Turnover margin is a notoriously jittery stat that does not often repeat year to year. Turnovers are infrequent and hugely impactful, so they tend to wander all over the place without much rhyme or reason, slaying or rescuing seasons. Yes, there are obvious repeatable factors that correlate with good or bad turnover margin on a macro level. Get to the quarterback and he will explode in a confetti of bad decisions; allow the opponent to get to yours and watch the same thing occur.
On a micro level, sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, recovering around 75% of available fumbles. I know people want to believe there is a narrative that supports this model of football. When I returned from the Mattison coaching clinic presentation, one of the items I mentioned was that Michigan treats all incompletions as live balls in practice. I didn't think that was much of an explanation but a lot of commenters seized on it.
There does not have to be a reason that events transpire. It's not an Eastern thing. Sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you.
Michigan ate the bear last year, and how. SBN's Bill Connolly put together a stat called "adjusted turnover margin" that assumes an NCAA-average fumble recovery rate (50.3% for the D) and NCAA-average PBU-to-INT ratio (21.9%), compares it to your actual turnovers gained, and calculates a points per game figure Connolly figures is just the bounce of the ball. Drum roll…
Five Teams Who Benefited Most From Turnovers Luck
1. Michigan (+3.97 points/game)
2. Maryland (+3.97)
3. N.C. State (+3.61)
4. South Carolina (+3.61)
5. Oklahoma State (+3.40)
I am Jack's utter lack of surprise. Michigan's overall fumble recovery rate of 75% was first in the nation by a whopping eight percent! (Maryland was #2 at 67%.) They were three standard deviations above the mean! They were a full standard deviation above the #2 team in the country! This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!
This is the point where I talk about how lucky Michigan got last year and a lot of people say "nuh-uh." This gets a little frustrating on both ends. I get frustrated that something like that Sugar Bowl doesn't bring the point home; people who disagree with me get frustrated that I'm downplaying Michigan's success or being grim about next year.
They're not entirely wrong. I do think that if you replayed the 2011 season 1,000 times Michigan ends up 11-2 in relatively few of them. They were only sort of close in one of their losses*, won two-and-a-half nailbiters** and acquired 10 more turnovers than Connolly's model expects. Michigan also had the benefit of a soft schedule (no Wisconsin or Penn State) in a down Big Ten and an Ohio State team in shambles after tatgate. It was pretty uninspiring in terms of 11-2 years featuring wins over ND, OSU, and a BCS opponent despite undergoing massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster.
Which is to say: WOOOOOOOOOOO. Yes. Score.
But once we get past the woo and start talking about setting expectations for year two we should not base it off what Michigan did last year but what they should have done, what they lost to graduation and attrition, who they return and add, and who they play. We should start with the premise that Michigan was super lucky last year and probably won't be this year.
This doesn't mean their turnover margin is doomed. It just means their turnover margin is doomed unless Denard Robinson becomes a lot more responsible with the ball. Michigan got away with being –7 in interceptions because of the fumble surplus. That covered up a lot of blemishes last year.
What should we expect Michigan's turnover margin to be next year?
I am arguing it will be worse. I made similar arguments for much of the Rich Rodriguez era when Michigan was hugely negative every year and dammit it never changed.
Experience at quarterback. This is a double whammy to the good for Michigan: they've got a senior starter entering his third year and—even more important—his second year in Al Borges's system. A number of Michigan's turrible interceptions a year ago came paired with hand-wavingly-open receivers Michigan's quarterbacks just missed, like this one Gardner chucked against Purdue:
The ball is in the air here, but it's going to the double-covered Gallon instead of the hand-wavingly open Junior Hemingway. This wasn't pressure—Gardner had all day—it was a huge coverage misread. In year two these things should significantly diminish.
Fitzgerald Toussaint could be Mike Hart-like. IIRC Toussaint has not fumbled as a Michigan ballcarrier. As carries move to him from other sources—largely the fumble-prone Denard—Michigan should reduce the number of fumbles that can go against them. Fumble prevention/extraction is a skill.
The defense should be sack happy. Michigan finished 29th last year without getting great production out of its three-tech or weakside defensive end. Will Heininger had one sack last year; Craig Roh and Jibreel Black combined for 5.5. If the moves of Roh and Black inside upgrade the pass rush at three positions, the blitz-mad Mattison D will be in QBs' faces even more than they were last year.
Complicating factor: Mike Martin only had 3.5 sacks last year but his disruption opened things up for other people.
Protection should be good if the line is healthy. Lewan is an all Big Ten left tackle (at least) and Schofield is a touted recruit with a year of quality playing time under his belt with all the tools to pass protect on the edge. Wicked blind-side hits on Denard should be rare.
Denard is just turnover-prone. This has been a fact by air and ground ever since he hit the field. While he's going to improve with experience, sometimes players never have that light bulb pop on. Toussaint will shift some carries to his five points of contact but Denard will still get a bunch of carries, and he'll cough the ball up some.
Chucking sure interceptions up to Hemingway will result in interceptions because Hemingway is gone. Unless these are going to Gardner.
Hello massive reversion to the mean on fumble recoveries. If Michigan recovers over 70% of available fumbles this year I'll eat a lemon. Probably at the Rose Bowl.
If a tackle goes down, yeesh. Everyone's assumption is that this would see Kyle Kalis step in at right tackle. Mega-hyped recruit… and a true freshman.
Seriously, Denard is walking variance. I think Michigan will preserve its fairly positive TO margin. If they don't, we will all be sad about Denard's inability to shake the turnover bug. I can't predict he'll be better or worse until we see him play.
There's a reason a couple departing seniors picked Robinson—who was an All-American as a sophomore, remember—as a "breakout player" in that Rothstein article from yesterday($). He could break out. He could run in place, and not know which it will be makes predictions here even more useless than they have been in the past.
You may now return to thinking about Taylor Lewan on a tandem bike.
*[Even if Michigan does score against Iowa they have to get a two-point conversion and then win in OT, which is like a 20% shot.]
**[OSU should not have been since there was no reason to overturn the Toussaint TD that would have ended it.]