Just How Important Are Those Turnovers?

Bert HancockCorrespondent ISeptember 17, 2008

You see coaches wring their hands repeatedly about "winning the turnover battle." Then, the vision appears of USC linebacker Rey Maualuga intercepting the Ohio State quarterback and returning it for a touchdown to give the Trojans a commanding 21-3 edge last Saturday.

But sometimes, such common wisdom is empty words once you dig deeper.

Is that true with turnovers as well?

To review their importance, I researched the whole 2007 regular season—all teams, big and small from I-A (or FBS, as it’s now referred to).

I wanted to see more than the seasonal stats, because some teams may have a huge TO (turnover) edge in a couple of games during the year but not in any others, yet show a plus TO margin for the season. To me, the best way is to take the more detailed approach—game by game.

But we need to narrow the scope. If we analyzed the mismatches, our results could be skewed, due to the weaker teams forced into obvious passing downs, leading to interceptions, etc. On the flip side, one team may be so much better it can afford to be charitable and still win comfortably.

So, to help us determine turnovers’ true impact, I chose to look only at contests where the teams were considered closely matched. To that end, I utilized Phil Steele’s magazine, reviewing games where the spread was a mere touchdown or less.

First, I will confess I figured a one-turnover difference would produce minimal meaning over the course of a sixty-minute battle. But that assumption was off the mark. Teams that created just one more turnover than their opponent won nearly twice as much as they lost! [68 wins, 37 losses, or 65 percent]

A two-TO margin bumped the likelihood of victory up to better than three out of every four games (50-16 win-loss, or 76 percent).

By the time a team incurs a three-turnover bulge, it’s about over for the opponent. Forty times this occurred last year in close-spread contests, and the beneficiary won 35 of those. That’s an 88 percent rate.

There aren’t many contests that a coach’s squad owns a four-plus turnover edge. But when it comes about, that program’s fandom is happy and the opponent miserable. We find this kind of edge 28 times, and the early Christmas recipient won all but one of those (96 percent).

You can see the range of turnover advantage consistently shows the big boost this part of the game gives a team, and that increases with each miscue. It’s no fluke to make this kind of conclusion, especially with us including 239 games.

When you’re seeing two relatively equal teams battle it out, if one’s grabbing the early turnover edge (and maintaining it), chances greatly increase that squad will be celebrating victory at the final gun. (My next logical step is to see the "flow" of turnovers in a game as to how that truly plays out.)

Coachspeak and gridiron cliches can be gobbledygook. When you hear the one about turnovers though, it’s wise to listen!