N. C. State—Tennessee Preview #15: TOM under TOB and other Miscellany

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: Jerrell Harris #5 of the Alabama Crimson Tide dives over Matt Simms #12 of the Tennessee Volunteers as he fumbles the ball at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

It would be football for dummies level analysis to point out that few stats are more predictive of success than turnover margin (TOM), though it might take a rocket surgeon to determine whether TOM is a product of some combination of discipline, coaching, skill, etc., or whether TOM is largely determined by just plain luck. There are the Virginia Techs of the world; the Hokies finished 14th, 10th, 13th, 1st, and 35th in TOM over the last 5 years. And there are the N. C. States of the world; the Pack finished 116th, 22nd, 114th, 27th, and 6th over the last 5 years. The brand of football that is Beamerball suggests that TOM is a factor that can be controlled, while State's performance under Tom O'Brien suggests a force of chaos rivaling Armageddon (or perhaps #ncstateshit) is at work.

In the end, it is probably a combination of a number of factors, but certainly the unpredictable bounce of the oblong ball brings a lot of luck into the equation.

(Will turnovers tell the tale on August 31st? Read on!)

As noted in the running back preview, Tennessee was insanely lucky when it came to scooping spheres its own players left on the turf a year ago. The Vols fell on 76.9% of their own fumbles, a mark that led the nation, helping them finish the season ±0 in TOM, which tied for 59th in the country. UT coughed up the ball a total of 26 times, one of the highest marks in the country, but only lost 6 fumbles. On defense, the Vols recovered 9 of 19 (47.4%) opponent fumbles, so without the benefit of some luck their TOM would have been in the negative range for the season.

Tennessee was better in TOM in 2010, finishing 36th in the country at +0.31, and it did so without getting lucky in the fumble department, recovering 43.5% of opponents' gaffs and falling on 47.4% of its own. Like just about every team, UT is dependent on positive TOM for success. In their 5 2011 wins, the Vols were +1 in TOM; they were -0.71 in losses. In 2010, the Vols were +1.67 in wins and -0.86 in losses. So, given the unlikeliness of repeating last year's good fumble fortune, UT will need to better secure the ball if it hopes to bring Derek Dooley his second winning season as a head coach and first at Tennessee. And securing the ball has been something Dooley-coached teams have typically done well; despite some dismal seasons at La. Tech and thanks to last year's fumble luck, no Dooley squad has ever finished the season with a negative TOM.

It will be important for Tennessee to limit its turnovers (or for it not to, depending on your perspective) because few teams are better at forcing them or more dependent on them than N. C. State has been recently. At +1.08, the Pack ranked 6th in the country in TOM a year ago, and only Oklahoma State forced more than the 39 miscues forced by the Pack. And with a little bit of fumble luck, they could have been better. State managed to scoop up just 40% of opponents' loose balls, 93rd worst in the country; State re-collected a slightly below average total of 45.8% of its own fumbles. State was solid under TOB in TOM in 2010 as well, finishing 27th in the country at +0.54, though that number was aided by fumble luck. Two years ago State finished 13th in the land, losing just 34.8% of its own turf bombs while also gathering up better than half of its opponents bumbles. In 2010, State was +1.11 in TOM in wins and -0.75 in losses, and last year was even more extreme: +2.25 in wins and -0.80 in losses.

The frightening thing for Wolfpack faithful is that David Amerson is probably not going to get the opportunity to pick off 13 balls again this year, and turnover forcers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning are gone from the linebacking crew. Whether or not State can match or improve on last year's 8-win campaign will hinge largely on whether the offense can improve enough to win games when the defense isn't able to give the O lots of extra opportunities through takeaways. Especially when fumble luck is considered, State was far, far superior to UT in TOM a year ago, but there is just too much volatility in that stat to count on it to continue. Whichever team wins the turnover battle will likely win the game, but there is really no way to predict which team that will be.

Still-Starched Hankies

One thing you can count on is that TOB teams will avoid self-destructing through over-penalization. Sure, there will be a mandatory false start at the worst possible time each game, but overall the penalty numbers for the Pack tend to be quite low. The Pack has posted back-to-back 4th-place finishes nationally in fewest penalty yards per game.

Hanky tossing will probably be a rarity on August 31st, as UT has been relatively penalty free under Dooley as well, finishing 50th and 31st in lost yards to yellow flags over the last two seasons. If penalties follow the average pattern, the Pack will likely have a 10-15 yard advantage at game's end, though that is not likely to be enough of an advantage to factor in the ultimate outcome.

Clutch QBs

You would think Mike Glennon and Tyler Bray would suffer from their respective teams' lack of a productive running game, and certainly their overall efficiency would improve with a more balanced offense, but both QBs seemed to thrive last season as the down and distance situation grew increasingly dire. Check out the chart below (MG's #s are on the left; TB's on the right):

Down

QB Rating

Yds per Att

Down

QB Rating

Yds per Att

1st

130.3

6.5

1st

139.3

8.2

2nd

130.5

5.9

2nd

144.9

7.6

3rd

147.3

7.7

3rd

158.6

8.8

4th

166.5

10.4

4th

74.6

2.3

With the exception of Bray's woeful 4th-down performance, which came in a very small sample of 6 passes, both signal callers' ratings improved with each down, a stat that seems somewhat counterintuitive. When you throw on 1st down you have the element of surprise in your favor, as the tendency is to run the ball. Most 3rd down throws are obvious passing situations. The rush has its ears pinned back and often teams trot on extra defensive backs, yet Glennon and Bray both excelled under those difficult circumstances. In fact, if they posted overall efficiency numbers equal to their 3rd-down numbers, both would have slung their way into the top 25 list of most efficient QBs at the FBS level. So, perhaps the teams' bad running games are by design; they are getting the defense right where they want them.

Despite Glennon's sparkling 4th-down numbers and Bray's struggles in his few attempts at avoiding a turnover on downs, it is probably safe to say that the team that attempts the fewest 4th-down throws will win this one, but you certainly cannot relax thinking that the series is over on third and long.

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