Turning the Corner on Turnovers: Perspective is Everything

One of the more interesting changes to the Tennessee Volunteers this year is found in the turnover statistics.  Quickly now, and without peeking, answer the following questions to yourself.  (Nobody's going to ask how many you know, so don't bother Googling; the answers are below the jump.)

  • How many interceptions has Jonathan Crompton thrown in 2009?
  • How many interceptions did Jonathan Crompton throw in 2008?
  • What was Tennessee's turnover margin in 2009?  In 2008?
  • True/False:  Tennessee is on pace to recover more fumbles in 2009 than 2008.
  • True/False:  Tennessee is on pace to lose more fumbles in 2009 than 2008.

Courtesy of cfbstats.com, here is a table that summarizes all of the information for the answers to the questions:

Untitled Document
Fum. Gain   Int. Gain   Total Gain   Fum. Lost   Int. Lost   Total Lost   Margin
2009 10 6 16 4 10 14 2
(Projected 2009) (15) (9) (24) (6) (15) (21) (3)
2008 3 17 20 9 9 18 2
Current Difference 7 -11 -4 -5 1 -4 0
*  5 of Tennessee's 9 interceptions in 2008 were thrown by Jonathan Crompton (4 by Stephens).


Jonathan Crompton has thrown twice as many interceptions in 2009 as he did in 2008.  Yes, he was pulled for several games while Nick Stephens started, and the passing offense was shut down after Wyoming.  Still, there are four games left in 2009, which mitigates that difference somewhat.  For all intents, Crompton has been more interception-prolific this year than last year.  In both years, a few interceptions were due to receivers running wrong routes.  Also, last year, the thingfense had Crompton throwing over 40 times in some games, increasing the opportunity.

It really speaks to the patience of the coaching staff that they stuck with him through the early troubles.  At the time, that decision was purely speculative; now it's hindsight.  They rolled the dice and it's working.

The turnover margin for both years is at +2.  With four games to go, Tennessee has a chance to improve on that turnover margin.  The only reason that last year's margin was positive was the 17 interceptions tallied by the defense, which far outpaces this year.  More in a bit.

Tennessee already has recovered more fumbles in 2009 than 2008.  If there's any indication of the difference in a Monte defense, it's the way the defenders hit the ball carrier.  What UT did in interceptions last year, they're doing in fumble recoveries this year.  One of Monte's scheme philosophies is to get defenders in position to make those hits immediately after a receiver catches the ball.  Janzen Jackson, anybody?

Barring disaster, Tennessee will not lose more fumbles this year.  This is twofold:  for one, the offense actually knows what they're doing and we're not watching the quarterback plow into the running back on a handoff; for two, the ball carriers are doing a better job of securing the football, reducing the fumble risk.  While fumble recoveries tend to be fairly random, the acts of causing fumbles and preventing fumbles are skillsets, and UT has improved on both skills.

Now, about those turnovers:

Looking a little more closely, here are tables showing the turnovers by game for the last two years.  They are cut wholecloth from cfbstats.com, which I don't normally do, but there are only so many ways to present the information, and very few are good:

Untitled Document
Date   Opponent   Fum. Gain   Int. Gain   Total Gain   Fum. Lost   Int. Lost   Total Lost   Margin
9/1/2008 @ UCLA  0 4 4 1 1 2 2
9/13/2008 UAB  0 3 3 0 2 2 1
9/20/2008 1 Florida  0 0 0 2 1 3 -3
9/27/2008 @ Auburn  0 1 1 1 0 1 0
10/4/2008 Northern Ill.  0 1 1 2 0 2 -1
10/11/2008 @ 13 Georgia  0 2 2 0 0 0 2
10/18/2008 Mississippi St.  0 3 3 0 0 0 3
10/25/2008 6 Alabama  1 0 1 0 0 0 1
11/1/2008 @ South Carolina  0 1 1 2 1 3 -2
11/8/2008 Wyoming  1 0 1 0 2 2 -1
11/22/2008 @ Vanderbilt  1 2 3 1 2 3 0
11/29/2008 Kentucky  0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Totals  3 17 20 9 9 18 2


Date   Opponent   Fum. Gain   Int. Gain   Total Gain   Fum. Lost   Int. Lost   Total Lost   Margin
9/5/2009 Western Ky.  2 1 3 1 2 3 0
9/12/2009 UCLA  1 0 1 1 3 4 -3
9/19/2009 @ 1 Florida  1 1 2 0 2 2 0
9/26/2009 Ohio  1 1 2 1 1 2 0
10/3/2009 Auburn  0 0 0 1 0 1 -1
10/10/2009 Georgia  1 2 3 0 1 1 2
10/24/2009 @ 3 Alabama  1 0 1 0 1 1 0
10/31/2009 South Carolina  3 1 4 0 0 0 4
Totals  10 6 16 4 10 14 2


In 2009, Tennessee lost the two games (UCLA Bruins and Auburn Tigers) where they lost the turnover margin.  Against both the Florida Gators and the Alabama Crimson Tide, the turnover margin was even and the games were close at the end.  Against the Georgia Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Vols won the turnover margin and won the games walking away.  The perceived improvement in Tennessee's play has correlated very strongly with their turnovers on offense:  more turnovers --> poorer offensive performance.  In October, the Vols never lost more than one turnover per game, and lost none against South Carolina.  They have taken away the ball eight times in that same span - better than 2:1 in favor.

If you want any further indication as to how bad Tennessee's offense was in 2008 (I know, you don't, but just hear me out), try to correlate turnovers to wins and losses.  You can't.  Look at the UCLA game, where Tennessee had a +2 turnover margin and couldn't win.  Four interceptions in one half, and Tennessee couldn't build a substantive lead.  2008 is the exception rather than the rule, and is an exception traceable to the fantastic problems experienced on offense.  (By the way, how in the world did the Kentucky Wildcats game end without any turnovers on either side?)

Moral of the story:

The Florida types will hate to hear this, but it's very true:  control the turnover margins and your chances of winning are greatly improved.  There's a reason the NFL plays to avoid turnovers:  it matters.  A lot.  Is it boring?  Only if it's not your team; otherwise, winning is never boring.  This is why coaches - regardless of system - reduce risk.  The consequences of a lost gamble are greater than the potential rewards.  That's just smart coaching.

Looking forward, this may also be a reason that Nu'Keese Richardson saw limited action against South Carolina; his propensity to drop the ball on punts is a turnover waiting to happen.  I don't know how practices are going in that regard, but if ball-catching isn't improving (and maybe ball security after the catch; I don't know), he may represent a liability.

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