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Tuesday, November 6, 2012
The Big Board: Looking for takeaways

By David Hale

Two weeks before the season started, Jimbo Fisher lamented the hype his defense had earned. He preached caution, noting that it would be nearly impossible for any unit to live up to the level of expectations that surrounded Florida State's defense at the time.

Lamarcus Joyner
Lamarcus Joyner's interception against Boston College is one of few turnovers the Seminoles have forced this season.
Three months later, Fisher's conservative projections appear unnecessary. Florida State's defense has largely lived up to those lofty expectations.

The Seminoles are tops in the nation in total defense, allowing just 227 yards per game. They're third in scoring defense and rushing defense, with top-ranked Alabama the only team ahead in both categories. No team in the country has allowed fewer passing yards per attempt, and the 77 percent success rate on third down isn't just the best mark in the nation, but a number that matches up as one of the best in recent history.

In other words, even Fisher would have a hard time downplaying FSU's defensive pedigree at this point.

Of course, that doesn't mean there's not room for improvement.

"I think we need more turnovers," safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "Three-and-outs are great, holding opponents, stopping key threats -- but we have to get turnovers and help our offense."

The lack of turnovers is a strange footnote to the otherwise stellar numbers posted by Florida State's D. While the unit ranks among the best in the nation in virtually every other statistical category, the 12 takeaways the Seminoles have mustered this season is tied for 93rd -- the same number as Kentucky (1-9, 73rd-ranked defense), Florida Atlantic (2-7, 69th) and Colorado (1-8, 120th).

As incongruous as it seems, however, it's not entirely out of the ordinary. Of the top 10 defenses nationally, five have recorded 14 turnovers or fewer this season, including two that have created fewer than Florida State's 12.

Moreover, the Seminoles think there's a good reason for the lack of turnovers -- a lack of opportunity.

"Everybody's doing their job, and teams try so hard not to give us those chances," Joyner said. "I think that's the whole thing."

Or perhaps it's that Florida State isn't giving opponents enough chances to make a big mistake.

According to ESPN Stats and Info, 39.5 percent of opponents' drives against FSU this season have ended in a three-and-out -- by far the highest rate in the country. That's a lot of short drives, which in turn means fewer opportunities for takeaways.

The numbers might actually support that theory. Here's a look at the teams that have forced the highest percentage of three-and-outs this season, along with where they rank in turnovers created.

Sure, there are exceptions, like what Stanford has done this season, but overall the defenses that face the fewest long drives also have among the lowest number of turnovers.

So if a defense is doing its job and getting off the field quickly, isn't that just as good as forcing a turnover?

"A turnover changes momentum. The shifts of momentum are tremendous. That's what turnovers give you. The three-and-outs, we're playing great defense. … A turnover you get it right there. You get a punt after (a three and out)."

Indeed, if we look at the top overall defenses, we see something of a mixed bag.

All 10 rank as statistically impressive defensive units -- the only 10 units in the country allowing fewer than 300 yards per game -- but look at the team's win-loss record and it tells a more big-picture story. The top half of the group has a combined record of 39-6 (.866), while the bottom half, excluding FSU, has a combined record of 19-18 (.514).

In other words, a great defense doesn't necessarily guarantee a great team, but a great defense combined with a sizable dose of turnovers adds up to a dominant team.

The exception, however, is FSU, which is creating few turnovers but still boasts an impressive 8-1 record. How have they done it?

Well, the answer is pretty simple: The offensive success has closely resembled the dominance of the defense.

While FSU's D has forced the most three-and-outs in the nation, its offense has turned in the sixth-fewest three-and-outs, with only Baylor (7.2 percent), Cincinnati (10.2) and Texas A&M (10.3) producing a lower percentage than the Seminoles' 11.2 percent mark among BCS-conference teams.

Of course, that won't stop Florida State from hoping to add a few more takeaways to its total, no matter how fickle a statistic it might be. After all, linebacker Christian Jones said, getting the turnovers isn't always as easy as it sounds, but the key is simply being in position to make them.

"We have a lot of guys running to the ball," Jones said. "We talk about it a lot. It's not something we forget. We always try to stress turnovers, hopefully we get some our way in the future."