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Turning Turnover Luck Into Points

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Some teams are just lucky, how does that show up on the scoreboard?

Lucky bastard
Lucky bastard
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

One of the primary tenets of football stat analytics is that of turnover luck. A team has very little control on whether a fumbled football is recovered. Additionally, a team's interception rate is highly volatile, indicating it is not a skill either. Turning pass break ups into interceptions is primarily luck, not skill.

Now, people tend to get hung up on the word "luck," and I agree it is a loaded term. I'm only using it for lack of a better term, but the idea is the same: a team's fumble recovery and interception rates are unpredictable each season, and bear little resemblance to the previous season. I don't want to relitigate this issue, but instead find out that, if true, what does this mean going forward. How much of a team's success last year was due to luck, and therefore more likely to regress?

The first thing we need to do is find the average recovery and interception rates. Last season, the average team fumbled the ball 20.21 times and defenses recovered the ball 7.57 times. That's a 37.46% fumble recovery rate. An average SEC team in 2015 lost 37.46% of its fumbles.*

*This is actually an outlier. The average in 2014 was 45.86%, and 50.78% in 2013. I don't know why it's trending down, but I'm not using absolute figures, I'm using the 2015 environment.

Interception rate is a lot more steady. Last year, defenses intercepted 19.14% of the passes they defended. The average team defended 63.07 passes and had 12.07 picks. The 2014 rate was 21.44%, so we're looking at a fairly constant twenty percent rate. Still, we'll use the 2015 average rate of 19.44%.

We can now look at which teams were the most turnover lucky with one caveat. There's nowhere I can find that tracks pass defended for offenses, only for defense. So we are missing how lucky quarterbacks are, and how often their passes defended turn into interceptions.

First, a quick look at each team's turnover rates:

Int

PD

INT/PD

Fum

Fum Rec

Recovery %

Alabama

19

99

19.19%

25

8

32.00%

Arkansas

11

54

20.37%

14

7

50.00%

Auburn

14

67

20.90%

20

5

25.00%

Florida

14

68

20.59%

26

11

42.31%

Georgia

12

45

26.67%

22

10

45.45%

Kentucky

11

59

18.64%

19

9

47.37%

LSU

10

57

17.54%

20

7

35.00%

Mississippi

15

88

17.05%

24

8

33.33%

Mississippi State

13

68

19.12%

13

1

7.69%

Missouri

9

53

16.98%

18

7

38.89%

South Carolina

12

42

28.57%

20

8

40.00%

Tennessee

12

65

18.46%

16

7

43.75%

Texas A&M

11

58

18.97%

23

7

30.43%

Vanderbilt

6

60

10.00%

23

11

47.83%

Most teams hover towards the SEC average in interception rate. Only three teams had an INT/PD rate lower than 18%, and only Mizzou dropped below 17% which would be wiped out by rounding. LSU is one of the unluckiest teams when it comes to interceptions, which should make you feel good going into next season, though it does run against the whole DBU thing.

Fumble recovery rates are far more spread out, though only one defense even recovered 50% of fumbles forced, Arkansas. Everyone else was below 50%, and Mississippi St. bottomed out with some miserable fumble luck of just 7.69% recovery rate.

Now, let's see their turnovers forced with average luck.

TO Forced

Int

PBU

PD

Avg Int

Int Luck

Fum

Fum Rec

Avg Rec

Fum Luck

Georgia

12

33

45

8.61

3.39

22

10

8.24

1.76

South Carolina

12

30

42

8.04

3.96

20

8

7.49

0.51

Arkansas

11

43

54

10.34

0.66

14

7

5.24

1.76

Florida

14

54

68

13.01

0.99

26

11

9.74

1.26

Kentucky

11

48

59

11.29

-0.29

19

9

7.12

1.88

Tennessee

12

53

65

12.44

-0.44

16

7

5.99

1.01

Missouri

9

44

53

10.14

-1.14

18

7

6.74

0.26

Alabama

19

80

99

18.95

0.05

25

8

9.36

-1.36

Auburn

14

53

67

12.82

1.18

20

5

7.49

-2.49

LSU

10

47

57

10.91

-0.91

20

7

7.49

-0.49

Texas A&M

11

47

58

11.10

-0.10

23

7

8.61

-1.61

Mississippi

15

73

88

16.84

-1.84

24

8

8.99

-0.99

Vanderbilt

6

54

60

11.48

-5.48

23

11

8.61

2.39

Mississippi State

13

55

68

13.01

-0.01

13

1

4.87

-3.87

Georgia was lucky as hell when it came to forcing turnovers, picking up over five turnovers what an SEC team with average luck would have managed. Auburn saw its great interception luck clash with its terrific fumble luck to lose over one turnover that "should" have forced. LSU had both negative fumble and interception luck.

However, what the defense giveth, the offense taketh away. Or the opposite, in LSU's case. Because for as lousy as LSU's luck was on defense, the tigers had great luck on offense. Now, we don't have the PD/INT figures for passing offenses, but we do have the fumble numbers.

TO Lost

Fumbles

Lost

Lost %

Avg Lost

Fum Luck

South Carolina

18

3

16.67%

6.72

3.72

Arkansas

15

3

20.00%

5.60

2.60

LSU

16

4

25.00%

5.97

1.97

Auburn

19

5

26.32%

7.09

2.09

Missouri

18

5

27.78%

6.72

1.72

Tennessee

20

7

35.00%

7.46

0.46

Mississippi

25

9

36.00%

9.33

0.33

Florida

18

7

38.89%

6.72

-0.28

Georgia

24

10

41.67%

8.95

-1.05

Kentucky

13

6

46.15%

4.85

-1.15

Vanderbilt

20

9

45.00%

7.46

-1.54

Texas A&M

19

9

47.37%

7.09

-1.91

Alabama

12

7

58.33%

4.48

-2.52

Mississippi State

23

13

56.52%

8.58

-4.42

Seriously, State. What's going on with your fumble recoveries? Run a drill or something. The Bulldogs boast the worst defense and the worst offense at recovering fumbles. Also, note Alabama hanging out down near the bottom of the SEC in fumble recoveries. They had the worst fumble recovery rate in the conference, but managed to minimize their bad luck by only fumbling 12 times.

The skill isn't in recoveries, it's in not fumbling in the first place.

OK, this is all well and good, but what does it mean? Well, here we have to take the next step and figure out what this bad luck has actually cost teams. According to research, a fumble recovery is worth 4.65 points and an interception is worth 4.35 points. This enables us to look at what really matters: points.

This is a simple matter of multiplying a team's luck factors by the value of the average turnover, and then dividing by games played to check in on the bottom line. We'll call this variance in points per game a team's Turnover Luck.

Turnovers

G

Int Gain

Fum Gain

Luck Gain

Fum Lost

Luck Lost

Turnover Luck

South Carolina

12

17.23

2.37

1.63

17.28

1.44

3.07

Arkansas

13

2.89

8.17

0.85

12.07

0.93

1.78

Georgia

13

14.73

8.18

1.76

-4.86

-0.37

1.39

Florida

14

4.29

5.87

0.73

-1.32

-0.09

0.63

Tennessee

13

-1.92

4.68

0.21

2.15

0.17

0.38

Missouri

12

-4.98

1.20

-0.31

7.98

0.66

0.35

Auburn

13

5.12

-11.58

-0.50

9.71

0.75

0.25

LSU

12

-3.96

-2.28

-0.52

9.16

0.76

0.24

Kentucky

12

-1.27

8.76

0.62

-5.35

-0.45

0.18

Mississippi

13

-8.02

-4.60

-0.97

1.52

0.12

-0.85

Alabama

15

0.23

-6.34

-0.41

-11.73

-0.78

-1.19

Texas A&M

13

-0.44

-7.51

-0.61

-8.89

-0.68

-1.29

Vanderbilt

12

-23.85

11.09

-1.06

-7.15

-0.60

-1.66

Mississippi State

13

-0.06

-17.99

-1.39

-20.55

-1.58

-2.97

Mississippi St's awful fumble luck cost them 17.99 points on the defensive side of the football and 20.55 on offense. That's 38.54 points that were there for the taking with just average turnover luck. Throw in near average interception luck, and State is in the clubhouse as the unluckiest team in 2015, losing nearly three points a game to bad luck. That's huge.

The big surprise here is that Alabama rates as one of the SEC's unluckiest teams. Their abysmal fumble luck on both sides of the football did not offset their good luck with interceptions, on defense anyway, and the tide left 1.19 PPG on the table. That's right, kids. The Tide could have been even more dominant.

LSU had near average luck, driven by their offensive recovery rate. LSU's lack of interceptions off of their number of PBU's only cost the team about four points on the season, so it's probably not a huge factor.

The depressing thing is that the luckiest team in 2015, by this metric, was South Carolina. For a team looking for any ray of sunshine for this upcoming season, they really don't need to be told that their phenomenal turnover luck is unsustainable and they will likely regress to the tune of three points a game this season if they go back to league average luck.

So, with absolutely no good or ill fortune regarding turnovers, we can expect the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Boy, am I glad I ran these numbers. Sleep tight, kids. By the way, there is no Easter Bunny and happiness is a myth.

This is the darkest timeline. Sleep tight.