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Turnovers Made Tennessee Look Worse Than They Really Were

Saturday was bad, but how bad was it really?

Florida v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Absolutely no one in Knoxville is happy with the 47-21 loss to the Florida Gators on Saturday night. It doesn’t change the commitment to Jeremy Pruitt or the team, but it provides quite the gut check for those thinking that the team would at least make it close for four quarters.

After blowout losses, fans typically look for a rational explanation. Perhaps it was the coaches being completely unprepared? Maybe it was the refs shifting momentum with bogus calls? There has to be an obvious and tangible source of bad play, right?

The truth is, football doesn’t work that way. Coaching, officiating, bad strategy, all of these bear certain levels of responsibility in losses. But Tennessee’s coaches honestly had fine gameplans against Florida—good enough to win the game if they could have executed.

Yet Tennessee’s biggest negative on Saturday night was turnover luck.

The Volunteers coughed up the ball six times over the course of the game and accumulated a minus-5 turnover margin. That’s almost unheard of in Power-5 games between evenly matched opponents in non-monsoon weather. They turned it over four times in one half, three times in their own red zone, and once on a touchback. My intention is not to traumatize Volunteer fans, but to make sure that everyone understands just how bad of a situation that puts the team in.

Here’s the part that frustrates those wishing for the aforementioned rational explanations: turnovers are a luck-based stat.

SBNation’s own Bill Connelly explains it better than I could (math gives me heart palpitations):

The concepts are pretty simple: Over time, you’re going to recover about 50 percent of all fumbles, but in a given year, you might recover 70 percent, or you might recover 30. The same goes with passes defensed; on average, you can expect to intercept about 22 percent of the passes you defense. (Passes defensed = interceptions + break-ups.) This is a bit mushier a concept ... but over time a particularly butter-fingered year will be balanced by a sticky one.

The proliferation of sideline objects glorifying turnovers has distracted from the truth about them. They can’t really be controlled, high turnover margins can’t really be replicated, and coaches can’t really teach it to their players. When Miami swings around their turnover chain after a fumble or interception, it’s a great spectacle that gets both their team and their fans fired up. But beyond that it’s not actually affecting anything.

(As a side note, there is one potential exception to this rule. That’d be Jeremy Pruitt himself.)

That’s not to say that all turnovers are created equal. Coaches can teach proper carrying technique, and quarterbacks especially can reduce bad decision making. But think of how many plays you’ve witnessed where the ball took an awkward bounce and ended up in the hands of a defender. Tipped passes, bad snaps, muffed kicks, etc. Virtually none of that can really be controlled.

Turnovers might not even have that much connection to winning/losing. It’s a chicken-or-egg type situation where winning teams tend to not cough it up as much as losing teams.

That being said, absolutely every coach and analyst will tell you the same thing about field position. If you can start drives in an opponent’s territory, your chances of scoring go up tremendously.

If you can start a drive inside a team’s 25-yard line? Not scoring would be very unusual.

So Tennessee went down 14-0 early because of Jarrett Guarantano’s turnovers. One of those was an odd strip sack where the ball went right into the linemen, while the other was simply a great play by a defender who jumped a screen. Both times the Gators started their drives in fantastic position to score.

It only got worse from there. Tight end Austin Pope had the worst play of the night when he went 54 yards on 4th down and managed to fumble the ball out of the endzone, giving up possession when Tennessee desperately needed the momentum.

Shawn Shamburger put the icing on the cake when Tennessee received the second-half kickoff and Shamburger put it on the ground. It took Florida exactly one play to score, on a 19-yard scamper.

Two more turnovers happened later in the game, but those occurred after Tennessee went down by 30 points.

Turnovers have a funny way of completely skewing final scores. Florida is not 26 points better than Tennessee and most knowledgable Florida observers would agree with that conclusion. The raw numbers support it too, since Florida outgained Tennessee by just 24 total yards (387 vs. 363). Put another way, if you subtracted the three touchdowns where the drives started inside the Tennessee 25-yard line, you get a much more understandable 26-21 final.

On 7 of the other 12 Florida drives, Tennessee’s defense allowed less than 30 yards and forced a punt. Another drive ended in a forced fumble. The big plays hurt, and Pruitt will need to preach consistency, but the Vols looked considerably better on that side of the ball.

Ifs, ands, or butts won’t make the loss feel any better. At the end of the day, Tennessee lost big to one of their rivals on a massive recruiting weekend. The team needs to regroup and the coaches need to make sure that the locker room remains intact.

It’s still valuable to put Saturday’s struggles in context. Tennessee showed flashes of a better team beneath all their mistakes, and unless you expect them to have a minus-5 turnover margin in the rest of their games, they’ll probably look better against the final stretch of their schedule.

Now, the next three contests against Top-10 teams? Well...maybe Tennessee should start wearing some four-leaf clovers.