Turnovers may not define a team, but they can define a season.
Personnel changes in college football can lead to a lot of variance from year to year in terms of turnovers — for both the offense and the defense. Sweeping scheme changes occur as coaches come in and out, and fixtures at key positions move on with their lives and careers.
Some teams are simply more adept at forcing turnovers, and some teams are definitely more prone to turning the ball over based on how they run their offense. Still, there are some outliers that are likely to regress from one year to the next, something you want to factor into your handicapping as a new season looms on the horizon.
Negative Turnover Regression
Nevada Wolf Pack: Nevada has a new coaching staff as Jay Norvell went to Colorado State. The Wolf Pack led the nation in turnover margin last season at + 16 (27 takeaways against 11 giveaways), but things are likely to change in a big way in Reno.
QB Carson Strong is now in the NFL, leaving behind Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth to run a dramatically different scheme. Nevada goes from the Air Raid to more of a pro-style offense with new coach Ken Wilson and new OC Derek Sage, formerly the tight ends coach at UCLA.
Nevada led the nation (tied with four other teams) with only two fumbles lost last season and finished third in Fumble Lost% at 22.22%. Only Houston and Oklahoma were more fortunate. On the flip side, the Wolf Pack recovered 13 of 23 fumbles by opponents. Last season was Nevada’s first since 2016 with a positive turnover differential. Between the major offensive changes and likely far less luck on defense, the Wolf Pack will see a reversal of fortunes in the turnover department.
Cincinnati Bearcats: The Bearcats were tied for second nationally in turnover margin (+ 15) and tied for third in defensive interceptions (19). Cincinnati lost three players in the secondary to the NFL draft, including top-10 pick Sauce Gardner. They also lost Coby Bryant in the fourth round.
Cincinnati will probably have another quality secondary because the program recruits at a high level for a Group of 5 school, but last year’s group was an outlier. Furthermore, the Bearcats have to replace QB Desmond Ridder, who only had eight interceptions last season.
Here’s where it really gets interesting, though. Cincinnati was tied for first in fumble recoveries with 15 (Middle Tennessee) and tied for fifth in forced fumbles with 24. Going after the ball when tackling is a skill, but Cincinnati’s + 15 turnover margin looks very hard to repeat. In fact, Cincinnati was + 10 in five October games but only + 2 the rest of the season, so we even saw some in-season regression last year.
Positive Turnover Regression
Arizona Wildcats: It was a long first season for Jedd Fisch, but the arrow is pointing up in Tucson. Washington State transfer QB Jayden de Laura should help immensely and a lower turnover rate would be a good start. My preseason power ratings are higher than the market on Arizona and last season’s -17 turnover margin has a lot to do with it.
The Wildcats had a 10-18 TD-INT ratio from their quarterbacks. This is de Laura’s team now and he had a 28-13 TD-INT ratio at Wazzu the last two seasons. Arizona was -15 in turnover margin in Pac-12 games en route to going 1-8. That shouldn’t happen again.
On defense, only North Carolina State had fewer fumble recoveries than Arizona, which was tied for second-to-last nationally with only two. The Wildcats only forced eight fumbles but the ball didn’t bounce their way either. New defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen was the defensive line coach at UCLA last season and the Bruins forced 15 fumbles. The Wildcats also only had four interceptions, so they were -14 in interception margin. This should be a much improved team on turnovers alone.
Kentucky Wildcats: The most interesting team from last season by turnover margin was Kentucky. The Wildcats finished -11 but still won 10 games. The run-heavy Cats lost 10 of their 16 fumbles and only recovered three of 10 fumbles by opponents.
Kentucky, which ranked 88th in pass attempts, ranked 102nd in interceptions with 13. All 13 of those belonged to Will Levis, who is getting some NFL draft buzz this season. Four of Kentucky’s top five wide receivers are gone, so it’s possible Levis will be throwing into more contested windows. He also has a new offensive coordinator.
On the other hand, Kentucky only had 12 takeaways and went from + 10 in 2020 to -11 in 2021. Something closer to an even turnover margin makes more sense, but this was a fascinating team last season. Run-heavy teams typically take better care of the ball, so it stands to reason Kentucky will improve. The Wildcats were -9 in turnover margin in September but only -2 the rest of the way as the offense took hold.