NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Iowa at Nebraska

Luck vs. Design

Taking a long, hard look at Nebraska’s turnover troubles.

Think back to early December 2007. The Bill Callahan era had just come to its ugly end and defensive guru Bo Pelini was on his way in to wave some smelling salts under the nose of the punch-drunk Blackshirts.  The defense that year gave up nearly 6000 yards of total offense, more than 475 yards per game, in the worst defensive season in school history.

But Bo could fix that. And he did.

Two years later, Nebraska put out one of the best defenses in school history led by Ndamukong Suh. The Blackshirts finished seventh in the nation in total defense (271.3 ypg) and first in scoring defense (10.4 ppg), all in a conference that had five teams finish in the top 30 in total offense.  Problem solved. Nebraska hasn’t allowed more than 350 yards per game in any season under Pelini.

The other lingering worry from 2007, however, was turnovers. Namely, Nebraska wasn’t getting many. The 2007 Blackshirts forced only 11 turnovers, still the fewest in school history, and was minus-17 overall on the year, the worst turnover margin since 1967. In four years under Callahan the Huskers were minus-31 in turnover margin.

But Bo could fix that too. That was, after all, the lasting image of his one year as defensive coordinator in 2003. Pelini’s first Blackshirts unit set a school record with 30 interceptions on their way to a plus-23 turnover margin overall. It was the lasting image of his ball-hawking defenses at LSU too. In Pelini’s final year at LSU the Tigers rode a plus-20 turnover margin to the national title.

Yet Nebraska hasn’t found a way to truly win the turnover battle yet, and that’s part of a larger trend over the past decade. Some statistics to consider:

  • In four years under Pelini, Nebraska has a turnover margin of minus-8 to rank 80th nationally. The only year with a positive turnover margin was 2009 (plus-5).
  • Between 2008 and 2011 in FBS football, 60 teams had a positive cumulative turnover margin, 59 teams had a negative turnover margin and one team (Texas Tech) was even. The average winning percentage for teams with a positive turnover margin was .603. The average winning percentage for teams with a negative margin was .417. Nebraska’s winning percentage under Pelini is .704.
  • Of the 59 teams with a negative four-year turnover margin, only Texas (minus-1, .731) and Cincinnati (minus-2, .712) have won at a better clip than Nebraska.
  • Over the past 10 years Nebraska is minus-19 in turnovers and has had a positive turnover margin at the end of the season twice (2003, 2009). In the preceding 10 years, from 1992 to 2001, the Huskers were plus-66 overall and had a positive turnover margin all 10 years.

The stats point to an ongoing turnover problem at Nebraska. It’s not as drastic as it was under Callahan but it’s still there which begs the question: What would a Bo Pelini defense look like with a significant turnover advantage?

“Coach Bo has a big emphasis on that,” linebacker Will Compton said of Nebraska’s turnover difficulties last week. “We know what everybody else knows and sees. We’re not blind or deaf to it. We agree with everybody else. We have to get better in that area. Turnovers are a big deal”

This prompts yet another question: How? Every coach in America, at all levels, preaches the same turnover gospel depending on which side of the ball he’s on. Tuck it away. Rip it out. Put a helmet on it. Fall on it.

There’s a popular notion, particularly prevalent in the preseason magazines, that turnover margin is a good measure of how lucky a team has been. Phil Steele uses it as a major factor, along with close wins and losses, in his yearly most improved list. Take Michigan’s 2011 season as an example.

The Wolverines won the Sugar Bowl, finished 11-2 and were immediately considered to be “back” in year one under Brady Hoke. Michigan also recovered 80 percent of its opponents’ 25 fumbles last year, becoming one of only four teams to recover more than 80 percent in the last five years.

Is that luck? Compton says it can be.

“Some things there’s luck, specifically fumbles,” he said. “Hopefully your guy is close to the ball and then hopefully when you dive on it the ball’s not slipping out.”

When it comes to fumbles, Nebraska has been on both sides of the coin under Pelini. Only Georgia Tech (138 fumbles) has fumbled more than Nebraska (129) over the past four years, but the Huskers have lost only 43 percent of those fumbles to rank 18th nationally. Lucky.

On the other side of the ball, however, the equation flips. The Huskers’ opponents have fumbled 75 times over the past four years, ranking 91st nationally. Nebraska has recovered only 33.3 percent of those fumbles to rank 118th in the country. Unlucky. Only Georgia (33.0 percent) and Fresno State (28.2 percent) have been worse.

So where does that leave Nebraska on the luck scale? It’s difficult to say for certain but what we do know is that it’s not impossible to win games without winning the turnover battle. Nebraska under Pelini is proof of that.

That said, it sure does help. Ohio State (plus-54) has the best turnover margin in the country between 2008 and 2011 followed by Virginia Tech (47), Alabama (44) and Boise State (44). Those four teams, not removing Ohio State’s vacated wins, have combined to win 83.6 percent of their games, eight conference titles, two national titles and appeared in seven BCS bowls over the past four years. Closer to home, the lowest turnover margin for an overall Big Ten champion over that same span was Wisconsin in 2010. The Badgers finished the season at plus-14.

Be it through luck, design, or some unknowable combination of both, Nebraska has some catching up to do. There are a number of theories as to why Nebraska hasn’t gotten over the hump with Pelini. You can put turnovers up near the top of the list.

Like Compton said, turnovers are a big deal.