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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The effects of declining turnovers in college football

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Teams are turning the ball over far less often now than they were a decade ago.

Oklahoma v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The classic perception of the spread offense in football is one of chaos. Teams operate at a faster tempo. They chuck the ball around more. They play fast and loose with possessions.

With more programs adopting the spread, it stands to reason that the sport would take a turn towards the unruly. Instead, we’ve actually witnessed more order in one key regard: turnovers.

According to data from cfbstats.com, the national median in turnovers per game for college football teams has dropped 20% since 2009. The decline has been fairly steady during that 11-year period, as the median rate fell from 1.77 turnovers per game to 1.42 in 2019.

Teams cut their interceptions thrown per game from a median of one in ‘09 to 0.77 last year, a 23% dip. The median of fumbles per game fell about 21% from 0.79 to 0.62.

Turnovers are vitally important to deciding the outcome of college football games. ESPN stats guru Bill Connelly estimates that each turnover gained is worth roughly five points to a team’s final score at the end of a contest. Turnovers are also wildly unpredictable. From a statistical standpoint, scant evidence exists to suggest coaches can make their players more proficient at accruing more of them.

As such, we shouldn’t get too carried away jumping to conclusions about what this may mean broadly for the sport. But let’s try to work through some of the questions raised by this trend.

Why are turnovers down?

You tell me. Football is a complex game. The trend could come from any number of factors working in combination.

Perhaps it’s a matter of statistical noise?

Maybe. However, the rate of decline looks significant to me, especially considering how steady it has been.

Fine. How about a guess as to what is going on?

OK. First, I’ll throw one theory at you that has nothing to do with how the game is played: Instant replay is affecting outcomes of turnover rulings. It’s possible that as technology has grown more sophisticated, we’re finding that previous referees’ rulings of turnovers were too liberal.

In other words, officials are now nullifying undeserved turnovers at a higher rate because they have better tools to make sound judgments.

That’s anticlimactic.

Is that a question? Whatever. Here’s another idea that I give more credence: Passing attacks have grown more precise in the spread era.

In many ways, the spread has made decisions easier for quarterbacks. Offensive coordinators, for example, can scheme up ways to isolate favorable one-on-one matchups and better exploit holes in coverage. QBs are throwing quicker routes. Meanwhile, tempo forces defenses to simplify their calls.

It would make sense for INTs to fall in that context.

Interestingly, the changes in the game that would make teams less prone to throwing picks haven’t robbed their passing games of any explosiveness. The national median in average yards per attempt was 7.5 in ‘19, up from 7.1 in ‘09.

That applies to INTs. What about fumbles?

Show me where I said it explained everything. Anyway, I don’t have a great answer there.

One possibility, though, is that factors are simply conspiring to degrade the overall quality of defensive play. The spread arguably puts an emphasis on having your most physically gifted prospects on the offensive side of the ball. Offenses are fielding quicker, elusive personnel, so teams are deploying smaller, less physical lineups to match them. New rules designed to improve player safety are changing how tacklers engage their targets.

Frankly, all of that might play some part in the downturn of both INTs and fumbles.

So what does all of this mean for the sport as a whole?

Good question.

You could make a case that fewer turnovers hurts outmatched teams. Winning the turnover battle is generally seen as a must if a team wants to pull off an upset. (Note, for instance, how many times the Oklahoma Sooners have ended up with negative turnover margin in losses to underdogs in recent memory.)

Using Connelly’s estimate that a turnover is worth roughly five points to a team, a final turnover margin of plus-two or plus-three could make all the difference between winning and losing to an underdog. If the superior teams are better at taking care of the ball now, that might cut down on the volatility of the sport.