In the Big 12, spread offenses have reigned supreme for years, but it's not points or yards per game or yards per play that has an incredibly high correlation to success.
Nope. As Robert Whetsell of Cowboys Ride For Free pointed out on Twitter yesterday, turnover margin is a strong indicator of which team will win the conference:
Last season, the Longhorns finished third in turnover margin -- a respectable number, but well behind the incredibly opportunistic Kansas State defense, which forced 32 turnovers for a league-leading +20 margin. Of course, the +5 was a significant improvement for the 'Horns from a dead-even 2011 and the -12 disaster of 2010 fueled by 30 giveaways.
With Texas tied last season for 21st nationally in turnovers lost, the clear culprit in the equation was a defense that not only failed to tackle or stop the run, but also failed to create turnovers. Well, the defense probably couldn't create turnovers because they couldn't tackle or stop by the run. In any case, the 'Horns tied for 109th in fumbles gained with six.
Some bad luck didn't help either -- though Texas opponents fumbled 18 times last season, they were only able to recover six of them. In comparison, the Wildcats led the conference in recovering over 60% of their opponent's fumbles. They must manufacture their own luck at a giant factory somewhere in Manhattan (or, I suppose, in Snyder's wizard lair).
The median rate for the country fluctuates from year to year, but typically sits around 50%, so some better luck for Texas this season would account for about three extra fumble recoveries, while some really good luck would probably result in four or five more takeaways in that category alone, as long as the 'Horns can continue to force fumbles at a decent rate (the national median typically sits around 20 opponent fumbles).
Better tackling and better experience to allow more players around the football could potentially add one or two more recoveries for a return to average luck, which could be the difference in season-defining games against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU (along with the other handful of extremely important games like Baylor, BYU, Kansas State, and Ole Miss).
The Longhorns will have greater control over what happens in the secondary. After a massively disappointing season for that group that included only a modest bump in interceptions (from eight in 2010 to 12 in 2011 to 15 last year), the hope for defensive back coach Duane Akina has to be further improvement from his group. Even the much-maligned Baylor defense managed 18 interceptions last season -- such a boost this year would provide further margin for error for the offense, while putting Texas among the best in the country. The former depiction makes it seem more achievable than the latter.
Still, Kenny Vaccaro was more of an eraser in terms of targets than an interception machine last season as quarterbacks often avoided him, though a similar drop for Quandre Diggs could make it hard for the rest of the team to make up his four interceptions from last season.
Where's the hope for improvement? Greater consistency could allow senior cornerback Carrington Byndom to exceed his three interceptions from last season in a contract year, while experience could help Mykkele Thompson become a better ballhawk this season after he failed to record an interception as a sophomore.
Then there are the linebackers, who only recorded two last season. In contrast, Baylor's Eddie Lackey had four by himself. The return of Jordan Hicks and the emergence of speedy Peter Jinkens, who has the legit 4.50 40 speed to run with most running backs around college football, could help add a pick or two to the Texas total.
And, of course, a better pass rush could help Texas, too, perhaps fueled by better interior play collapsing the pocket by Ashton Dorsey, another player in a contract year, and a possible emerging star in sophomore Malcom Brown, who has the potential to become a truly disruptive presence in the trenches.
It's a lot of projection and speculation in there, but the truths about turnover margin correlating with success in the Big 12 provides some perspective about the difference that increasing the turnover margin from +5 to +10 or +12 could have for the Longhorns.
It could be the difference between a conference championship and a disappointing season.