The 2011 Notre Dame football season began with a fumble at the 1-yard line on the opening drive against South Florida. The season ended with a curious interception in the end zone that sealed a loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
In between, it was more of the same for the Irish, as Brian Kelly’s second team stumbled to a disappointing 8-5 record thanks in large part to 29 turnovers and only 14 takeaways.
The five worst BCS conference teams in turnover margin last season were Duke, Florida, Iowa State, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. None won more than eight games, and the Cyclones were the only one of the five to meet or exceed preseason expectations.
You don’t have to be a statistician to recognize that turnover margin is often a determining factor in who wins or loses a game. The good news for Notre Dame fans is that turnover margins tend to explain the past more than predict the future.
The level of risk in various offensive and defensive systems will always lend to certain teams being more inclined to giveaways and takeaways. However, teams with the worst turnover margins tend to show significant improvement in their record in the following year.
Of the five teams in each of the seasons from 2006-2010 to finish with the worst turnover margins among BCS-conference teams, 19 of the 25 teams won more games the next season. Three won the same number of games, and three won fewer games.
2006: Illinois (+7 wins in 2007), Iowa (0), North Carolina (+1), Oregon (+2), Stanford (+3)
2007: Baylor (+1 win in 2008), Minnesota (+6), N.C. State (+1), Nebraska (+4), Ole Miss (+6)
2008: Louisville (-1 win in 2009), Nebraska (+1), South Carolina (0), Washington (+5), Washington State (-1)
2009: Georgia (-2 wins in 2010), Michigan (+2), N.C. State (+4), Ole Miss (-5), Washington State (+1)
2010: Cincinnati (+6 wins in 2011), Duke (0), Michigan (+4), Texas (+3), UCLA (+2)
Based on recent history, this tells us that Notre Dame has about a 75-percent chance of reaching nine wins in 2012, a number that should satisfy most Irish fans. On average, teams finishing in the bottom five have won exactly two more games the following year, which would give the Irish 10 wins for only the third time since 1993.
Conversely, the top five BCS programs in turnover margin in 2010 (Iowa, Maryland, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin) all lost more games in 2011 than in 2010. The Terrapins and Buckeyes had significant drop-offs, from 9-4 to 2-10 and from 12-1 to 6-7, respectively.
Cutting down on their 17 interceptions and 12 fumbles is only half of the battle for the Irish. Duke and Minnesota were the only BCS programs last season with fewer takeaways than Notre Dame’s 14. For a team with three senior starters in its secondary, registering only eight interceptions was a significant failure.
With a continually-improving pass-rush, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco may have the luxury to play more aggressive coverages next season. The Irish linebackers were not effective in pass coverage in 2011, but moving safety Jamoris Slaughter closer to the line of scrimmage, as Diaco did in the Champs Sports Bowl, could force the linebackers to drop more often.
Offensively, there still are going to be giveaways. Whether it’s due to Tommy Rees’ lack of arm strength or the inexperience of Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix or Gunner Kiel, mistakes are going to happen.
What can’t happen again is where on the field they occur, as the Irish far too often saw promising drives end with red-zone turnovers.
Improving turnover margin isn’t something that’s practiced. It’s more of an effect of preparation, instinct, execution, aggressiveness and perhaps most importantly, luck.
Notre Dame didn’t catch many breaks in 2011. Given recent history, however, the luck of the Irish should flip to a positive in 2012 after a season that routinely left the team feeling cursed and the fans simply cursing.
The negative effects of Notre Dame’s poor turnover margin have been beaten to death in recent months. Now it’s time to put a positive spin on that infamous statistic. When you’re stuck at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.