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Fumbles, Turnovers, and Winning, Oh My

Tennessee leads the nation in fumbles, but being loose with the football hasn’t stopped several of the nation’s best teams over the last few years.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Last week did much to dispel the notion that the Vols were simply lucky and not good, affirmed by Tennessee staying at #9 in the AP poll after their seven turnover, double overtime loss at #8 Texas A&M.

Leaving the “lucky” narrative behind helps us look at the numbers that helped fuel it in an easier light. Because those numbers are still fascinating.

Tennessee’s seven against the Aggies were a school record. As we mentioned in the postgame, it broke the record of six held by the 1951 Vols (in the 1952 Sugar Bowl) and the 1997 Vols in the SEC Championship Game. You would think the teams owning the school records for most turnovers would be those with errant quarterbacks and/or generally sloppy play. But the ‘51 Vols were consensus national champions, and the ‘97 Vols still won that SEC title game 30-29 over Auburn thanks to Peyton Manning and incredible second half defense. So the only Tennessee teams to turn it over 6+ times in a single game are two of the best teams in school history and Team 120, which still has that label on the table.

To earn it, Tennessee clearly has to stop putting the ball on the ground so often. The Vols have fumbled 21 times in six games, most in the country. In second place is, you guessed it, Virginia Tech. The Hokies lost five to the Vols at Bristol and have fumbled 17 times total in just five games this season, just slightly behind the Vols in fumbles per game. Second place in total fumbles for teams playing six games so far is Utah with 16, an impressive five behind the Vols.

And all three of those teams are currently ranked. Louisville is 122nd nationally in fumbles. Alabama is 108th.

Obviously fumbling is never good, but in the last few years you can find plenty of the best teams in college football ranking 100+ in balls in the ground:

  • 2015: #15 North Carolina (120), #2 Clemson (116), #10 Ole Miss (111)
  • 2014: #3 TCU (114), #1 Ohio State (106)
  • 2013: #2 Auburn (120), #9 Oregon (120), #13 Baylor (117), #8 Clemson (109)

So yes, the Vols would like to not lead the country in fumbles and not put the ball on the ground 3.5 times per game. But as long as you can avoid being unlucky in failing to recover a high percentage of those, you can still be just fine. Of those nine Top 15 teams to rank 100+ in total fumbles the last three years, only 2015 North Carolina (67%), 2015 Ole Miss (64%), 2013 Baylor (64%), and 2013 Auburn (63%) were “lucky” to recover more than 60% of their own fumbles. The Vols are currently recovering 62% of their own fumbles.

One other historical note of interest: Tennessee’s 21 fumbles in six games are more than the Vols have dropped in the entire season for the last four years. The last time Tennessee fumbled more than 21 times was in 2011, when the Vols put the ball on the ground 26 times in a dozen games. That team lost Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray to injury and then lost to LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas by a combined 104 points before becoming the only Vol squad to lose to Kentucky since 1984. When playing without Bray I think it’s safe to say they were the worst Tennessee squad of the last three decades.

And they led the nation in fumble recovery percentage, getting the ball back an astounding 77% of the time. Think about how much worse 2011 could have been had they not recovered 20 of their 26 fumbles.

Everybody fumbles, including some of the best teams of the last four years. The Vols need better ball security, but they won’t go the rest of the way without putting it on the ground. They haven’t gotten to this point by being lucky. And as long as they can avoid being unlucky like they were at A&M, I don’t think we’ll be talking about this stat the rest of the way home.