Are the Georgia Bulldogs Due for More Lost Fumbles in 2011?

Our old friend kleph has taken a look a turnover margin in the SEC, and his charts vividly confirm the maddening reality reported a month ago by Senator Blutarsky, who noted that, of "the ten teams which improved their turnover margins the most from 2009 to 2010," the only one "which didn’t win more games in 2010 was the team with the second greatest improvement (+26!) in all of D-1 football, our beloved Georgia Bulldogs."

How depressing a stat is that? It’s so depressing that even SEC-hating Big Ten bloggers feel enough sympathy for us to write: "Georgia went from –16 to +10 and still finished two games worse than they did last year. That would seriously harsh my buzz if I was a Georgia fan." Actually, Georgia fans don’t use "buzz" as a favorable term, for obvious reasons, but I appreciate the show of solidarity, nevertheless.

If you want to talk about harsh, though, click on the first link of the opening paragraph of this posting and scroll down to the chart marked "2010 Average Turnover Margin/Game." What you will see is that the Alabama Crimson Tide led the league, which only makes sense. After all, the Tide won ten games, capped off by a Capital One Bowl shellacking of the Michigan St. Spartans, finished in the AP top ten, and went 5-3 against ranked opponents. It figures that ‘Bama would’ve been good at a statistic generally accepted as consequential.

Slightly behind the Tide in second place, however, were the ‘Dawgs. Georgia was somewhat better than the Cotton Bowl champion LSU Tigers and the Gator Bowl champion Mississippi St. Bulldogs, and the Red and Black were significantly better than the Sugar Bowl champion (in due time) Arkansas Razorbacks, the national champion Auburn Tigers, and the SEC East champion South Carolina Gamecocks. All five of the Athenians’ conference losses were to teams with worse average turnover margins than the Bulldogs’.

The rest of kleph’s charts paint a more thorough picture, though. Georgia recovered a middling 45.45 per cent of opponents’ fumbles in 2010, which was only good enough for a sixth-place finish in the SEC. The five teams ranked ahead of the Classic City Canines in that category combined to go 4-0 against the ‘Dawgs last fall.

Such numbers matter because, as kleph notes, "once the ball hits the ground the law of averages takes over. While this means it is impossible to guess what a team will do any given year, it does suggest that unusual outliers will return to the mean. . . . [I]f you suffered terrible fumble luck or had good fumble fortune one season, don't plan on it happening again the next." Football Outsiders confirms the relative randomness of fumble recoveries.

That thought is troubling for this reason: Georgia lost only 40 per cent of its own fumbles in the 2010 season. Only two teams in the SEC were better at covering up their own dropped ovals last year, and only one of those was more than one percentage point better. The Bulldogs, in other words, are unlikely to lose fewer (or even as few) fumbles in 2011 than they did the year before.

The Red and Black coughed up the pigskin 20 times last season, exactly as many times as the eventual BCS champion did, but the ‘Dawgs failed to retain possession a league-low eight times when putting the ball on the carpet. Of course, three of those eight lost fumbles occurred on the South Carolina goal line when the Athenians were trailing the Palmetto State Poultry by eight points, on the Mississippi State goal line when the Bulldogs were trailing the Magnolia State Mongrels by seven points, and on the Colorado 30 yard line when Georgia was trailing the Centennial State Ungulates by two points.

Statistically, the ‘Dawgs are due to lose more fumbles this year than they did last year, yet nearly half of the ones they lost last year were excruciating game-changers that certainly shifted the momentum and arguably caused losses not just of possession, but of the contests themselves. If you take away those three giveaways, Georgia probably doesn’t win all three of those games, but the Bulldogs darned sure don’t lose all three of those games, either.

The prospect of a greater number of negative outcomes in a category that gave rise to much wailing and gnashing of teeth a year ago gives us all cause for pause, but we may take comfort (cold though it may be) in this fact: not all turnovers are equally devastating, and, while the Red and Black may be due for more of them overall, surely, if there is any justice to be found in the midst of randomness, they will not occur as often in such critical situations. We are willing to accept a statistical regression to the mean, as long as we are able to inch nearer to the norm in angst, as well. There, too, we are more than due.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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