Coming out of the first scrimmage this fall, which went down on Monday evening, Texas Longhorns head coach Mack Brown spoke Tuesday about wanting the defense to force more turnovers. Of course, in the zero sum game of fall camp, the flipside is that the offense managed to protect the ball, with the only turnover coming on a tipped pass that was intercepted.
But Brown wasn't happy with his defense's ability to strip the football free, since creating turnovers is obviously a big point of emphasis for any team. Partially as a result of that, Brown wasn't ready on Tuesday to declare the 2012 defense great yet, even though it's widely regarded as a unit with the potential to be elite this season after finishing the 2011 campaign on a high note as that group more fully adjusted to new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Back in 2010, the Texas Longhorns were extraordinarily unlucky on defense recovering fumbles. The team tied for first in the country when opponents fumbled 36 times, but only recovered a measly 10 of those -- less than 28%, which ranked 113th in the country.
By comparison, the median recovery rate over the last several years has fluctuated, but is typically right around 50%.
In 2011, Texas opponents didn't fumble nearly as many times -- 21 as compared to the 36 the year before -- but the recovery rate more than doubled as Longhorn defenders pounced on two thirds of those forced. Fourteen, in other words, for my fellow English majors out there.
Just in glancing at the stats, there doesn't seem to be a huge correlation to forcing fumbles and being a good defense. For instance, Western Michigan forced 32 fumbles last season, second in the country, but finished 98th in yards per play allowed. On the other end of the spectrum, opponents of mighty Alabama only coughed up 18, which tied for 81st in the country. Oddly enough, that's right around the average for Nick Saban's team over the last three seasons.
Maybe forcing and recovering fumbles is more of a value-add for a good defense than anything else, although turnover margin has always been recognized as a key factor in winning games.
As Oklahoma State found out last season, creating interceptions -- and forcing turnovers in general -- can help cover up other deficiencies on defense. Like give up a lot of yards, in this case. In the area of picking off passes, Texas has fallen off since intercepting 25 passes in 2009, which led the country. The 'Horns fell to 99th in the country by picking off a mere eight passes in 2010, while the 12 hauled in by burnt orange defenders last season represented a 50% increase, but was only good enough for 55th in the nation.
Taken in context, the fact that the young group last season outperformed the veteran group the year before that sent three cornerbacks to the NFL is actually rather impressive. Factor in the room for growth as players like sophomore cornerback Quandre Diggs and fellow corner Carrington Byndom, now entering his junior season, and it's not hard to predict another increase. Diggs alone dropped a handful of interceptions he could easily convert this season. Jumping 50% again this season would put Texas at 18, which is typically the elite level -- about where the top 10 teams finish every season.
This is all about winning the all-important turnover battle and giving the offense a shorter field to work with more often. Though the latter group should get significantly better with four starters returning along the offensive line, more experienced running backs, and some small growth at quarterback, at least, getting extra possessions in advantageous spots on the field makes everything much easier for co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who proved adept last year at dialing up the right plays in quick-change situations to consolidate momentum.
Assuming that opponents fumble an average number of times next season (with Texas recovering an average number) and that the Longhorns can reach an elite level in intercepting the football, Texas should force around 35 turnovers from fumbles and interceptions. If the quarterbacks avoid interceptions, the Longhorns may be able to improve on that even turnover margin from last year and jump into the top third of the country at around +6 or +7. Doing so would greatly increase the chances of winning 10 or more games.
If fumbles are fickle, interceptions are not. So, go make some money, Moneymakers.