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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Which Teams Got the Best Bounces in 2019?

December 10, 2019
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Lane Kiffin was announced as the new coach at Ole Miss on Monday. Excitement is high in Oxford. Hundreds of Rebel fans greeted him at the airport Sunday night in a scene the Clarion-Ledger compared to "Beatlemania." 

"It was a lot better than another tarmac experience I have had," Kiffin quipped while talking about his plans for the program on Monday. It was good as far as introductory press conferences go. For all of Kiffin's quirks and headline-grabbing tenures, his redemption story is a good one. Over three years at Florida Atlantic he won two-thirds of his games, leading the Owls to double-digit wins and C-USA titles in 2017 and 2019. No wonder Ole Miss came calling.

At least that's the surface-level story. But there was a recent tweet from Kiffin, posted before last week's conference championship game, that sticks with me. This is it:

I saw that tweet a few hours before Kiffin was introduced in Oxford. Interesting, I thought. When a team comes from out of nowhere to lead the nation in turnover margin, there's generally some good fortune involved. I was meaning to put that data together anyway, so away we went . . . and, holy cow.

We've done this multiple times here, and Bill Connelly pioneered the idea, but just in case it's your first time, turnovers can be pretty random. On average, a team recovers about 50% of total fumbles and about 20% of all passes defended are interceptions. Those numbers hold steady year after year when looking at college football as a whole. But team by team those percentages can be all over the place.

For example, FAU recovered 47.6% of its opponents' 21 fumbles. That's about normal. Things got weird, however, with interceptions where 41.2% of FAU's passes defended were picks. In 2019, the Owls could've expected to generate 20.7 takeaways. They actually came away with 31.

And that's just half the turnovers equation. On offense FAU lost just three of 13 fumbles (23.1%) and just eight of 52 passes defended were interceptions (15.4%). The Owls' were expected to turn it over 16.9 times this season but only actually gave it away 11 times.

Add it all up and FAU was +20 in turnovers this season against an expectation of +3.8, a difference 16.2. Those are some extremely fortunate bounces, and you could estimate them as being worth about 80 points on the season, more than a touchdown per game. FAU's 2017 season was similar, though not quite to this degree. The Owls' margin was 8.8 ahead of expectation. In 2018, when FAU went 5-7, it was 2.7 below projection. For Kiffin's three-year tenure at Boca Raton, his team was +22.3, expected turnover margin to actual, over 39 games.

Changes, at least a little bit, that South Florida redemption story. It's not Kiffin's fault. This sort of thing is happening all the time, fueling special seasons, helping explain disappointing ones and, in some cases, raising additional questions.

Here are the nine teams, in addition to FAU, that benefitted the most from the randomness of turnovers in 2019. On Wednesday we'll look at the other side of the equation.

ILLINOIS (Margin 11, Expected -2.4, +13.4): The presumed cellar-dweller in the Big Ten West is going bowling, and this is sort of a classic example of turnover randomness helping explain the out-of-nowhere rise. The Illini recovered 70% of opponent fumbles and had a 30% interception rate on defense. Meanwhile, the Illini opponents got a hand on 62 passes but converted just eight into picks (12.9%).

SAN JOSE STATE (10, -2.1, +12.1): After winning three combined games over the previous two seasons, the Spartans jumped to five thanks to some wackiness in the interceptions categories. San Jose State intercepted 35.6% of the passes it defended while opponents picked just 9.6%.

TEXAS TECH (4, -6.9, +10.9): The Red Raiders ended up two wins short of their preseason win total (six), which is reason to pause given that Tech got a little lucky on the turnover front.

MIAMI (5, -5.4, +10.4): The Hurricanes' preseason win total was 8.5, but Miami stumbled to 6-6 in Manny Diaz's first season. The Turnover Chain came out about exactly as often as expected, but Miami had nearly 10 fewer giveaways than projected.

WESTERN MICHIGAN (7, -3.1, +10.1): The Broncos put the ball in harm's way often in the passing game (64 passes defended), but only got burned with an interception seven times (10.9%).

BAYLOR (14, 5.5, +8.5): The Bears weren't ranked in the preseason, but they ended up playing for the Big 12 title. Baylor's fumbles, both ways, were close to normal but the Bears had a 25.4% interception rate against 12.8% allowed.

TULSA (-1, -8.7, +7.7): The Golden Hurricane were negative, barely, on the season but it should've been worse. Not great in a 4-8 season.

OREGON STATE (10, 2.4, +7.6): The Beavers' AD is working on an extension for head coach Jonathan Smith. That's probably wise, but Oregon State's flirtation with bowl eligibility came with some good bounces, particularly on offense where the Beavers had six giveaways against an expectation of 12.

EAST CAROLINA (1, -6.6, +7.6): A 4-8 season for the Pirates could've been worse if not for committing five fewer turnovers than expected and grabbing two more takeaways.

Finally, just in case you're curious, Michigan had the second-best bounces in the Big Ten behind Illinois. We'll get to Nebraska's fate on Wednesday.

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