Sometimes You Eat The Turnover Bar Comment Count

Brian March 28th, 2012 at 1:24 PM

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?


Happy Arguments

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.

Sad Arguments

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.]



March 28th, 2012 at 1:40 PM ^

Like a thousand other bits and pieces around here, "This aggression against regression to the mean will not stand!" is only seen/understood/appreciated in one blog.  Thanks Brian.


March 28th, 2012 at 1:49 PM ^

I just hope that people aren't too quick to get down on the program if the team goes, say, 8-4 in the regular season this year.  There are a lot of reasons to think that could happen, some of them listed above (the schedule being another big one).  The program is obviously on the upswing overall, but this could be a somewhat tough year.  Michigan used a lot of Kenny Powers pixie dust to get to its 11-2 record in 2011. 


March 28th, 2012 at 2:52 PM ^

We probably should have been 10-3 last year. The ND and VT games could have easily gone the other way and with average luck we would have split them, but we were clearly the better team in the other 9 games we won.


March 28th, 2012 at 3:10 PM ^

My response is that Michigan didn't play Wisconsin or PSU, as Brian noted.  This year they don't play either of those teams, of course, but they do play Alabama on a semi-neutral site and ND, OSU, and Nebraska on the road (though admittedly they get Iowa and MSU at home).  It also seems likely that OSU, at least, will be better than they were last year.

Michigan was also fortunate last year in terms of a lack of injuries to key players. 

UofM Die Hard …

March 28th, 2012 at 3:11 PM ^

agree but you also have to remember that 11-2 came with a completely new coaching staff and scheme which is pretty impressive.  A full year and offseason to keep soaking in their teachings is pretty big factor.

But no way I will get down if they go 8-4, like you said everyone in the nation knows this program is an awakening giant about to feast.


March 28th, 2012 at 3:12 PM ^

... losing Martin and Van Buren on the D-line and picking up 5 fewer loose balls might lose 3 more games (especially starting with Alabama) - we could see real improvement from Denard, with the coaches doing tremendous work ... and still end up 8-4.


March 28th, 2012 at 1:53 PM ^

I do think that while we deserved to lose, the MSU game wasn't really a blowout.  4th and short failure aside and we're going into the late game tied.  And while the probabilities would have been against us I don't know that it's any more improbable than a 3rd string kicker nailing all those FGs in regulation in the Sugar Bowl, that even made it that close. These things happen.  In any regard it's progress from the previous season's 4 nailbiting wins and 6 not even close losses. (And no, this has nothing to do with Hoke vs. Rich, or anything other than Team 131 had close wins and not close losses, and Team 132 had less). Much of that overcoming and dealing with the issues you fairly mention....and which will still need to be dealt with.

I'd say some regression in fumbles should be offset in interception. Why? Because Denard is a senior 3 year QB. It's his time to cement himself as one of the all time great Michigan quarterbacks (in his own way) instead of just one of the all time fun Michigan players.  He doesn't that by leading on the field as well as off, not continuously making mistakes, and winning football games. This is not to say if he has one bad game (or 2...whatever) and we go 11-1 he's a failure. We just can't have him looking like a different player game to game, or sometimes, half to half. Not all of this is his fault...different systems, etc.  He won't be our most laser armed, interception-less QB we've ever had, but get better at those things to go with his other uncommon skills? I think he can do it. You want to wait and see, and that's fair. But it's Denard's year, Denard's team. It's legacy time*.


(*Acknowledging it's a team game, and everyone has to do well, and better, for the team to succeed, and he can't do it alone.  But no one says "Team XXX's Right Guard led us to a championship" or "...lost to OSU 4 straight times".  It's the burden of being QB.)


March 28th, 2012 at 1:56 PM ^

3 Things I think I think (yup, I just went Peter King style);

1. We won't recover as big a percentage of fumbles

2. The defense will blitz more and will make a lot more big plays (INTs and fumbles) but also probably give up a bit more big plays 

3. Denard will not throw as many interceptions because of familiatiry w/ offense and improved accuracy

Add all of these up, and the TO numbers regress to the mean, but I still think we do well overall and finish somewhere around 10-3 against a much tougher schedule


March 28th, 2012 at 2:53 PM ^

I'm not so sure about Denard and the turnovers. We're singing the same song for the 3rd straight year now. Every time we announce that he's "turned the corner," there's an inevitable regression. At this stage, we may just have to accept that Denard is an equally exciting and frustrating football player.


March 28th, 2012 at 3:00 PM ^

Was anyone saying a first time starting QB who hadn't shown he could throw was about to "turn the corner"?  Or a guy entering an entirely new system that made him learn things against his skill set was "turning the corner"? He may prove to just be frustrating, but I think this is the first year he really gets to prove it one way or another.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:11 PM ^

This has some intuitive plausibility, as does its coach-speak corollary "getting 11 guys to the ball." It makes sense to think that having more people around where the fumble occurs and/or making jumping on a ball on the ground a reflex would tend to increase the percent of fumbles recovered.

Of course, accounting for that with data would be difficult, since "number of guys getting to the ball" isn't really a statistic, but I wonder if the percentage of tackles that are solo vs. assisted tackles could be a reasonable proxy identifying teams that "get hats to the ball." Then, if there's a correlation between defensive fumbles recovered and number of assisted tackles, then it might remove some of the noise from fumble recovery stats.

I can't find anywhere on these great internets where team level tackle statistics are kept, though.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:24 PM ^

It would be near impossible to quantify this, but I think it would be interesting to see a study of fumble recovery percentage vs avg distance of defenders from the ball at the time of fumble.  I think there would be a strong correlation, and would help explain why Michigan was so "lucky" recovering fumbles this year.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:14 PM ^

A big positive for the D last year was the play inside the Red-zone.  That was where a lot of games were won.  Yes we had a few key turn-overs as well, but the D just looked different.

The biggest area of improvement (besides interceptions) has to be the 3rd and long conversions of 8+ yards.  I could not believe how many times they would give up a first down in those situations.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:16 PM ^

A big positive for the D last year was the play inside the Red-zone.  That was where a lot of games were won.  Yes we had a few key turn-overs as well, but the D just looked different.

The biggest area of improvement (besides interceptions) has to be the 3rd and long conversions of 8+ yards.  I could not believe how many times they would give up a first down in those situations.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:16 PM ^

Felt I had to comment since my mug is featured in this post.

I respect Brian's affinity for stats and numbers, but I think this is one of those cases in which they only paint part of the picture.

If he wants to believe that luck is the primary factor that explains the turnover discrepency between RR's teams and team 132, and that "if the season were played 1,000 times" then they would both be a lot closer to the mean, than that's fine. But I don't buy it.  Teams practice turnover drills and swarming to the football for a reason.





March 28th, 2012 at 2:22 PM ^

But every team (or at least a huge percentage of them) practices turnover drills and swarming to the football.  It's not like Hoke and Mattison discovered this brilliant new idea of "try to get guys to the ball to force and recover fumbles."  Even if you want to say they place more emphasis on it than most, they were number one in the country by a mile at fumble recovery percentage.  That is incredibly hard to explain with simply "coach guys to go after the ball."  

Seattle Maize

March 28th, 2012 at 2:28 PM ^

Agree with you completley.  Football is a game of technique and intensity and when you get 11 guys running to the football and playing with great fundamentals then good things will happen.  Maybe you will or maybe you wont get as many turnovers, but you will play great defense and consistently great defense leads to championship caliber teams.  


March 28th, 2012 at 3:22 PM ^

... but I wouldn't say that the difference between Team 131 and Team 132 in turnovers was luck at all.  The difference in how many available fumbles Team 131 recovered and how many Team 132 recovered - that is luck.

Put another way, forcing fumbles (and avoiding them as a ballcarrier) is a skill in which players/teams have different levels of ability.  Recovering the madly bouncing oddly shaped ball is not such a skill.  (Put that way to forestall the inevitable "Mike Martin is better at that than you are, so it must be a skill" commentary; sure he is, but he's not noticeably different than Jerel Worthy, and Michigan is not better at that than Michigan State, year in, year out.)

Team 133 has a competent coaching staff and a full year for them to work, so it's reasonable to expect we'll give up the ball less.  It's not reasonable to expect we'll continue to pick it up every time it's on the ground.

My biggest worry is that the defense will take a big step back without Martin and Van Bergen.  Those guys probably make my personal-all-time-Michigan-defense (i.e. since 1977); it will be hard to replace them.



March 28th, 2012 at 2:57 PM ^

I agree completely that Michigan was very fortunate to be 11-2. Very fortunate.

It would make your argument stronger if you gave the other side its due, however. The Iowa game was clearly a close loss. There's no point in waving your hands in the air and denying it.

And while MSU dominated Michigan in many respects, that game was close also. It maybe shouldn't have been but it was.

They kept every game close (except when they blew the other team out) and a couple fell their way.


March 28th, 2012 at 2:59 PM ^

I'm fairly certain Brian was saying all of last year that our turnover luck would turn back at some point and it never did.  So until that actually happens, I'm going to believe in endless sunshine and gold poop.


March 28th, 2012 at 3:08 PM ^

"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."

Maybe I've got reading comprehension fail, but I don't understand Brain's reasoning here. It WAS inspiring precisely BECAUSE of "...massive transition costs and operating with a slap-dash, attrition-ravaged roster."


March 28th, 2012 at 3:21 PM ^

My guess is that he's talking about the fact that despite posting an 11-2 record with some nice wins, it didn't *feel* like the type of 11-2 season people are used to.  It felt like a 9-4 season with some massive breaks.  Heck, I think Carr's 2005 team with baby Hart, Avant, and Watson would have probably given last year's team a run for its money.

But yeah, the wording felt a little off.


March 28th, 2012 at 5:23 PM ^

I'm talking more about other teams (not just UM) in recent years.  In 2009, OSU went 11-2 That team then went 12-1 the next year (but stripped of those wins).  But in 2009, that team was light-years ahead of this team on both sides of the ball.  Hell, MSU went 11-2 in 2010 and that team was better than last year's squad.

When UM won the title in 1997, that felt like an elite team.  Same with squads in 2006 and 2003 (that squad was one of the more underrated ones in recent memory).  Last year's team felt like a 8-9 win squad with luck.  I know people here freak out if you don't agree that UM rocks, but last year was a great story but not a great team.  I'm fine with that.  This year's squad will probably be better from a talent perspective, but unless they pull out another 75% recovery on fumbles, I expect them to have a worse record.


March 29th, 2012 at 11:59 AM ^

No matter the talent level, 11 win seasons are rare things, so predicting them to win less and being right wouldn't be a shocking result.  I'm sure you can come up with some 10 and maybe even 9 win teams that had better overall talent, and maybe played a tougher schedule. But it's what you do with luck when it presents itself.  I can fully see us with a worse  record than last season....just as much as I can see us having a better chance playing for the Big Ten Title; at the same time.


March 28th, 2012 at 3:54 PM ^

I get your point (and Brian's, I guess) but not all great seasons feature blowouts in every game. Here's Ohio State in 2002:

OSU 23, Cincinnati 19
OSU 27, Northwestern 16
OSU 19, Wisconsin 14
OSU 13, Penn State 7
OSU 10, Purdue 6
OSU 23, Illinois 16 (OT)
OSU 14, Michigan 9
OSU 31  Miami 24 (2 OT)

If I recall correctly, their win over Illinois was one of the more improbable victories in all of college football that year.


March 28th, 2012 at 5:28 PM ^

And that OSU team was probably the weakest NC team in recent memory.  I don't disagree about close games and less-than-dominant squads on the field, but OSU always played games close to the vest (pun not intended) except the year they let Smith air it out a bit.  So year, that Illinois game was silly, but those scores look like Tresselball to me.  Unless Hokeball is recover 3/4 of fumbles and get turnovers and Hail Mary flips on fake FGs by Drew Dileo to a backup center, I'm not sure how much we can compare the two teams.

MI Expat NY

March 28th, 2012 at 3:52 PM ^

All he's saying is that you can look at certain teams that go 11-2 and say "Wow, that was one heck of a team, surprised they lost twice."  You can look at others that go 11-2 or better and say, "they're good, yes, but not really THAT good."  Most impartial viewers would probably have considered last year's team to be more the latter than the former, which is weird considering we beat the three teams that in almost every season would be considered our toughest opponents (ND, OSU, and BCS opponent).  


March 28th, 2012 at 3:16 PM ^

If I was Brian, I wouldn't be going around posting this type of stuff while also telling us he'll be immobilized and at his house following surgery.  Not saying people have "accidents", but bloggers sure do get hit in the knees with bats and lead pipes a lot.