The fluctuating fate of turnover teams
Turnover margins tend to even out, potentially causing big swings in season records
"This is not earth-shattering news, but the most important stat in football is turnover ratio. That's the absolute number one."
That's what offensive guru and new West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen had to say about the statistical categories that matter most in college football, when interviewed by Football Outsiders' Brian Fremeau for this ESPN The Magazine story advocating a new red zone stat.
Not only is the coach's conclusion a logical one, but the stats back him up. In our Eliminator model (which tracks the conference and BCS races based on past statistical benchmarks), turnover margin has proven to be critical to teams' chances of winning. However, the stat is a unique one in that teams' numbers often fluctuate significantly in the category from season to season.
This is a drum that Phil Steele beats in his annual college football preview magazine: Be wary of teams that feasted on turnovers the year before, and keep an eye on teams that struggled in the category, because there's a good chance those numbers could flip the following year.
That's because this is a stat that is predicated on luck (at least to a certain degree), and teams often regress to the mean after seasons in which they were really strong or really weak in turnover margin.
This proved to be the case again in 2010. Among the teams that made the largest jumps and drops in the standings of BCS conferences, almost all saw their turnover margin numbers improve or decrease, respectively, by a considerable margin.