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Turnover rates in college football: The good, the bad, and the in between

Jeff Gammons

As he made the rounds at the ACC Kickoff event on Monday, Dave Doeren mentioned some of the statistics that he tracks and said he'd like for NC State to average one forced turnover for every 30 defensive plays. Inspired by coach and another of his myriad P's, I went through every FBS team's 2013 numbers to figure out what constitutes a typical turnover rate as measured by defensive plays from scrimmage divided by takeaways.

NC State averaged one takeaway for every 38 or 39 snaps in 2013, which it turns out is a pretty good number.

In the ACC, the average defense generated one takeaway every 38.7 plays. NC State's number was almost identical and ranked the Wolfpack sixth in the league. Florida State was easily the best in this regard, terrifying opponents into a critical error every 27.5 snaps. No power conference school forced turnovers more frequently in 2013 than the Seminoles.

State's number was league average in the ACC, but above the FBS average of 41.1; the Pack finished last year 44th nationally in the category. A jump from 38-39 to 30 would place NC State in the top 10 nationally--it's a lofty goal for sure, but as FSU illustrated, reaching that level is not unprecedented.

Here's the top 10 in this category from last season:

FBS rank Team Defensive snaps/takeaways
1. Houston 24.0
2. North Texas 25.9
3. Tulane 26.6
4. Florida State 27.5
5. South Carolina 27.8
6. Arizona State 28.5
7. Louisville 28.9
8. Buffalo 29.7
9. Middle Tennessee 29.9
10. Vanderbilt 30.3

Houston led the nation with 43 takeaways in 13 games. Nobody else had more than 35. Florida State led the country with 26 interceptions.

Those teams were the best at forcing miscues, but how about the worst?

FBS rank Team Defensive snaps/takeaways
116. Florida International
117. Kent State
118. UTEP 63.0
119. Temple 68.3
120. Cal 69.1
121. Eastern Michigan
122. Illinois 78.8
123. Troy 79.0
124. New Mexico
125. Air Force

Air Force has the unfortunate distinction of being the only FBS team to force fewer than 10 turnovers last season. The Falcons managed just nine in 918 snaps, which doesn't seem possible. They didn't force more than two turnovers in any game, and six times they didn't manage a single takeaway. (Oddly enough, both of their wins came in those six games.)

I was also curious about which offenses were particularly good or bad at protecting the ball. The 10 best in the FBS:

FBS rank Team Offensive snaps/giveaways
1. Navy 92.1
2. Louisville 89.4
3. Bowling Green
4. Nevada 88.5
5. South Alabama 67.8
6. Arkansas State 67.6
7. Baylor 67.2
8. Michigan State
9. UNLV 66.0
10. Missouri 65.1

Navy only lost six fumbles in 2013, which is pretty decent considering the Midshipmen ran the ball 775 times. Oh and hey there's Louisville again. No wonder the Cardinals finished second nationally in turnover margin.

NC State averaged a giveaway for every 45 plays, and that ranked sixth in the ACC.

The 10 worst:

FBS rank Team Offensive snaps/giveaways
116. Louisiana Tech
117. Washington State
118. Western Kentucky
119. Central Michigan
120. Hawaii 27.9
121. West Virginia
122. TCU 27.4
123. Tulsa 26.8
124. South Florida
125. Southern Miss

Remember when Southern Miss was one of the mid-major gold standards, or a least a team you could count on getting to bowl games consistently? In 2011 the Eagles won 12 games; they've won once since then. Last year they threw 26 interceptions--one for every 19 pass attempts. They coughed up the ball at least three times in seven games, and that's not so much a recipe for winning.

Only a dozen FBS teams had more turnovers than USF, which finished with 28. This despite the fact that the Bulls ranked 125th (dead last) in offensive snaps with a mere 715 spread over 12 games. That's some impressive work. Let's hope the mistakes keep on coming with regularity in 2014, for one game at least.