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No team has turnover magic, as 2018 Miami might demonstrate

Big turnover margins tend to regress toward the mean eventually, even for teams with awesome sideline trophies.

NCAA Football: Miami at Louisiana State
Miami coach Mark Richt and cornerback Trajan Bandy, after Bandy was ejected for targeting.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

No. 25 LSU handled No. 8 Miami in North Texas on Sunday, 33-17. And for the first time since 2016, Miami didn’t force a turnover.

Turnovers were key for Miami in 2017, both in branding and winning.

Miami had a plus-13 turnover margin in 13 games, with 31 takeaways, ranked third in the country. The team’s turnover savvy prompted the viral rise of the turnover chain.

The Canes think the chain snowballed and helped them get turnovers. Once it became a full-blown thing, coordinator Manny Diaz told Bill Connelly, it spooked teams.

“I think it hurt the other team more than it even helped us,” Diaz said. “Once it became a thing, and you knew that it was something that the other team was talking about during the course of the week. ‘We’re not gonna let ‘em get the chain out.’ ... Virginia, Pitt, Clemson, and Wisconsin all fumbled the ball in the first five minutes of the game. Fumbled it!

“Now obviously all four of those teams made a big deal that week not to turn the ball over against Miami. I feel like sometimes it created a negative coaching element for our opposition — don’t, don’t, don’t. They say, ‘Don’t focus on the don’ts.’”

But Miami could struggle to keep up its epic turnover pace this year. That’s not a surprise, and that’s nothing specific to Miami. That’s how turnovers work.

Miami was good at creating turnovers last year, but there’s a lot more to it than just playing good defense and going after the ball.

The Canes forced offenses into bad down-and-distances, and as a team, they played from ahead a lot. That encouraged offenses to take more risks; as ESPN’s David Hale studied, there’s evidence that this matters greatly.

At the same time, the Cane defense was aggressive and created a lot of chaos.

But all along, Miami was still lucky to come out plus a full turnover per game. Pretty much any team with that big a margin would’ve been.

Opponents fumbled 22 times, and Miami recovered 14, instead of the statistically expected 11. (With the ball, Miami fumbled 10 times and recovered six, also helping the margin.)

Miami’s expected turnover margin was plus-3.3 over its 13 games, per Bill Connelly’s numbers. The Canes benefited from 3.75 points per game in “turnover luck,” while winning their average game by 8. They were 36th in expected turnover margin, not as good as their No. 5 rank in actual margin. Those numbers, explained by Connelly:

[Adjusted turnover margin is] what a team’s turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.

If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team’s luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

Miami might have great turnover numbers again in 2018. It also might not.

That’s not a statement on Miami’s ability, but on the nature of turnovers. Miami might have lost its turnover spark, because anybody can lose it at any point.

Miami’s less threatening when it’s not taking the ball away. So is anyone. But the lack of forced turnovers stung extra in this game.

The box score doesn’t tell the story of a 16-point final margin (or a 30-point game entering the fourth quarter, which this also was).

  • Miami had 342 yards (5 per play) to LSU’s 296 (4.6)
  • Miami’s Malik Rosier had a 103 passer rating to LSU QB Joe Burrow’s 98
  • Miami had 18 first downs to LSU’s 17

The Canes faced two glaring problems. The first was field position. The average LSU drive started at the Tigers’ 43. The average Miami drive started at the Canes’ 25.. The second was that LSU had two takeaways and scored 10 points off them.

Forcing turnovers isn’t guaranteed to help your average field position. You might intercept a pass at your own 1, for instance. But it’s a proven way to turn a game, and Miami never found the kind of jolt it was able to rely on in 2017. No matter how well the Canes play from here, there’s no promising they’ll be able to recapture the same style as 2017.