Last week, Dr. Saturday offered his assessment of Alabama's 2010 prospects and after casually citing a number of reasons the Crimson Tide defense is likely to fall short of last year's lofty heights he made this comment:
... Add the almost certain regression from the sky-high turnover margin, and the odds of a group this green bailing the offense out of multiple bad afternoons are dramatically lower.
Thanks a lot, Hinton. It's not like I had enough to worry about already.
The numbers are pretty clear. Alabama boasted a phenomenal +19 turnover margin in 2009 - the fourth best in the nation. It was a tremendous step forward from a +6 turnover margin the year prior and just +4 in 2007. It's the kind of statistical uptick that, as Hinton noted, looks ripe for a retreat. So, how likely is it that will come to pass?
Lets handle the good news first.
The folks over at Football Outsiders have run the numbers and insist that fumble recovery is a random event. Once the ball hits the turf you might as well flip a coin to determine who gets it. That makes it susceptible to the law of averages and the inevitable attraction of the mean. So, given that, what might the data suggest?
Fumbles (total fumbles-fumbles lost and percentage)
While Alabama's numbers are a shade on the positive side they don't seem outrageously out of whack. The more important pattern here is the declining number of fumbles each year under Coach Saban. While fumble recovery may be susceptible to the law of averages the number of fumbles is not. Prevention is, without a doubt, the best medicine in this case.
A big part of that is the fact our workhorse running back simply doesn't put the ball on the ground. Mark Ingram has had two fumbles out of a total of 349 career touches (318 rushing attempts and 31 receptions). Alabama recovered the one he dropped against LSU in 2008 but not the one that got away from him at the very end of last year's Tennessee game (Thanks again, Cody).
In comparison with those numbers, Trent Richardson is a turnover machine. His freshman campaign saw him straight up match Ingram's two-year totals. If that trend continues... well, I'm sure we'll find a way to live with the pain.
OK. That was fun. Now for the bad news.
Alabama Interception Totals
Lets start with the "Interceptions Lost" column. Greg McElroy may not be the most elegant passer in the SEC but he's not one to turn the ball over either. John Parker Wilson battled the interception bug in 2007 but improved substantially his senior campaign. It's been a completely different situation with McElroy under center.
Alabama finished tied for fifth nationally in terms of fewest interceptions thrown last year. Thus, even if McElroy struggles in 2010, its unlikely he'll suddenly transform into Jarrett Lee. (Interesting footnote: It turns out McElroy was the leading fumbler on the team in 2009 with four, two of which were recovered by the opposing team.)
So if Bama's turnover margin is fated to return to earth in 2010 the likely culprit, if you haven't guessed already, is to be found in the"Interception's Gained" column.
Going into the 2009 season there were expectations that the secondary was going to be better than 2008 but not to the tune of 67% better in terms of interceptions gained. Ironically, when it was all said and done, only one team was able to surpass Alabama's total in that particular category last year -- the Texas Longhorns.
But that was then and this is now. The likelihood of a repeat performance in 2010 is somewhere between "absolutely not" and "no chance in hell" due to the attrition on the defensive side of the ball you've been hearing so much about lately. It has really taken a toll on the secondary.
More than two thirds of Alabama's 24 interceptions last year were made by players that will not be on the Crimson Tide roster next season. That's a total of eight players with picks in 2009 who have moved on to the pros or have graduated (as well as one who has been declared ineligible for the whole of next season).
On the plus side, Alabama's interception leader from 2009, Mark Barron, will be back next season. His seven picks not only led the conference last year but was also one of the highest marks in the nation. On the negative side, the only other player on the 2010 squad who recorded even one pick last season is Marcell Darius and it isn't very likely we will see him doing this again any time soon.
The bottom line is next year's secondary is about as green as it is thin and they will have their hands full eliminating the big play. Regular momentum-changing interceptions are likely going to have to wait a while. And if the law of averages decides to get mean, it could get ugly in a hurry.