 0
Arkansas 1 3 -2
Auburn 1 3 -2
Mississippi 1 3 -2
Kentucky 0 2 -2
Tennessee 0 3 -3

The Gators come up as the most fortunate team in close games by this standard. They beat A&M, LSU, Missouri, and Louisiana-Lafayette all by no more than a touchdown. The disparity between the first two and latter two also goes to show how inconsistent a team it was. Still, its ability to run the ball and finish strong late are major reasons why the team was good in close contests, and that's probably as much as anything a case of making your own luck.

On the flip side, Tennessee was the unluckiest in close games. The Vols lost close contests to Georgia, South Carolina, and Missouri, which again, shows the team to be a bit inconsistent. Of course, not having a defense is a real hindrance towards winning close games in general.

Pythagorean Wins

The deal with Pythagorean expectation is that, given a total of points scored and points allowed, you can project a pretty good estimate for what the winning percentage for a team should be. Multiply that by the number of games played to get a projected win total (Pythagorean wins). The difference between that estimated win count and the actual win count is considered to be luck.

By this metric, here is how luck visited the conference in 2012:

Name G Points For Points All. PyWinPct. PyWins Real Wins Luck
South Carolina 13 410 237 .786 10.21 11 0.79
Florida 13 344 188 .807 10.49 11 0.51
Georgia 14 529 275 .825 11.55 12 0.45
Texas A&M 13 578 283 .845 10.98 11 0.02
LSU 13 387 228 .778 10.11 10 -0.11
Arkansas 12 282 365 .352 4.22 4 -0.22
Auburn 12 224 340 .271 3.25 3 -0.25
Mississippi State 13 383 303 .635 8.26 8 -0.26
Missouri 12 309 341 .442 5.30 5 -0.30
Alabama 14 542 153 .952 13.33 13 -0.33
Mississippi 13 409 359 .577 7.50 7 -0.50
Kentucky 12 215 372 .214 2.57 2 -0.57
Vanderbilt 13 390 243 .754 9.80 9 -0.80
Tennessee 12 434 428 .508 6.10 5 -1.10

How much luck counts as a lot is a subjective matter, but I consider more than 1 or less than -1 to be worth looking at. By that rubric, only Tennessee really experienced any real swing due to luck. Once again, it was to the bad side. In fact, Derek Dooley's squad was the unluckiest team in the conference by all three of these measures.

One other note here is that the other two teams most affected by luck by this measure were South Carolina and Vanderbilt. You may remember that they played an ugly game back on August 30 that ended 17-13. Vandy got a bit of good luck when Connor Shaw went out injured and Dylan Thompson played like dog puke for three drives. The Gamecocks got a swing of luck in their favor when Shaw was able to return. South Carolina turned it over on its first two drives, but its defense turned those into a punt and an interception. That INT by Jordan Rodgers then became a touchdown for Carolina, meaning that South Carolina in a way actually won the turnover battle that day despite losing the raw margin 2-1.

Had that game gone the other way (and it could have gone either way), their luck scores by measure of Pythagorean wins go from almost 1 and -1 to -0.21 and .20. It also would have knocked the Gamecocks out of the East race earlier, prevented them from tying their school record in wins again, allowed Vandy to win 10 games, and possibly allowed them to 11 if they don't come out completely flat the next week against Northwestern after a stomach punch loss.

It's not a bad microcosm for how big a factor luck can really play.