David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
When Wake Forest opens camp in a few days, players will filter into the team meeting room, surrounded by reminders of their top priority.
There are signs on the walls with stats telling them that the teams that protect the football win more often.
There will be film highlights to showcase for the defense how much of an impact a takeaway has on the game’s outcome.
At the front of the room, Dave Clawson will open his treatise on 2018 not with talk of victories and defeats, yards, points or explosive plays. He’ll talk turnovers.
“That ball represents the whole program,” Clawson said. “Everything is about possession of that ball.”
It’s a speech Clawson has down pat, the foundation of his theory on how a program like Wake Forest — a private school with scant advantages over rivals like Clemson and Florida State — can possess the most important resource of all: the football.
It’s a sales pitch to players that virtually every coach in America, at every level of football, will make in some form this fall, and it all sounds great except for one small problem: It’s entirely possible that much of it isn’t true.
“As a coach, there’s no question that it benefits you to teach ball security and strip drills and techniques for getting the ball away,” said Rob Ash, the director of coaching development at Championship Analytics and a 25-year veteran of coaching college football. “But having said all that, there’s still a tremendous component of luck involved in turnovers.”
It doesn’t take much digging to make the case. In the past five years, the difference between a team in the top one-third nationally in takeaways and a team in the bottom third is only about one takeaway for every two games played. Over the past decade, 80 FBS programs fall somewhere between a plus-30 and minus-30 turnover margin, a difference of roughly one turnover or takeaway for every four games played. Only 12 programs have finished with at least 25 takeaways six or more times in the past decade, and it’s hardly a who’s who of college football, with Utah, Louisiana Tech and Northwestern in the club.
The math suggests things like pressure and sack rates have surprisingly little correlation to takeaways, while less intuitive metrics like yards per rush are a better predictor. Even the notion that turnovers dictate the outcome of a game offers something of a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Every FBS team has a positive turnover margin when already ahead on the scoreboard over the past decade, and only 14 percent of turnovers are committed by the team that’s ahead. So are turnovers the key to winning or simply a byproduct of it?
From the early days of the statistics revolution in baseball to the recent success of teams like the Houston Rockets building their franchise around analytics, teams have been increasingly open to challenging conventional wisdom with advanced math. As college football begins to rely more and more on the numbers, coaches are being forced to consider something utterly paradoxical to their worldview: Maybe turnovers aren’t that significant.
“The analytics say that turnovers are way, way more random than coaches or fans think,” said Ed Feng, the curator of The Power Rank analytics service who has a Ph.D. in applied math from Stanford. “It’s not a perfect way to say there’s no skill. It’s just that turnovers are a really subtle thing, and randomness plays a much bigger role than people want to think.”
Every data set has its outliers, and when it comes to takeaways in college football, the man standing on the far end of the bell curve is Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt. If luck is the determining factor in turnovers, Pruitt’s got a pocketful of four-leaf clovers.
Pruitt spent five years as a defensive coordinator at three different schools before being hired in December to head up the Volunteers’ rejuvenation. In that span, Washington leads all Power 5 programs with 136 takeaways. But add up each of Pruitt’s stops — Florida State, Georgia and Alabama — and he’s got even more, 139. His defenses exceeded the Power 5 average in takeaways every season, and he ranked in the top 10 three times. At each new stop, Pruitt increased takeaways from the prior regime by an average of nearly 10 per season.
Luck? Nah, Pruitt’s got to have a real strategy.
“Some of it starts with recruiting,” Pruitt said. “You want defensive guys that are used to handling the ball. When you talk about playing pass plays in general, the most important thing is playing the ball. That’s stressed.”
Play the ball, catch the ball. Simple enough. So why is Pruitt such an outlier?
He can list off plenty of reasons. He’s had great athletes. He stresses putting pressure on the quarterback, something that, as offenses increasingly add run-pass options to their playbooks, makes for even more takeaway chances. And he asks his defenses to be aggressive, to dictate the action rather than respond to it.
And that all sounds pretty good, except that the data suggests there might be some other significant factors playing into Pruitt’s success that have very little to do with all that practice and scheme.
Over the past 10 years, no team has a better turnover ratio than Alabama, where Pruitt has spent five years as an assistant coach. The Crimson Tide’s turnover margin is a whopping plus-93 since 2008, and they’ve hauled in an impressive 250 takeaways during that span. But of those 250 takeaways, 205 came when Alabama already had the lead (82 percent), and 147 came when it led by 10 points or more (59 percent). And statistics show that teams playing from behind are far more apt to cough up the ball.
“That ball represents the whole program. Everything is about possession of that ball.”Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson
Alabama also has faced the third-highest rate of pass plays over that span, and teams are about three times more likely to turn the ball over on a pass play than a run. And Alabama’s defense has faced more third-and-long plays than any other FBS team in that stretch. Turnovers occur at a far higher rate on third-and-long than any other down and distance.
Those trends hold true at each of Pruitt’s stops, which certainly is a credit to his defenses, though not necessarily attributable to strip drills, defensive backs with great hands or repeated team mantras about the importance of takeaways.
“It’s about making your players understand the situations and opportunities, and if you rep it and stress it, over time, you can influence it,” Pruitt said. “That’s probably the biggest thing.”
Perhaps that’s right. Pruitt certainly believes in his philosophy, though this season will serve as its biggest test. Last season, Tennessee finished with just 15 takeaways, tied for 97th nationally. It was also playing from behind 58 percent of the time, faced passes on just 36 percent of its defensive snaps and faced the seventh-fewest third-and-longs in the country. Those numbers might prove far more daunting in the quest to up Tennessee’s takeaway count.
The award for discounting all this talk of advanced math and random chance is a big gold chain, and it’s kept in a safe place in South Florida.
Perhaps the breakout star of the 2017 season was Miami’s turnover chain, a gaudy display of the sheer determination to take the football from the opposition as often as possible. It was the brainchild of Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, and it worked impossibly well.
In 2016, Miami was a solid defense but mustered just 19 takeaways all season, good for 67th overall. During a four-game midseason losing streak, the Canes managed just three total takeaways. It was a problem Diaz wanted to address, and so the chain was born.
The Miami Hurricanes defense basks in the glory of the famous “turnover chain.”
“The world responds to incentive,” Diaz said. “Who knew college football players liked wearing gold chains?”
The chain quickly became football’s most impactful fashion trend. By season’s end, the Canes’ D had racked up 31 takeaways, good for third nationally and a 63 percent improvement from the prior season.
How’d that happen? It’s all psychological.
“I think if you look, whether it’s positive energy, negative energy, it all can be contagious, and takeaways can be the same way,” Pruitt said. “And you can see that. Everybody’s doing it, but it seems like when you get ’em, you get ’em in bunches.”
It’s hard to argue that the energy after a big Miami takeaway felt contagious. At the peak of the chain’s power, the Canes had a stretch of six games in which they had multiple takeaways, including four straight with four each. The funny thing, however, is Diaz didn’t think the chain really made a difference for his defense. He saw its weight on the shoulders of the opposing QB.
“As the year went on, the most fascinating thing was the impact on the other team we played,” Diaz said. “There’s always an idea in coaching, you want to stay out of the ‘don’t’ — don’t do this, don’t do that — and the more the chain was emphasized, the more other teams were talking about not turning the ball over, and the more the turnovers came. It felt psychologically, it created more of an issue for our opponents.”
It’s an argument that mirrors the great baseball debate surrounding clutch hitting. Aren’t some guys just better in big moments? There’s no number that suggests this is true in any meaningful way, but for every person who’s ever been stressed before a big meeting, the notion of a psychological impact on performance is intuitive. It makes sense because we, quite literally, feel it in our guts.
The magic of the turnover chain was how it loomed over every defensive snap for the Canes, but the physical object itself was entirely beside the point. At Tennessee, former coach Butch Jones tried a similar trick with a plastic garbage pail on the sideline that quickly became a national punch line. At Miami, the chain captured the imagination of the public, and it became more significant because we all agreed to impart it with that power.
The magic quickly disappeared against Clemson and Wisconsin to end Miami’s season, however. The Canes had one takeaway in each game, but coughed it up a total of six times. After toppling Miami in the Orange Bowl, Badgers cornerback Nick Nelson beamed in his locker room, a makeshift version of Wisconsin’s own turnover chain with a glitter-encrusted “W” and held together with athletic tape hung around his neck.
Luck can be a fickle teammate.
For all the hype the turnover chain got last season, Diaz is actually a devotee of the numbers. He believes in the power of randomness when it comes to turnovers, but he also thinks that, if a coach can control even a small fraction of the outcome, it’s imperative to get that edge.
“I’ve read all the data, but I do think there are things that at least give you a better chance,” Diaz said.
Where can that edge come from? That’s actually something the data scientists want to address, too.
Feng recently did a study of the New England Patriots, wondering why they had comparatively so few fumbles. What he found was that there’s really very little difference between New England’s players and everyone else — except for Tom Brady, who simply didn’t put the ball on the ground.
Indeed, the QB is the wild card, and the great ones can have an impact on how often the ball is at risk. But Feng also points to cases like Brett Favre, a turnover machine during parts of his career, which was as much the trade-off for big plays as the result of bad ones.
Ash sees similar paradoxes. On one hand, teams that run the ball more turn the ball over far less, but the efficiency of the passing game might offset much of that difference, too.
“It’s really tough to tell a passing team they need to become a running team,” Ash said.
Instead, CAI works to ensure that coaches have all the data they need to make their own calls.
For example, CAI recently completed a study on turnover margins for a client in the SEC and found that there were more interceptions thrown on third down than first down, despite roughly 6,000 more pass attempts on first down. The way to combat this, Ash said, is to think about sequencing plays. So, if a team finds itself in a third-and-long situation, where turnovers happen about once every 25 plays, it should instead plan to go for it on fourth down and approach the play as a third-and-short, where turnovers occur only once every 56 plays.
“Teams that do that type of thinking have fewer turnovers,” Ash said.
And coaches are listening. CAI has more than 50 clients in the NFL and college football, and the list is growing.
Still, there’s no amount of data likely to convince many coaches that the time they’re spending preaching takeaways is inefficient, and it’s rare to find a coach who thinks luck is anything more than the difference between a team that’s prepared and one that’s not.
Clawson recounts a play in the 2016 Military Bowl against Temple. He’s got hundreds of examples of the impact of a takeaway turning a game, but this is one of his favorites. Temple was driving into Wake territory with less than 2 minutes to play in an eight-point game. Owls QB Phillip Walker hit a receiver for what would’ve been a first down, but Thomas Brown timed a strip tackle perfectly, jarring the ball loose.
On the way to the locker room after the game, Brown wrapped his arm around Clawson and grinned.
“Man, it’s unbelievable,” Brown said. “I’ve been working that drill for three years, and there it was in our bowl game.”
That drill made the difference.
Of course, there’s an asterisk to that anecdote, too. The play was officially ruled an incomplete pass because Brown stripped the ball before possession could be established. Ash wouldn’t be surprised. He’s seen the data, and of all pass breakups, only about 22 percent result in a turnover. If a team is too far ahead or behind that average, it will eventually regress back to the mean.
Or, in other words, Wake got unlucky, even on the play that helped the Deacons win the game.