Most statistics in sports do not tell the whole story. Sometimes they point in a direction, and sometimes they give a glimpse of the bigger picture, but rarely are they able to stand alone by themselves. Few statistics are as widely criticized and reviewed preceding and following any game as turnovers. Though only a handful may occur each matchup, they often become the most impactful part of the game.
While turnovers receive plenty of attention compared to other basic metrics in college football, they are among the most volatile measures in the sport. In fact, many believe see turnovers as a fluky number with little predictive value. Though they mean a lot in the course of a game, retroactively they may not be as helpful. With little predictability going forward, they can only say so much about a team.
The final piece
For the Michigan defense, the preceding statements probably ring hollow. The Wolverines are only forcing 2.0 turnovers a game so far in 2017, but this represents one of the final stages of a tyrannical defense coming to fruition. There is no doubt that Michigan has been stacked on the defensive side of the ball over the past couple seasons. However, more often than not, this stellar defense did not translate into taking the ball away.
The year prior to Jim Harbaugh becoming the head coach, Michigan finished 126th out of 128 teams in forced turnovers, a complete bottoming out from the year prior. The next season they ranked just 121st. Last year’s team, who ranked 24th in scoring defense and fifth in total defense, only forced 1.46 turnovers a game, which still ranked in the bottom half of the nation.
Points per game and yards per game numbers are better representatives of Michigan’s defense, and most arguments could be ended right there. Even without gaudy turnover totals, the defense made significant contributions in other ways such as sacks and tackles for loss. However, this season’s climb in turnovers not only represents a regression to the mean, but a sign of another step forward for the Wolverines.
Turnovers are not only a defensive statistic, but a measure that greatly affects the offense as well. Whether it be through field position, time of possession, or even points on the board, defensive turnovers are key for a team like Michigan who is not (yet?) lights out on offense. Anything that their defensive counterparts can do to provide an extra boost could be huge for a Michigan offense who has looked decent but not great in 2017.
Yin and yang
Of course, defensive turnovers are just half the battle. While Michigan ranks well in turnovers forced per game, their net margin sits just 54th in the nation. Last year, Michigan was 24th in the country, and though this was an anomaly from other recent seasons, it provides a downturn into 2017.
Taking the ball away is a sign of an improving defense, but giving the ball up is an even more telling sign on the other side of the ball. Michigan has had plenty of offensive gripes during the first three games of the year, but perhaps none are bigger than their far too prevalent turnovers.
As a statistic with limited predictability, the main point here is limited as well. Perhaps the defense has been lucky and the offense has been unlucky. This may certainly be the case, and expecting the exact ratios to continue as the season progresses is not too probable.
That being said, there is something going on with this defense, which is yet again one of the most dominant units in the country. If they continue to exert their will on their opponents, the offense will be the ones reap the benefits, even if they continue to make their own mistakes.