The luckiest -- and unluckiest -- college teams in Texas on fumbles.
I’m going to use a bad word to start this piece. If you have any children nearby, you may want to steer them away from the rest of this article, because of its uncomfortable use of language.
Here we go. Ready for the bad word?
No, that’s not a typo. I really mean that luck is a bad word, at least in football circles. If you say that a team is “lucky,” you’re somehow saying that they’re not deserving of the success that they had. You’re saying that luck took the chance of skill.
But that’s not it at all. In fact, sports are very largely based in luck. Random chance dictates many aspects of the athletic ventures that we ramble on and on about on Twitter, on Facebook and between friends. And many times, we mistake a team that had luck on its side for a team that’s much better than it actually is.
It’s an important distinction to make that skill and luck are not mutually exclusive. If you’re bad, you’re bad. If you’re good, you’re good. But getting the better of random chance can give you an important boost, while being on the wrong side of random chance can make it even tougher to succeed.
The most glaring example of luck in football: the fumble.
It takes special skill to force a fumble. But recovering a fumble is almost entirely left up to chance. And if you think about it, it makes sense: once the ball goes bouncing, it’s basically a coin flip as to who will come up with it. And over the course of a season, when a team will see 30 or 40 fumbles (either their own or their opponents’), it would stand to reason that a team would recover exactly half of all of the fumbles in their games.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what the guys over at Football Outsiders have to say about it:
“Stripping the ball is a skill. Holding onto the ball is a skill. Pouncing on the ball as it is bouncing all over the place is not a skill. There is no correlation whatsoever between the percentage of fumbles recovered by a team in one year and the percentage they recover in the next year. The odds of recovery are based solely on the type of play involved, not the teams or any of their players.”
Need more proof that recovering a fumble is based almost entirely in chance? Let’s take an example from the college world. I picked a school at random – Boston College – and examined what percentage of the fumbles they recovered. And remember: we’re not just talking about their opponents’ fumbles. This is all of the total fumbles in their games, both from them and their opponent.
Over the last five years, Boston College has recovered 39%, 28%, 64%, 56% and 46% of the fumbles in their games. See the correlation? Me neither. That’s because there isn’t one. If you recover a majority of the fumbles, that doesn’t mean you’re particularly adept at recovering fumbles; it just means that you got lucky that season. On the flip side, if you don’t recover a majority of the fumbles, you’re not bad at recovering fumbles; you’re just unlucky. Recovering fumbles is not a skill, and it’s proved by the fact that it’s not a skill that is constant across seasons.
So, with that primer on fumble luck out of the way, let’s bring it back home to the Lone Star State. Who were the luckiest – and unluckiest – college teams in the state when it came to fumble luck in 2012?
I went through each of the 12 FBS teams’ schedules and counted up all of their fumbles and their opponents’ fumbles. Then, I counted how many the Texas team recovered. That gave us a percentage of fumbles they recovered, and whatever percentage above or below 50% (the true random chance, no-luck-involved median) represents their “fumble luck.” If you had a positive fumble luck, that means you were lucky. If you had a negative fumble luck, that means you were unlucky.
Let’s go to the numbers.
|Team||Own Fumbles||Own Fumbles Recovered||% Own Fumbles Recovered||Opp. Fumbles||Opp. Fumbles Recovered||% Opp. Fumbles Recovered||Total Fumbles||Total Fumbles Lost||% Total Fumbles Recovered||"Fumble Luck"|
Not what you expected? Here are some thoughts:
-Goodness gracious, Texas State got a lot of bounces to go their way. What’s most amazing is that they had a hard time recovering their own fumbles, but had almost every one of their opponents’ fumbles bounce their way. They recovered 13% more fumbles than they should've.
-On the flip side, wow: Texas Tech couldn’t buy a break. The Red Raiders had a tough time forcing turnovers as it was, and it wasn’t helped out by the fact that when their opponents fumbled, Tech came up with it just 21.4% of the time. Brutal.
-You might notice something interesting: of the seven Texas teams that had negative fumble luck, six of them. That would stand to reason that those teams were a touch better than their record – or the statistics – would indicate.
-You might also notice that of the five teams that had positive fumble luck, four of them didn’t make a bowl. On the flip side, that would stand to reason that those teams were a touch worse than their record or the statistics would indicate.
-And then you have SMU and Houston. SMU went 7-6 this year after its win in the Hawaii Bowl, but it also had the second-best fumble luck in the state. Houston went 5-7 this season, but it also had the second-worst fumble luck in the state. One must wonder: if the fumble luck were to have evened out instead of sliding toward SMU and away from Houston, would it be the Coogs who went to a bowl, and SMU who sat out the postseason?
Whatever the case may be, it’s always an interesting study to see who caught the breaks and who didn’t. Sometimes, after all the preparation and hard work that goes into every Saturday, it’s all about how the ball bounces.
Greg Tepper is the associate editor of Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.