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The Insidious Power of Luck

Wheel of Fortuna, it is time for you to turn.

Texas A&M v LSU
It’s not always luck on the goal line
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

This is usually the time of the year I start looking at the influence of luck on last year’s results. I’ve even gone so far as to rework red zone stats to look at expected scoring rates instead of simple efficiency.

And look, red zone scoring plays a huge role in wins and losses, while also being almost entirely random. The mark of a useful stat is not just how much it influences winning but also how predictable the stat is, indicating it is about skill not luck. Red zone scoring kills it on the first part, but no so much on the second.

The top three SEC teams in red zone efficiency last year were Florida, Georgia, and Ole Miss. The prior season, those three teams ranked 14th, 7th, and 8th, respectively. How did the prior year’s top three do last season? Well, the 2016 leaders were Vanderbilt, Bama, and Tennessee. They finished 12th, 10th, and 13th in 2017.

That’s right, two of the top three schools in red zone efficiency in 2016 finished in the bottom three in 2017. The third school, Alabama, still finished ranked in the double digits. The one school in the bottom three who was not top three in 2016? The dead last team in red zone scoring… LSU.

It’s the same thing for defensive red zone efficiency. Not a single team in the top three or the bottom three repeated the ranking the next season. And one team (Georgia) went from the bottom three to the top three. Man, you would think would one school would repeat just out of blind luck.

The thing is, once you look strictly at conference games to put everyone in the conference on nearly the same level of scheduling, LSU’s horrific red zone performance does improve a little bit, primarily because LSU’s two worst red zone performances were out-of-conference games (Troy and Notre Dame).

Red Zone

Team G Attempts Scores TD FG Pts/RZ
Team G Attempts Scores TD FG Pts/RZ
Vanderbilt 8 26 22 21 1 5.77
Arkansas 8 24 22 17 5 5.58
Georgia 10 36 34 24 10 5.50
Kentucky 8 28 28 17 11 5.43
Auburn 9 40 36 27 9 5.40
Florida 8 24 23 15 8 5.38
Alabama 9 45 37 31 6 5.22
Mississippi 8 26 26 13 13 5.00
Mississippi State 8 32 27 19 8 4.91
Texas A&M 8 28 24 16 8 4.86
LSU 8 32 26 19 7 4.81
Missouri 8 28 23 16 7 4.75
South Carolina 8 24 20 13 7 4.67
Tennessee 8 19 14 6 8 3.47
Average 29.43 25.86 18.14 7.71 5.10

LSU cost itself about 0.30 points per trip to the red zone in conference play which probably resulted in the loss of around a point per game. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but LSU didn’t exactly have whole lot of room for margin when it came to scoring points.

LSU did get some of those points back on defense, where its red zone efficiency was near the top of the conference. All in all, LSU can’t count on an improvement in red zone luck to add more wins.

It’s the same thing with turnovers. LSU was a bit unlucky when it came to forcing turnovers. The defense recovered 42.9 percent of the fumbles it created, and recovering a fumble is basically a coin flip. But the offense was just as lucky when it came to recovering fumbles, losing just 40 percent of the fumbles on their possesions. LSU likely should have a had a few more interceptions given its high number of passes defended, but it’s hard to complain when Danny Etling threw just two picks all season.

Every bit of on-field luck seemed to balance out. Where the offense was unlucky (the red zone), the defense outperformed its expectation. Where the offense had luck (turnovers), the defense gave away the good fortune.

So it would be easy to say, statistically, LSU was a perfectly neutral team when it came to luck. The two most impactful variables on winning games, red zone scoring and turnovers, support that theory. But this leaves off the third variable of football randomness: injury luck.

Every team has injuries and you can’t blame a season on an injury. They are part of the game, even if they are essentially random. At any time, anyone on the field could be struck down with an injury. LSU, simply put, was absolutely ravaged by injuries last season.

LSU essentially had consecutive seasons ruined in which a generational talent at running back couldn’t play to the peak of his ability. Tiger fans were robbed of the junior seasons of Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, as both tried to limp through the season at partial speed. Now, Derrius Guice on a hobbled ankle was still one of the best backs in the SEC, but LSU sorely missed his explosiveness and playmaking ability.

But it wasn’t just Guice last season, it also started with Arden Key and his bizarre off the field journey which he never entirely came back from. Key was a shell of the player we saw as an underclassman. When the season started, Orgeron was counting on having arguably the best player in the SEC on both sides of the football. As it turned out, he got neither.

Go to any team’s roster and take away their best offensive and best defensive player and see what the result is. OK, Alabama has enough depth given their insane recruiting record, but that would cripple nearly any other team in the country. Remove Roquan Smith and Nick Chubb from Georgia and replace them with half of their production, how do they fare? Take Baker Mayfield and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo from the Sooners, and do they make the playoffs?

The quality of losses from LSU would have been enough to torpedo the season, but then LSU was hit by the sheer quantity of losses. There was barely a position group that went untouched.

The offensive line lost senior KJ Malone in mid-October to a knee injury. The Tigers lost Tony Weathersby for two starts in the middle of the season. Will Clapp was forced to play with an injury most of the year, though he never missed a game. All in all, the line played with five different starting combinations in their first eight games before finally settling into some sort of consistency.

The defensive line was thrown into even bigger disarray. The suspension of Frank Herron for six games cost them a key contributor (or in Orgeron’s words, “a co-starter”) in what proved to be Key’s absence. The line then lost Rashard Lawrence for two games, State and Troy, the two worst defensive performances of the season.

The linebackers suffered without Donnie Alexander and Corey Thompson for extended periods due to their nagging injuries. Oh, and the secondary lost safety Ed Paris for the season on top of losing Kristian Fulton to NCAA jail.

This wasn’t just the loss of depth, these were all starters. LSU lost both quality and quantity last year in what seemed like a near Biblical rash of injuries. It was like Orgeron built a practice field on an old burial ground or something.

It’s been two straight years of rotten luck on the injury front, and last year was about as bad as an injury report can get. I will tempt fate by stating there’s no way that LSU could be so unlucky on the health front again this season. There will be injuries of course, but nothing like the scourge which afflicted the team last season.

The good thing about that kind of rotten luck is that it gave a lot of underclassmen the chance to play early. This year, Orgeron gets some of those injured contributors back, as well as young guys who were forced into starting roles. It’s why he now has a surplus of experienced talent in the front seven. There’s not enough starting slots for all of the guys with career starts under their belt.

Maybe last year’s bad luck turns into this year’s good luck. If nothing else, we’re due.