At a Kansas football practice earlier this month, I noticed that every position group was working on a drill that related to turnovers.
Defensive tackles were working on falling on fumbles. Defensive ends worked on stripping the ball on an outside rush. The cornerbacks attempted to strip the ball away from a ball-carrier when double-teaming on a tackle. And so on.
On the other end, KU’s offensive players were working on turnover prevention. The running backs and wide receivers tried to secure the ball while two defenders worked on stripping it away. The tight ends held on to the football after getting banged with pads.
I had never remembered seeing so much work specifically on turnovers during any college football practices I’d seen. So I asked KU coach Turner Gill if he had any specific goals in mind when it came to turnovers.
“I think we’re probably like most people. Averaging one per game (on offense). That’s counting on us playing 14 games,” Gill said. “Hopefully, we have 14 turnovers from an offensive standpoint. Defensively, hopefully you get into the 30 range — 30-plus turnovers in a season. Then you’re playing some outstanding defense.”
There’s a lot to talk about here. How did the Jayhawks fare with turnovers last year? How do teams fare when they only turn it over 14 times or less in a season? How do teams fare when they force 30 or more turnovers per year? How do teams fare when both of these instances occur together? Can forcing/preventing turnovers be taught? I dug into some of the numbers to see what we should expect from the 2010 Kansas Jayhawks regarding turnovers.
Let’s start by looking at the Jayhawks’ turnover numbers from last year.
In 2009, KU forced 17 turnovers and lost 22 for a negative-5 turnover margin. The Jayhawks’ 17 turnovers forced were the lowest in the Big 12. KU also mustered just seven interceptions, which ranked 110th out of 120 Division-I teams.
Let’s take a look at KU’s turnover numbers compared to other Big 12 teams.
Texas (+9) — 13-1 record
Kansas State (+7) — 6-6
Nebraska (+5) — 10-4
Oklahoma (+4) — 8-5
Missouri (+4) — 8-5
Iowa State (+4) — 7-6
Oklahoma State (0) — 9-4
Texas A&M (-2) — 6-7
Kansas (-5) — 5-7
Baylor (-5) — 4-8
Texas Tech (-6) — 9-4
Colorado (-6) —3-9
In case you were wondering, the Big 12 teams that had a positive turnover margin or a turnover margin of zero posted a combined record of 61-31 (.663). The Big 12 teams with a negative turnover margin combined to go 27-35 (.435).
Obviously, better teams have better players who will force more turnovers on defense and limit turnovers on offense, so we can’t say turnovers “caused” teams to be good or bad. Still, I think the numbers show that turnovers are an important statistic to consider when trying to predict the future record of a team.
I appreciated Gill’s honesty when he talked about wanting to force 30 or more turnovers in a season while keeping his team’s own turnovers to 14 or fewer.
Make no mistake: Both of those are lofty goals in and of themselves.
Let’s take a look at the teams that forced 30 or more turnovers last year.
Ohio 37 (9-5 record)
Texas 37 (13-1)
Boise State 35 (14-0)
Ohio State 35 (11-2)
Air Force 34 (8-5)
East Carolina 34 (9-5)
Rutgers 34 (9-4)
Middle Tennessee State 33 (10-3)
Iowa State 32 (7-6)
Alabama 31 (14-0)
Arkansas 30 (8-5)
Clemson 30 (9-5)
Houston 30 (10-4)
Iowa 30 (11-2)
Northwestern 30 (8-5)
Oklahoma 30 (8-5)
Oklahoma State 30 (9-4)
UCLA 30 (7-6)
In all, 18 teams forced 30 or more turnovers last season. All of them had winning records.* Those teams combined to go 174-67 (.722). Also note that the two teams in last year’s BCS Championship Game (Texas and Alabama) made this list.
* — It’s important to note that every team above played in at least 13 games, making it easier to get to the 30-forced-turnover plateau. Still, I chose to use turnovers forced instead of turnovers forced per game to stay in line with Gill’s stated goal of 30 turnovers or more in a season.
Let’s take a look at those teams that turned it over 14 times or less in 2009.
Cincinnati 10 (12-1 record)
Oregon State 11 (8-5)
Air Force 12 (8-5)
Alabama 12 (14-0)
Louisiana Tech 13 (4-8)
UAB 13 (5-7)
Boise State 14 (14-0)
LSU 14 (9-4)
Navy 14 (10-4)
Notre Dame 14 (6-6)
Pittsburgh 14 (10-3)
Rutgers 14 (9-4)
Wyoming 14 (7-6)
These 13 teams combined to go 116-53 (.686). Louisiana Tech and UAB were the only teams that posted losing records with 14 turnovers or fewer.
There were six teams above that posted one turnover per game or less. Those teams combined to go 66-15 (.815).
So which teams accomplished both of Gill’s goals last year? Here they are:
Air Force — 34 forced, 12 lost (8-5 record)
Rutgers — 34 forced, 14 lost (9-4)
Boise State — 35 forced, 14 lost (14-0)
Alabama — 31 forced, 12 lost (14-0)
So, of the teams that reached Gill’s “30-14” turnover ratio, half of them went undefeated. I’m sure Gill would take those odds.
Those four teams combined to go 45-9 (.833) last season.
I know what you’re thinking. The numbers that Gill talked about with turnovers are unreasonable, right?
Here’s the funny thing: Gill has coached a team that has accomplished that goal. And so has former KU coach Mark Mangino.
In 2008, Gill’s Buffalo team forced 33 turnovers while committing only 14. His team went 8-6 that year — his best season as a head coach.
Let’s take a look at KU’s turnover numbers over the last four years under Mangino.
2006 (-5) — 28 turnovers gained, 33 turnovers lost (6-6 record)
2007 (+21) — 35 turnovers gained, 14 turnovers lost (12-1)
2008 (+3) — 25 turnovers gained, 22 turnovers lost (8-5)
2009 (-5) — 17 turnovers gained, 22 turnovers lost (5-7)
Is it any surprise which year KU was the best in turnovers? Obviously, the 2007 season was greatly helped by such a drastic turnover margin.
Also, those looking to explain the Jayhawks’ late-season skid in 2009 might not need to look any further than turnovers.
Tack on eight more defensive turnovers last year (the same number of turnovers KU gained in 2008), and you can bet KU would have won at least one of the final seven games that it lost.
Here’s the big question, though. Can turnovers be taught?
Here’s what Gill had to say:
“We’re going to emphasize protecting the ball with ball security and then take away the ball defensively. That’s what I believe in doing, and I’m firm believer that you get what you practice and you get what you emphasize.”
But by simply running drills that work on forcing/preventing turnovers, can the coach expect the Jayhawks to be markedly improved in that area in 2010?
The answer here is a bit fuzzy.
Here are Buffalo’s turnover numbers in the four years under Gill.
2006 (-4) — 20 turnovers gained, 24 turnovers lost (2-10 record)
2007 (+3) — 19 turnovers gained, 16 turnovers lost (5-7)
2008 (+19) — 33 turnovers gained, 14 turnovers lost (8-6)
2009 (-7) — 18 turnovers gained, 25 turnovers lost (5-7)
If Gill placed an emphasis on turnovers last year at Buffalo, it didn’t show up in the statistics. Not only did the Bulls force just one more turnover than the Jayhawks did in 2009, they also lost three more turnovers than KU.
College football analyst Phil Steele bases many of his preseason predictions on turnover numbers from the previous year. He has a saying: “Turnovers=Turnaround.” Looking at KU, there might be some room for improvement from last year simply by turning a negative turnover margin into a positive one.
All spring, Gill has talked about putting in a quarterback that will limit mistakes and turnovers. He’s also preached putting playmakers on the field and has run drills that have forced KU’s players to work on turnovers.
It might sound boring, but playing a conservative style that limits turnovers on offense while forcing them on defense might be the easiest way for Gill to get the Jayhawks back to six wins and bowl eligibility in 2010.