Alabama By the Numbers: Turnover Margin

If there was one single moment that defined the frustration of the 2010 season, it would have to be Mark Ingram's fumble in the second quarter of the Iron Bowl. As No. 22 barreled down the sideline it seemed the game, already 21-0 in Alabama's favor, would be put away completely. It wasn't to be.

Auburn's Antoine Carter caught Ingram at the 20-yard-line and caused the usually sure-handed running back to cough up the ball. Somehow the prolate spheroid rolled in a straight line for almost 30 yards and out the back of the endzone. Touchback. The Tigers had the ball and the momentum of the game was completely changed.

The only thing more insane than the bounce of the ball on the play was the fact it occurred at all. In his entire career at Alabama, Ingram carried the ball 572 times and fumbled on just three occasions. Three! Yet two of those were turnovers and were they ever big ones; the Iron Bowl last year and the drop that lead to Rocky Block in the 2009 Tennessee game.

Now, one of the key elements of Coach Saban's philosophy toward the game is controlling turnovers. And the Crimson Tide have taken great strides to achieve that. So it seems reasonable to ask if Ingram's fumble indicative of a problem in this area or not.

Last year during the off-season we looked at Alabama's turnover margin after it was pointed out the team's astonishingly high turnover margin of +19 - the fourth best in the country for 2009 - would be almost impossible to sustain in 2010. Sure enough, there was a step back. All the way to +11 and tied for 14th in all of College Football.

But a step back is much different than a total collapse. Lets look at how that broke down. This graph shows the total number of turnovers (both fumbles and interceptions) gained and lost each season over the past half decade:

Alabama's Total 2010 Turnovers
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Source: CFBStats.com

Alabama's total number of turnover's gained in 2010 was in line with the five year totals (in fact, it seems more notable that the 2009 squad was unusually good at getting the ball on turnovers). In terms of losing the ball, 2010 wasn't as careful about keeping possession as 2009 but still noticeably better than in years past.

This doesn't seem a recipe for a fourth place finish in the division. So while total number of turnovers was stable, maybe the proportion per game was different. This graph shows the Turnover Margin/Game since the 2006 season:

Alabama's 2010 Average Turnover Margin/Game
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Source: CFBStats.com

Certainly last season was a step back from Alabama's national championship run but the performance was still far superior to years past, including 2008's 12-win effort. So what the heck happened in 2010?

Let's start breaking down the turnovers with interceptions. Here are Alabama's totals over the past half decade:

Alabama's 2010 Interception Totals
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Source: CFBStats.com

We pointed out last year that while Greg McElroy was often derided as simply a game manager, one of his greatest assets to the team was his accuracy. During his time at The Capstone he completed 66.26% of his passes for 5,580 yards, 39 touchdowns, and suffered just 10 picks. That's good enough for the school records for lowest interception percentage and highest completion percentage.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive secondary has been absolutely stellar the past two seasons. The big worry last off season was if a group of very green defensive backs could keep up with the insane interception totals of 2009 and it turned out they could. There were still some questions concerning consistent play but in terms of making turnovers, the secondary delivered.

Now, lets get back to the issue of fumbles. Here is a chart of the total number of fumbles gained and lost over the past five seasons:

Alabama's 2010 Fumble Totals
Tostats11008_medium

Source: CFBStats.com

The graph is a little difficult to read since the totals were dead even in 2008 and 2009 but, basically, when the number lost bests the number gained, it's not a recipe for a happy season. And you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that 2010's results are very not very good. Not only did Alabama pick up the fewest number of fumbles it has in the past half decade, the Crimson Tide also saw opponents snatch away the highest number in that same span.

To figure it out we went to the University of Alabama Athletics Department football statistics (and, as a result, the specific numbers vary slightly from CFBstats.com). The first thing that became apparent is that the overall number of fumbles wasn't significantly out of whack with recent history.

Total 2010 Fumbles
Tostats11005_medium

Source: University of Alabama Athletics

While the Crimson Tide fumbled slightly more than its opponents in 2010 it wasn't that far off from what we've seen in the past three seasons where the ball has hit the ground about the same amount for both sides. So the next question is who picked the thing up? And this is when you need to get ready for a shocker...

2010 Fumble Recovery Percentage
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Source: University of Alabama Athletics

Alabama's opponents recovered the ball almost 80 percent of the times they fumbled last season. EIGHTY FRICKIN PERCENT! That's just not right. Meanwhile, you see that Alabama's recovery percentage is just about where you expect it to be, along the 50 percent line. If the football gods do indeed exist, this is exhibit one that they were ill-disposed toward the 2010 Crimson Tide.

So what does all this mean?

I mean... come on. Seriously?

In terms of interceptions things should at least hold steady. So while it's reasonable to expect Alabama's interceptions to increase next season with the prospect of a first-year starter at quarterback, it's worth remembering this is still Nick Saban. An abundance of picks is not something he is going to tolerate. And, on the other side of the ball, the crew that grabbed all those opposing passes last season are returning intact.

The fumble situation should be starkly different. According to the folks over at Football Outsiders fumble recovery is a random event: "There is no correlation whatsoever between the percentage of fumbles recovered by a team in one year and the percentage they recover in the next year." While that means it's not possible to predict how "lucky" Alabama's opponents will or will not be in 2011, it is likely the amount will return to the mean. Or, more simply, it's not likely that crazy luck is going to happen again.

Certainly, fewer bounces going to the opposition would be something of an advantage of the Tide. That is, if the team's efforts to control turnovers remains as strong as we've seen in recent seasons. That would be up to Coach Saban and his staff to emphasize the need for keeping control of the ball and limiting interceptions. Given what we've seen in the past, there doesn't seem to be anything random about that.

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