One of the most important statistics in football is turnover margin. Simply put, if you take the ball away a lot more than you give it up, you'll most likely have more chances to score and better field position to do so while at the same time taking those chances away from the opponent. The last two national champions finished the season #2 in turnover margin, and the lowest ranking for an eventual champion the last 5 years is 37th for the 2006 Florida Gators. Turnovers don't tell the whole story, but you'd be hard-pressed to find top teams with a negative turnover margin.
Following this pattern, both Texas and Alabama rank in the top 10 in turnover margin, sitting at 8th and 5th respectively. How did Alabama achieve their high turnover margin, and what does it say about both sides of the ball?
Here are Alabama's turnover numbers:
- Given Alabama's reputation for a strong defense, one might assume that their high turnover margin is due to the fact that they create turnovers at a high rate. However, this is not entirely true. In fact, Alabama is only 26th in forced turnovers, lagging behind Texas who is tied for second. Alabama's six recovered fumbles ranks only 107th in the nation, although their 20 interceptions has them ranked #5.
- The main reason Alabama is ranked so high in turnover margin is simply because they don't lose the ball very much. They are 8th in fumbles lost, 3rd in interceptions thrown, and tied for first overall for total turnovers given up. Thus, while their defense is merely good at taking the ball away, the offense is excellent at keeping it.
- Of Alabama's six fumbles, Mark Ingram is responsible for only one of those, although it happened to be a huge one that nearly cost them the game against Tennessee.
- Nine different Alabama players have an interception, with safety Mark Barron leading the way with seven.
- Against currently ranked opponents (three games), however, Alabama's turnover margin is only +1, giving the ball up three times and taking it away four times. Texas, in their two games against ranked opponents, has a turnover margin of +4, and actually has a better ratio against ranked opponents than unranked opponents.
This is yet another example of how disciplined this Alabama team is. They are adept at forcing turnovers and tops in the nation at not returning the favor. They had a bit of a rough streak in October by committing six turnovers, but they have only one since then, which was an interception by McElroy. In fact, despite their struggles against Auburn, they did not commit a single turnover that game.
It will be very important for Texas to win the battle here, or at least make it even. In the three of the four games where the turnover margin was either negative or zero for Alabama--against Virginia Tech, Tennessee, and LSU--, they were in tough fights throughout the contest (the game that wasn't close was against North Texas, which can be easily dismissed). Even when throwing out the 45-0 Chattanooga game, when Alabama wins the turnover battle they win by an average score of 32-12.
In November, Colt McCoy only threw one interception, seemingly halting his uncharacteristic high(er) interception rate early in the season. He promptly threw three interceptions against Nebraska, and he simply cannot do that against this Alabama defense. In this battle, while having our defense force turnovers will obviously be very helpful, it is more imperative for our offense to take care of the football. As Big Roy wrote about on his post on red zone numbers, it may be catastrophic if the offense muffs scoring chances by giving the ball up. Scoring chances against Alabama's defense will be few in number, and when the Horns find themselves with those chances, they better take advantage of them.
Texas is one of the best teams in the nation at forcing turnovers, and I am confident that can force at least one turnover against Alabama's stingy offense. Still, it will behoove our offense to avoid putting our defense in horrible situations as they have done several times this year, because while McElroy may not remind anyone of Peyton Manning, he also doesn't remind anyone of Zac Lee.