Here’s an obvious statement: turnovers can kill your chances of winning a football game. However, until I did some research, I didn’t realize just how closely related the turnover margin was to determining the winner of a football game.
Perhaps you’ve noticed (but then again, perhaps you haven’t) that Cal has won the turnover battle 4 times this year, and the Bears won all 4 of those games. The other win, against Tennessee, featured one turnover for each team. The 2 times Cal lost the turnover battle? Yep, 2 losses. Nothing shocking here, but I thought I’d investigate further.
Specifically, I looked at every game played by Pac-10 teams this year — 21 conference games and 29 non-conference games. These 50 games included just 11 in which a team lost the turnover battle but still managed to win the game - just 22% of the time. And in 9 of those 11 games, the turnover battle was close — the winner recovered only one fewer turnover than it gave up.
Of course, turnovers can be overcome by good teams, especially when there’s a clear disparity in talent levels. Of the teams that lost the turnover battle but won the war, USC shows up 3 times, beating Idaho and the Washington schools while giving up more turnovers than they got each time. Arizona coughed up more turnovers than I-AA Northern Arizona, but still managed to put away the Lumberjacks. Arizona State took out both Colorado and Washington State despite a -1 turnover margin, and Oregon blew away Stanford despite 3 turnovers (although it should be noted that those 3 turnovers played a big part in 4 2nd quarter Stanford touchdowns that gave Stanford a highly unlikely halftime lead).
The two teams that managed to overcome a -2 turnover margin? Well, USC slept through its defeat of Idaho, giving up the rock 3 times in a game that should never have been that close, and Oregon State beat Utah in the season opener despite giving up the ball twice and not recovering a single turnover. Of course, Oregon State was helped by injuries to Utah’s starting quarterback and running back, whose backups performed so anemically (59 yards passing on 24 attempts, 24 yards rushing on 14 carries) that Utah had no chance to capitalize on such turnovers.
Looking for a big upset? Look for a big turnover margin. Note the following games (the number of turnovers recovered follows each team name, and the winner is in bold):
Oregon 4 @ Michigan 1
Oregon State 2 @ Cincinnati 7
UCLA 1 @ Utah 5
Notre Dame 7 @ UCLA 0
Stanford 5 @ USC 1
Oregon State 2 @ Arizona State 6
Turn the ball over 5 times and even Stanford can beat you. Turn it over 7 times, and even the worst Notre Dame team ever will thump you at home. In fact, of all of these games, only the Stanford-USC game was even close.
OK, so we all know that -4 turnover margins are bad. Still, here’s something else: in the 50 games examined, not once did the winning team give up the ball 4 or more times, as Cal did at UCLA last Saturday, and only 7 winners (14%) gave up as many as 3 turnovers, which Cal did against Oregon State. In two of those games, the losing team gave up the ball 5 times (UCLA @ Oregon State and Washington State v. Idaho), and in the other 5 games, all discussed several paragraphs ago, the turnover margin was close and the clearly more talented team was able to overcome the deficit.
Still, despite the last two games, Cal still leads the Pac-10 with 18 turnovers recovered and a +7 turnover margin, and their 11 turnovers given up is tied for the fewest in the conference with Oregon, Arizona State, and Stanford. (Really? Stanford leads the conference in something?) This should give us hope going forward that Cal remains a team that is both able to take care of the ball on offense and create takeaways on defense. If this is indeed the case, I like the Bears chances to win Pac-10 games down the stretch (especially against USC, which has coughed up the ball 17 times this season and has a -4 turnover margin).