What is the most important number in Georgia football this season? It's not #3. It's +2.4. That's the departure in turnover margin from 2013 for the Red and Black, going from -.54 in turnovers last season to +1.86 so far in this one.
Through seven games the Georgia Bulldogs have recovered seven fumbles and snagged ten interceptions. By contrast, Georgia tallied a mere seven interceptions in all of 2013, an average of just over half an interception per game.
One of the interesting things about this turnaround is that it is being accomplished with essentially the same personnel as last year. Sure, Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons are not in red and black. Well, at least not the red and black of the Georgia Bulldogs. But Damian Swann alone has forced two fumbles and snagged three interceptions. Quincy Mauger has also tallied three picks. Both of these guys were here last year. The variable that has changed is Jeremy Pruitt and his defensive staff. Dominick Sanders, incidentally, has one interception, one fumble recovery and is currently averaging 38 yards per return when he is the recipient of a turnover. Clearly our game plan going forward should be to knock the ball out in front of Dominick Sanders and let the math happen.
The other thing which is critical about that 2.4 number is that the turnovers have happened largely at the best possible time. Sure, there was the ignominy of Devin Bowman's interception return for a touchdown which was called back earlier in the year. But by and large Georgia has gotten turnovers when it needed them to stop drives which could have shifted momentum. A fumble deep in Tennessee territory. Mauger's interception to stop in Missouri drive to get back in it in Columbia. Sanders's interception return for a touchdown which was really a very early nail in the coffin for Arkansas.
Of course the other side of the turnover coin is offensive; you cannot give the ball right back once you've stolen it. Georgia has been exceptional on this score as well. Hutson Mason has thrown three interceptions in 147 pass attempts, a pick every 48.6 throws. In 2013 Aaron Murray averaged an interception every 38.6 attempts. He also threw more passes, and averaged .81 interceptions per game (Mason's at .43/gm). Say what you will about Mason's physical abilities. But if his job is to throw enough to open up the running game but don't turn the ball over in the process, he's doing that brilliantly.
The Red and Black have also been preternaturally averse to fumbles, or at least losing them. The 2013 'Dawgs put the ball on the ground 22 times and lost 10 of those. So far in 2014 they have fumbled 8 times and lost only 1. 1 fumble. Through 7 games. That's next level ball security. By contrast, #1 Mississippi State has fumbled 14 times and lost 8 of them. Ole Miss has 8 fumbles, 4 lost. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, but if Georgia were to make it to the Georgia Dome against the Bizarro Bulldogs and that turnover differential holds, it bodes well for the good guys.
To be clear, we must be wary of the danger of small sample size here. Nine of the seventeen turnovers in 2014 have come in the past two games. Both came against teams which have turned the ball over some previously. That being said, It is hard to ignore the fact that the Georgia defense seems to be morphing into a ball-hawking unit capable of swinging momentum in the Dawgs' favor. That is not something which we have been able to declare at least since the latter half of 2012, if then. I won't get into the numbers here but it is clear over the long run that teams who force turnovers win football games. Teams who force turnovers at a much higher rate than their opponents win a lot of football games, the vast majority even.
If there's one thing Georgia must do to keep winning, it's not getting the ball to Todd Gurley, or involving Malcolm Mitchell, or figuring out how Hutson Mason can "let it rip." It's continuing to take the ball away 2.4 more times per game than we give it up. Until later....