A Cut Above: Turnovers in the Saban Era

HaHa Clinton-Dix intercepts a Notre Dame pass in the BCS National Championship Game. - Kevin C. Cox

Roll Bama Roll takes a look back at how the Tide has performed under Saban thus far, and ponders what the past numbers may mean for the team's future.

Alright, folks. It's Wednesday, which means it is time for another edition of "A Cut Above". This week we will be taking a look at the turnovers in the Saban era, both for and against. If you haven't yet, check out the two previous installments, where we analyzed offensive production and defensive performance.

Most of these stats were taken from cfbstats.com, except for the total fumbles numbers, which were taken from rolltide.com. And just as we always begin, here is the set of data we'll be working with:

 photo Dataset_zpsb0e49c2a.png

First things first, let's take a look at the overall picture during the Saban era by analyzing total turnovers for and against in the last six years: photo TotalTurnovers_zps70ecfcc6.png

Obviously, the first thing that jumps out is that Bama has not as of yet had a single season with a negative turnover margin. As might have been expected, Saban's first two years were the worst in terms of giving up the ball. As Saban's conservative style became entrenched in the program, the turnovers quickly began to wane. Another quick observation that jumps out is the fact that the '11 defense (widely regarded as one of the nation's best ever) is at the bottom of the heap when it comes to total turnovers. We'll keep this last point in mind as we look at some different info in a bit to try to determine if there are some mitigating factors that influenced this dip in production.

Interestingly, from '08-'12, the year-over-year rates for offensive turnovers is roughly -1.7%, meaning that there is an almost imperceptible shrinkage, with the year-to-year variations almost entirely offsetting one another. Over that same period, the defensive turnovers grew at an average of 7.45%. This means that though there is some sizable variation, the general trend is upwards, despite being weighed down by the '11 defense's relative lack of production.

Next up, we'll take a look at total fumbles: photo Fumbles_zps3f486fd9.png

I suspect most Bama fans would not have guessed that the numbers for total fumbles by Bama/opponents were this tight. In fact, if you look at the numbers for all six years, Bama's opponents only have two more fumbles than Bama (113 compared to 111). For a team that is renowned for not fumbling, this revelation is startling and a bit disconcerting. Assuming that the reputation for ball security is not misplaced, the only logical place to lay this blame is with the defense's inability to generate fumbles.

Of course, as we all know, the ball hitting the ground is only half of the story. An offense dropping the ball is not in itself a fatal blow, and a defense forcing a fumble is not in itself a significant achievement. The game is played with a funny shaped ball that does funny things when it bounces and which team comes up with it is often the result of little more than chance.

With that in mind, let's start to break down how the odds have played out when the ball has gotten loose: photo FumbleRecovery_zpsa2f8e2ff.png

The obvious plus side here is that Bama has done a bang up job of recovering the football after fumbling it. If we consider each fumble to be a 50/50 proposition, Bama has consistently outplayed the odds offensively, recovering the ball at an average rate of 55.05% per year, with only one year coming in under 50% (2010 at 47.37%). On the other hand, if the same odds are given to returning an opponent's fumble, then the fanbase needs to work on upping the Hoodoo. The average recovery rate for the defense over the last six years was a paltry 38.38%, with only one year at or above 50% (2008 at 50.00%). When both sets are combined, we get the following graph:

 photo TotalFumbleRecovery_zpsdc9874a7.png

Somebody must have left a flaming bag of dog poo on the football god's porch in 2010. On the whole, Bama has averaged a total fumble recovery rate of 46.60% over the last six years. This number is obviously weighted down by the absurdly bad total recovery rate of 2010 (35.90%). Excluding that outlier, Bama has averaged a total fumble recovery rate of 48.74% and has not had a total recovery rate greater than 50% under Saban, and has only met that mark once (in 2011).

Taking these recovery percentages into consideration, let's revisit the fumbles graph and see what the actual impact of the fumbles was: photo FumblesLost_zps7826e9b6.png

Interestingly, the graph that initially looked surprisingly bad only got worse. Over the last six years, Bama has only had one season where the defense recovered more fumbles than the offense lost (2011). This is a really surprising find to me, given Bama's reputation and the anecdotal evidence floating around in my head.

I suspect that much of this misperception is attributable to the team's performance in the next metric:  photo Interceptions_zps86138ca8.png

That disparity, friends, can rightfully be called a gulf. Over the past six seasons, Bama has averaged 12 more interceptions gained than thrown. On a per game basis, the Tide has averaged nearly one (0.85) interception more gained than given. This aspect of the turnover evaluation is tilted decidedly in Bama's favor and serves as a finger on the scale when looking at the overall picture of turnover margins.

To revisit the thread running through this piece, the '11 defense had the fewest interceptions per game, as well as the fewest total interceptions of any Bama defense under Saban. While that is surprising, it's probably just as surprising to see that the '10 defense (with its lightly regarded, and often disparaged, secondary) generated nearly as many interceptions as the '09 defense. While the '10 team was atrocious at recovering fumbles, it was able to make up a ton of ground in the turnover margin with interceptions, and ended up with a better margin than the '11 team.

Before beginning the analysis, I doubt many would have guessed that the '11 defense was Saban's worst in terms of total turnovers generated. I certainly would not have. Since this was an unexpected result, I decided to try to brainstorm for mitigating factors that might have unduly influenced the numbers (or at least how I perceive them). The biggest potentially mitigating factor I could think of was time spent on the field. For instance, if the '11 team held every opponent to a ton of 3 and outs and thus played significantly fewer snaps, the dip in turnover production could potentially be attributable to the relative lack of opportunities, more so than an actual lack of production.

With that in mind, let's take a look at how the numbers shook out when accounting for number of plays:
 photo PlaysPerTurnover_zps9591aeaf.png

First off, to help interpret the graph, obviously we would want the plays/giveaway number to be as large as possible, while minimizing the plays/takeaway number. Knowing that, we see that Bama was best at protecting the football in '09 and '11, and best at taking the football in '09 and '12.

It also turns out that the possible mitigating factor of less playing time was in fact significant to the '11 team (the '11 defense played 82 fewer snaps than the next closest defense). But while it tightened the race a bit, and brought the '11 defense from the very back of the pack, the numbers show that the '11 defense was still one of Saban's worst at generating turnovers. In fact, only the '07 team was worse on a per play basis. Even the '10 defense that had such miserable fumble luck ranked significantly better.

In closing, I have one last point that I found interesting. When evaluating the plays/turnover data, I had the thought while looking at the graph that the '12 figures looked roughly like an average of the 5 previous years. It turns out that is very nearly the case. Offensively, the '12 team under-performed against the 5 yr average by half a play. Defensively, the '12 team over-performed against the 5 yr average by 4.29 plays. It could very well mean, then, that last year's performance is roughly what we should expect moving forward. We'll delve into this a bit more when we revisit turnovers to try to predict next year's stats.

Tune in next week, when we'll be using our previous offensive analysis to predict next year's offensive stats.

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