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College Football Turnover Luck in 2015

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An overview of the extremes.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Most aspects of football are mostly skill-based, but luck in large part governs turnovers. Or, aspects of turnovers at least. Today, I'm going over those random aspects. All stats are sourced from the excellent CFBStats.com.

Ball security is a skill. So is forcing fumbles. But recovering fumbles? It's basically all luck. The football has a funny shape and bounces in ways that people can't predict in real time. Besides that, it's not possible to control what mix of players from the two teams will be near the ball when it comes loose.

Here is the distribution of fumble recovery percentages from 2015 rounded to the nearest percentage:

fumble recoveries

It's in the shape of a bell curve, which means it's very likely to be random. And that point way at the top that was the most frequent fumble recovery percentage? It's 50%.

Here are all the teams from 2015 that recovered at least 60% of the fumbles in their games:

Name Total Fumbles Total Recovered Recovered Pct.
Arkansas 29 19 65.5%
Houston 40 26 65.0%
Wisconsin 28 18 64.3%
Fresno State 30 19 63.3%
Oklahoma State 38 24 63.2%
Army 48 30 62.5%
USC 26 16 61.5%
Oregon 36 22 61.1%
South Carolina 38 23 60.5%
Kansas 40 24 60.0%
Navy 40 24 60.0%
North Carolina 45 27 60.0%
UNLV 30 18 60.0%

There is quite the mix here, from New Year's Six participants Houston and Oklahoma State down to Kansas and Army. Heading the other way, these are the teams that recovered fewer than 40% of their fumbles:

Name Total Fumbles Total Recovered Recovered Pct.
Colorado 48 19 39.6%
Louisiana Tech 38 15 39.5%
Nebraska 26 10 38.5%
NC State 43 16 37.2%
Cincinnati 35 13 37.1%
Alabama 37 13 35.1%
Oregon State 26 9 34.6%
Duke 38 13 34.2%
Penn State 53 18 34.0%
Mississippi State 36 11 30.6%
Middle Tennessee 44 13 29.5%

Once again, the spread here is enormous from national champion Alabama to a pair of teams in Oregon State and Colorado that went a combined 1-17 in Pac-12 play.

The other category of turnovers is interceptions. Avoiding bad throws as a quarterback is a skill. Calling defensive sets to get defenders in the way of passes is a skill for coaches, as is knowing when to take risks to get picks for a player. Actually hauling in the interception does seem to be luck, though, which shouldn't be surprising considering that the players with the best hands tend to get put on offense.

Here is the distribution of interceptions as a percentage of passes defended (passes broken up plus INTs) rounded to the nearest percentage:

int percentages

Again, it looks a lot like a random distribution. The percentage for all teams put together is 21.1%, and the median percentage was 20.7%.

Here are the teams that intercepted at least 30% of their passes defended:

Name Int. Passes Defended INT Pct.
Connecticut 18 49 36.7%
Oklahoma State 17 49 34.7%
Appalachian State 18 52 34.6%
Arkansas State 26 77 33.8%
Bowling Green 20 60 33.3%
Oklahoma 20 61 32.8%
Boston College 13 41 31.7%
New Mexico State 12 38 31.6%
San Diego State 23 75 30.7%
Boise State 22 73 30.1%

There is a crazy mix here too, again from NY6 bowl teams like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to BC, who didn't win an ACC game, and 3-9 New Mexico State. Boston College did have the No. 3 S&P+ defense, but NMSU's was fourth from the bottom and actually rated worse against the pass than the run. And now for the end of the list:

Name Int. Passes Defended INT Pct.
Old Dominion 8 62 12.9%
North Texas 4 33 12.1%
Eastern Michigan 4 34 11.8%
UTEP 5 43 11.6%
TCU 7 63 11.1%
Iowa State 5 45 11.1%
Texas State 3 28 10.7%
Kansas State 5 47 10.6%
Vanderbilt 6 60 10.0%
UCF 4 40 10.0%
Louisiana-Lafayette 5 53 9.4%
Virginia 4 44 9.1%
Hawai'i 3 43 7.0%
Rice 2 32 6.3%

Down here is mostly bad teams, though we do get TCU sitting there at 11.1%. Vanderbilt may have missed a bowl, but it still had a top 20 defense.

Finally, coaches love to talk about turnovers like they're something within their control. To test that notion, I put every team's ranks in fumble recovery percentage and interception percentages in a table. I ran the correlation between the ranks, and it came out to 0.02. As a refresher: correlation is a number between 1 and -1, and the closer to zero it is, the less correlation there is between two factors. In other words, how good (or not) a team was at recovering fumbles tells us nothing about how good it was at intercepting passes it got a hand on and vice versa.

The implication here is that teams that were highly ranked in both were exceptionally lucky and those that were lowly ranked in both were exceptionally unlucky. Here are the lucky ones:

Team Fumble Rank INT Rank Average Rank
Oklahoma State 5 2 4
South Carolina 9 13 11
Boston College 19 7 13
New Mexico 14 20 17
USC 7 28 18
Kansas 10 27 19
New Mexico State 34 8 21
Houston 2 43 23
South Florida 37 11 24
Miami (Florida) 17 33 25
Bowling Green 50 5 28
Arkansas State 55 4 30
Syracuse 44 15 30
Arizona State 30 29 30
Navy 11 49 30

And here are the snake bit teams:

Team Fumble Rank INT Rank Average Rank
Eastern Michigan 80 117 99
Louisiana Tech 119 79 99
Alabama 123 77 100
Penn State 126 76 101
Mississippi State 127 78 103
Wyoming 94 111 103
Michigan 104 103 104
UTEP 89 118 104
Virginia 90 126 108
Rice 88 128 108
Cincinnati 122 97 110
Nebraska 120 99 110
Hawai'i 92 127 110
Texas State 107 121 114
Louisiana-Lafayette 116 125 121

Just imagine how good the Crimson Tide would've been with even just neutral luck in turnovers, much less good luck.

So those are the turnover luck extremes for 2015. Because this is an SEC-focused site, I'm going to put the tables for just the conference's teams below. If you're not an SEC fan or otherwise don't care, you're dismissed.

Fumble recovery percentages:

National Rank Name Total Fumbles Total Recovered Recovered Pct.
1 Arkansas 29 19 65.5%
9 South Carolina 38 23 60.5%
25 Missouri 36 20 55.6%
27 Tennessee 36 20 55.6%
40 LSU 36 19 52.8%
49 Georgia 46 24 52.2%
54 Vanderbilt 43 22 51.2%
61 Florida 44 22 50.0%
65 Kentucky 32 16 50.0%
72 Ole Miss 49 24 49.0%
74 Auburn 39 19 48.7%
117 Texas A&M 42 17 40.5%
123 Alabama 37 13 35.1%
127 Mississippi State 36 11 30.6%

Interception percentages:

National Rank Name Int. Passes Defended INT Pct.
13 South Carolina 12 42 28.6%
21 Georgia 12 45 26.7%
62 Auburn 14 67 20.9%
67 Florida 14 68 20.6%
69 Arkansas 11 54 20.4%
77 Alabama 19 99 19.2%
78 Mississippi State 13 68 19.1%
80 Texas A&M 11 58 19.0%
83 Kentucky 11 59 18.6%
84 Tennessee 12 65 18.5%
91 LSU 10 57 17.5%
94 Ole Miss 15 88 17.0%
96 Missouri 9 53 17.0%
123 Vanderbilt 6 60 10.0%

National ranks in both:

Team Fumble Rank INT Rank Average Rank
South Carolina 9 13 11
Georgia 49 21 35
Arkansas 1 69 35
Tennessee 27 84 56
Missouri 25 96 61
Florida 61 67 64
LSU 40 91 66
Auburn 74 62 68
Kentucky 65 83 74
Mississippi 72 94 83
Vanderbilt 54 123 89
Texas A&M 117 80 99
Alabama 123 77 100
Mississippi State 127 78 103