Winning the Game While Dropping the Ball

Last week the No. 1 team, Ohio State Buckeyes, and No. 2 team, Alabama Crimson Tide, struggled with turnovers. Ohio State barely survived an unranked team (Darron Lee’s pick six in the third quarter bailed out Ohio State) and Alabama couldn’t recover from their five self inflicted wounds.

We all know turnovers are costly. A single turnover can be the difference between winning and losing. After watching Ohio State win, I was curious to find the percentage of teams that win while losing the turnover battle. Using the 2014 season (including conference championships, but excluding bowl games) as a sample set, over 800 games, I graphed the win percentage and turnover margin (Turnover margin is the number of turnovers your opponent has subtracted by yours. A negative turnover margin means you have more turnovers than your opponent.). The graph only considers the final score and turnover margin (no rankings or odds were taken into account). I found that losing the turnover battle by one immediately drops your chance of winning under 30%. Conversely, winning the turnover battle by one dramatically increases your odds of winning over 70%. The largest turnover margin deficit that any team overcame last year was Maryland, who barely won 24–17 against South Florida with a turnover margin of negative five. Conversely twelve teams last year won a combined 540–144 with a positive five turnover margin.

The size of the circle represents the number of games I have data for. This is why the chance of winning with a negative five turnover margin is slightly better than a negative four. I’m very confident if there was a larger sample size of games with a turnover margin of five, the chance of winning would be less than 3%.

Another interesting point is that a handful of teams survived a negative three turnover margin, including Ohio State in the National Championship game against Oregon, but only 2 teams won last year when coughing up the ball four or more times than their opponents.

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