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How much of the 2012 college football narrative has been shaped by luck?
On Saturday night in Stillwater, Texas running back Joe Bergeron scored on a 2-yard touchdown plunge to give the Longhorns a dramatic 41-36 win over Oklahoma State. The win allowed Texas to move to 11th in the AP poll and ninth in the USA Today poll, and it kept alive whatever chances the 'Horns have of running the table and making a surprising trip to the BCS title game.
And it almost didn't. At some point around the goal line, Bergeron lost the ball. Naturally, he thought he crossed the goal line first, and OSU defenders disagreed, but replay review could not clearly conclude either way, and the call on the field stood: Touchdown, Texas. If Bergeron had lost the ball about six inches earlier in his run, it is quite conceivable Texas' entire season narrative changes. Whatever national title hopes they may have are out the window, and the storyline for this week's game versus West Virginia is not "undefeated vs. undefeated for control of the Big 12," it's "How does Texas respond to a devastating loss, the 'most heart-breaking loss imaginable'?" Plus, with a win, Oklahoma State proves that it is to be considered a factor in going for its second-straight conference title. Six inches of, basically, luck changed everything.
It's not like Texas and OSU are alone in this regard. Fumble recoveries and general turnovers luck determine games all season. California recovered just two of nine fumbles in a 31-24 loss to Nevada (Nevada fumbled six times but barely paid for it), then recovered just one of five in a 27-17 loss to Arizona State. Flip those recovery numbers around, and Cal is likely 3-2 right now instead of 1-4. You think that makes a difference in the temperature of Jeff Tedford's seat? Oregon State recovered three of the game's four fumbles in a 10-7 win over Wisconsin, a win that spurred them to a 3-0 start and a top 20 ranking. Mississippi State recovered four of four fumbles in a 30-24 win over Troy, without which the Bulldogs wouldn't be potentially looking at a 7-0 record when they head to Alabama on Oct. 27. Hell, Missouri recovered six of seven fumbles in a 31-10 loss to South Carolina. Recover just three, and a humbling loss is a humiliating one.
I spent quite a bit of time this offseason talking about luck and the role it plays in college football, and it doesn't take long to figure out how it has impacted the 2012 season thus far. When our teams are recovering a lot of fumbles, we like to think it is because our team is "tough" and "hard-nosed." When our team is intercepting more passes than it simply breaks up, we like to think it is because of its superior ball skills. Really, though? It's mostly luck. Sometimes the pointy ball bounces in your favor, and other times it doesn't.
Forcing fumbles: not luck. At least, not for the most part. OSU forced 18 of them in 2011 (seventh-most in the country), and, unprompted, opponents laid another nine balls on the ground as well. OSU forced 15 in 2010 as well. Going after the ball is at least partially by design -- Iowa State has forced at least 14 fumbles in all three years under Paul Rhoads, for instance, while Michigan State hasn't forced more than 13 in the last four seasons -- and OSU tends to do it well. They also do it across the board: OSU defensive ends forced six fumbles, linebackers forced six, and defensive backs forced six.
Recovering fumbles: mostly luck. When your team recovers a high percentage of fumbles, you claim it is because of passion and tenacity, but both teams tend to have that. The art of falling on a pointy, oblong ball is, really, not an art at all. It is lucky. So the fact that OSU recovered 74 percent of its opponents fumbles in 2011, and 60 percent of all fumbles, was at least a little bit based in randomness.
Defending passes: not luck. As with stripping the ball, some teams are much more aggressive than others when the ball is in the air. Oklahoma State defended 87 passes in 2011 -- they intercepted 24, and they broke up another 63. In 2010, they defended 76 (19 picks, 57 PBUs); in 2009, they defended 86 (18 picks, 68 PBUs). This is another facet of your typical Bill Young defense, and OSU has more than enough speed in the secondary to go after the ball successfully in this regard. The 'Pokes have ranked in the nation's Top 10 for passes defended in each of the last four seasons, in fact, so this progression began before Young even came aboard.
Intercepting passes: mostly luck. Yes, some guys have good hands, while others are made of stone. That makes a difference. But for the team as a whole, your ratio of interceptions to passes broken up is quite random. On average, 21.9 percent of all passes defended are interceptions. Over time, a team can expect to either regress or progress toward that number.
We are five weeks into the 2012 season; it is probably a good time to look at turnover luck, how it has changed for teams since last year, and how it has impacted the horse race known as 2012. For an enormous data table with most of the information we'll discuss below, go here.
Falling On The Football
The following teams have recovered at least 70 percent of all fumbles taking place in their games: Mississippi State (93 percent), Temple (83 percent), Iowa (82 percent), UTSA (78 percent), Baylor (75 percent), Indiana (75 percent), Clemson (73 percent), Missouri (73 percent), Wake Forest (73 percent), Florida (71 percent), Penn State (71 percent), Kansas State (71 percent), Ball State (71 percent), Louisiana Tech (71 percent).
The following teams have recovered fewer than 30 percent of all fumbles: Iowa State (10 percent), Navy (19 percent), South Carolina (20 percent), Buffalo (20 percent), Virginia (21 percent), South Alabama (22 percent), Tennessee (25 percent), Washington State (29 percent), Miami (Ohio) (29 percent).
Mississippi State has recovered an absurd 12 of 13 fumbles so far; at some point, that percentage will probably start crashing in the other direction. How much of an impact will that have? Hard to say. The Bulldogs are 4-0 this year, but only the Troy game might have flipped with fewer fumble recoveries. MSU faces winnable games versus Kentucky and Middle Tennessee in the near future. If they need luck to win those games, they probably aren't really a top 20 team.
On the flipside, teams like Iowa State and South Carolina have not yet been truly bitten by a lack of fumble recovery prowess. The Cyclones recovered zero of three fumbles against Texas Tech in a 24-13 loss, so perhaps that result could have flipped, but since Tech also doubled up ISU in total yardage, the odds are decent that the Cyclones would have gone ahead and lost. And South Carolina is still undefeated despite the fact that the Gamecocks have lost six of their seven fumbles and recovered only three of opponents' 13.
Less Than Stone Hands
Another aspect of potential turnovers luck is the ratio of a defense's interceptions to passes broken up. The following teams have intercepted at least 35 percent of their overall passes defensed: Texas (44 percent), Memphis (43 percent), Tennessee (43 percent), Mississippi State (41 percent), Boise State (40 percent), North Texas (40 percent), Navy (40 percent), Notre Dame (38 percent), USC (38 percent), Fresno State (37 percent), N.C. State (35 percent), Miami (Ohio) (35 percent).
Meanwhile, the following teams have seen fewer than 8 percent of their passes defensed result in a turnover: Wisconsin (0 percent), South Florida (0 percent), Virginia (5 percent), Arkansas (5 percent), Central Michigan (5 percent), Auburn (6 percent), Wyoming (6 percent), Utah State (6 percent), Hawaii (6 percent), Nevada (7 percent).
It is true that great individual talents like Texas' Quandre Diggs (three interceptions, three passes broken up) or N.C. State's David Amerson (three interceptions, three passes broken up in 2012; 13 interceptions, five broken up in 2011) can skew a team's overall interception rate. But for the most part, luck is still prominently involved. And somehow, Wisconsin and South Florida, who have combined for a disappointing 5-5 record, have combined to break up 50 passes (33 from Wisconsin, 17 from USF) without picking off a single one. That is mind-boggling. And unlucky.
So here are the top and bottom teams when it comes to turnover luck points per game:
1. Mississippi State (plus-13.0 points per game)
2. UTSA (plus-7.6)
3. Notre Dame (plus-6.8)
4. Iowa (plus-5.3)
5. Alabama (plus-5.1)
6. Clemson (plus-5.1)
7. Temple (plus-4.7)
8. Missouri (plus-4.7)
9. Boise State (plus-4.7)
10. Baylor (plus-4.6)
124. Wisconsin (minus-8.0)
123. Virginia (minus-7.7)
122. Utah (minus-6.7)
121. Northern Illinois (minus-5.6)
120. Central Michigan (minus-5.6)
119. Iowa State (minus-5.5)
118. Illinois (minus-4.9)
117. South Carolina (minus-4.2)
116. Buffalo (minus-4.1)
115. Akron (minus-4.0)
Wisconsin has lost two games by a total of six points. Granted, they've also won two others by a total of seven points -- their problems go beyond some unlucky bounces; but with better luck, our view of the Badgers might change significantly. The same goes for Notre Dame, a snake-bitten team in 2011 which has benefited from a touchdown's worth of luck per game in a year that has seen them win two games by a touchdown or less.
(Meanwhile, no MACtion love from the turnover gods. Lots of unlucky MAC teams out there right now.)
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