We all know that luck has an impact on sporting events, and in some individual situations it is easy to see that some team or another got "lucky." In the aggregate, though, it's much more difficult to say. There is no concrete rule that all good breaks and bad breaks must equal out in the end, and the truth is that some teams do get luckier than others. Again, though, it's generally pretty hard to quantify in many areas.
One of the areas we can quantify luck, however, is in regard to fumbles. Though fumbles are huge, game-changing type plays, they often come down more to luck than anything else. The research has been done, fumble recovery is nothing more than a random event -- causing fumbles, whether by coughing up the football or stripping the ball on defense, is a skill, but fumble recovery is not. It's basically little more than luck, it all mainly boils down to whether or not someone wearing your color jersey happens to be near the fumble, see it, and be able to pounce it.
The experts at Football Outsiders had this say on the subject:
Stripping the ball is a skill. Holding onto the ball is a skill. Pouncing on the ball as it is bouncing all over the place is not a skill. 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...
Fumble recovery is a major reason why the general public overestimates or underestimates certain teams. Fumbles are huge, turning-point plays that dramatically impact wins and losses in the past, while fumble recovery percentage says absolutely nothing about a team's chances of winning games in the future...
...[T]hey have no value whatsoever for predicting future performance.
The research at FO, of course, is done for the National Football League, but I've crunched the numbers for SEC football, and the ultimate conclusion is still the same. Just as with the NFL, fumble recoveries in the SEC are entirely random events, and there is no correlation whatsoever with future performance. For example, as we will see further in a moment, the two teams that finished last in the conference in fumble luck in 2006 -- LSU and Arkansas -- finished first and second in fumble luck in 2007. On the other hand, Auburn finished second in fumble luck in 2006, and yet finished dead last in 2007.
Click here for the full conference data in 2007.
A few notes on several teams:
LSU: You could easily tell by following LSU this past season that they were about as lucky as you could possibly get, and the fumble luck data on further backs up that initial observation. But there is more to it than just that they merely led the conference in fumble luck. Their fumble recovery percentage of 63.64% is simply the highest I've seen to yet. The data I've crunched goes back to 1998 -- and though a few official web sites so lamely do not list some official statistics for some years, so it's a bit incomplete -- and that includes a little over 80 teams. Of those 80+ teams that I have fumble recovery data far, LSU is number one overall in fumble luck. Their 83% fumble recovery rate for their own fumbles, I will bet good money, has to be the highest we have seen in this conference, or will see in the conference, in ages.
Alabama: As we found with Pythagorean Wins, there was no real silver lining for the Tide. The same goes for fumble luck, too. We were right in the middle of the pack in terms of fumble luck, and you simply cannot say bad fumble luck cost us games. We weren't a 9-4 team that ended up 7-6 because of bad fumble luck. We were a 7-6 team that ended up with 7-6 with average fumble luck.
Auburn: Unlike their fellow Tigers, these Tigers finished dead last in the conference in fumble luck, and that really makes you wonder. I mean they were far from being a bad team to begin with. They finished 9-4, and would have made it to Atlanta had LSU not completed a long, last-second touchdown pass. It was obviously going to be a bit of a down year for them, but they still accomplished all that they did with the worst fumble luck in the conference. I've been big on Auburn for months now, and I see no reason to change that now. This team was 9-4 last year with bad fumble luck, and now they will have just about everyone returning in 2008, the schedule gets easier, and they should have a regression to the mean in fumble luck. If I'm delusional enough to think that it truly is great to be an Auburn Tiger, I would really have love what all of those things collectively portend.
Arkansas: The Hogs had the second best fumble luck in the conference, and in just about any other year they would have led the conference by coming in at approximately a 58% rate. Yet they still finished a mediocre 8-5, and clearly regressed. And now as if they didn't have enough problems anyway, they are likely facing a regression to the mean in fumble luck. Any time you have an 8-5 team with great fumble luck lose a ton of starters, including all of its impact players, plus you add in a coaching change... that one sounds about like a pending rectal probe. I don't hate Petrino like some, and I don't think he's the devil in disguise, but good grief does he have his work cut out for him. Far from hating him, I actually feel a bit sorry for the guy with the task he has at hand.
Tennessee: The Vols, as we know from Pythagorean Wins, were a huge overachiever, and had the fewest Pythagorean Wins of any team to win an SEC division since going to its modern format in 1992. Not surprisingly, the Vols finished third in the conference in fumble luck. I don't think there is any doubt that there is a direct link between fumble luck and overachieving / underachieving in regard to Pythagorean Wins.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks were expected to improve after underachieving their Pythagorean projection in 2006, but improvement did not come, and actually a bit of regression reared its ugly head. A partial explanation of that oddity certainly has to come from their fumble luck, as they finished second to last in the conference in fumble luck. Again, I don't think there is any doubt that there is a direct link between fumble luck and overachieving / underachieving in regard to Pythagorean Wins.