Tuesday's game of follow the bouncing ball led us right into the arms of Lane Kiffin. The new Ole Miss head coach got the gig thanks in part to two conference-championship seasons at Florida Atlantic. Two seasons that were also fueled by some pretty good turnovers luck.
Today we'll look at the 2019 teams that lived on the wrong side of the randomness tracks. But first, Nebraska, which was in neither category this season but lived a little closer––emphasis on little––to the lucky side of town.
The Huskers finished the season with 21 takeaways and 21 giveaways for a margin of zero. It's just the second time since joining the Big Ten in 2011 that Nebraska's turnover margin wasn't negative. The second time. In nine seasons.
Nebraska was just a tiny bit lucky to get there. Below are the Huskers' fumble recovery/lost rates (50% is average), interceptions rates (20% is average), expected giveaways/takeaways and actual giveaways/takeaways. Green is above average, red is below.
Start with the fumbles, the most random part of the game. Nebraska's opponents recovered Nebraska fumbles at a slightly below-average rate. Good thing because the Huskers fumbled more times (27) than any other team in the country. Adrian Martinez was intercepted at a slightly above-average rate with opponents picking 25% of all the passes they got a hand on.
On defense the Huskers recovered about one more fumble than they should have, but intercepted almost exactly as many passes as the numbers project.
Combine all of that––the giveaways and takeaways––and you have a 5-7 season that wasn't really impacted by the randomness of turnovers. The Huskers were even with an expected margin of -1. One of these days, Nebraska will get the good bounces and it will probably fuel a better-than-expected season, but that season was not this past one.
I guess you could also say that one of these days the Huskers won't get the bounces and it will negatively impact a season, but in reality, with Nebraska -42 in turnovers for the Big Ten era (expected: -25.6), it feels like the Huskers have been on that sort of run for nearly a decade.
Here are the 10 teams that were on that kind of run in 2019:
UAB (Margin: -5, Expected: 9.6, -14.6): This makes for an interesting case study. UAB went 9-3 in the regular season to earn a game against 10-2 Florida Atlantic in the C-USA title game. The Blazers had the worst turnover luck in the country, the Owls had the best. FAU rolled in that game, winning the turnover battle 2-1 (of course), but in hindsight which team would you rather be going forward? The one that won one two more games (and, yes, the conference championship) while benefitting from likely unsustainable bounces or the team that won nine in spite of the turnovers? In the moment, you'd take FAU's good luck and hardware. Going forward, UAB was probably even better than its 9-4 record looks.
TULANE (-4, 6.8, -10.8): The Green Wave rolled to a 5-1 start to the 2019 season. Tulane lost the turnover battle in just one of those games and won it in four. Over the second half of the season, the Green Wave went 1-5, losing the turnover battle five times and finishing even once. Tulane recovered just 23.5% of opponent fumbles.
TEXAS STATE (-9, 1.1, -10.1): Maybe the Bobcats didn't have to go 3-9. I'm sure having opponents intercept more than 30% of all the passes they got a hand on wasn't part of Jake Spavital's plan in his first season in San Marcos.
KANSAS (-12, -2.3, -9.1): OK, here we go. Kansas won three games in Les Miles' first season–an FCS win, a bizarre beatdown of Boston College and a three-point win over Texas Tech. The season may have been highlighted, however, by the gut-wrenching two-point loss at Texas. Point is, there were some gains for the Jayhawks in Year 1 with Miles and they came in spite of Kansas forcing just eight takeaways. That's way better than winning three games while being a high-takeaway group. Kansas is one of those teams that really needs a fortunate turnover season to shake it from a decade-long malaise.
NEW MEXICO (-15, -5.6, -9.5)
RUTGERS (-13, -3.8, -9.2): Lumping these two 2-10 teams together. The fumble recovery/lost rates for both teams weren't too far off the average, but you see a big difference in interceptions. This is the part of the turnover equation teams can control to a certain degree. Bad teams trail a lot. They have to throw more passes and higher-risk passes. Meanwhile their opponents spend most of their time just running the ball and nursing a big lead. New Scarlet Knights' coach Greg Schiano may have a dog named Fumble, but he'd do better to focus on the interceptions.
HAWAII (-14, -4.9, -9.1): Team Chaos! Hawaii flung the ball all over the yard with reckless abandon and its giveaway numbers (30) showed it. But the Rainbow Warriors were a little unlucky to land on such a total. Opponents recovered 72% of Hawaii's fumbles and intercepted 25% of the passes defended.
NEW MEXICO STATE (-15, -6, -9): Man, don't go to the state of New Mexico if you really value taking care of the football.
AIR FORCE (-2, 6.2, -8.2): The Falcons had a really strong season at 10-2. Like, really strong and it all happened with a negative turnover margin that should've been six to the plus side. The Air Force-Washington State bowl game is the ultimate clash in styles and I might be as interested in that game as any this bowl season.
OKLAHOMA (-7, 0.7, -7.7): The one prediction I think I've ever gotten right was 10 years ago this month. Nebraska was getting ready to face Texas in the Big 12 title game as a two-touchdown underdog. I looked hard at that game and wrote (for a site that's no longer around) that if the Huskers could intercept Colt McCoy three times they would have a chance. They did intercept McCoy three times and did have a shot to win. I mention that here only because Oklahoma opened as a double-digit dog to LSU in the Peach Bowl. The Sooners went 12-1 and won the Big 12 despite being nearly seven takeaways below its expected rate. New defensive coordinator Alex Grinch coordinated some gains on defense, but ballhawking wasn't one of them. Oklahoma recovered just 28.6% of opponent fumbles and converted just 13.2% of passes defended into interceptions. If that trend should flip for one game in Atlanta, Oklahoma would absolutely be in that game. Because of the turnover luck, the Sooners might be a little undervalued here.
Outside of Rutgers, Northwestern was the least-fortunate team in the Big Ten in terms of turnovers. The Wildcats had an expected margin of -3.8 and an actual margin of -10.