Turnover Margin: Play for and Make the Breaks

Why does it feel like things constantly go against the Vols? Because in one of football’s most telling statistics, things have indeed gone against Tennessee for a very long time.

The 2020 Vols are -3 in turnovers through seven games: 8 takeaways, 11 giveaways. Statistical comparisons are difficult this year, with teams playing an uneven number of games. And it’s fruitless to compare this season to others outright: you tend to look worse when an FCS opponent isn’t on the schedule.

But we can compare what these Vols are doing to what their predecessors did in conference play, the most helpful comparison in a year in need of understanding.

And when it comes to turnover margin in SEC play, the Vols have been very bad for a very long time.

Everything feels worse this year because so many of Tennessee’s turnovers are getting returned for touchdowns. Especially against Auburn, as Jeremy Pruitt noted, that play could’ve been the difference between winning and losing. But to find the kind of success this program is hungry for, the Vols will have to do more than stop throwing the occasional pick six.

The Vols haven’t had a positive turnover margin in SEC play since 2009. They broke even the following year, and have been in the negative in each of the nine years since, and three in the hole in 2020. From 2011-2020, the Vols are -42 in turnovers in 79 SEC games.

Winning football, this is not.

The turnover volume this year isn’t unusual, but that’s only because Tennessee has been so bad at it for so long:

(data via SportSource Analytics)

YearTurnover Margin in SEC games

So all these things can be true: the Vols have been especially crushed by pick sixes and poorly-timed turnovers this season. Jarrett Guarantano continues to struggle with quality, not quantity when he turns it over. But the Vols have been on the wrong side of this conversation for a literal decade, so saying this year isn’t unusual carries the connotation that we’re used to giving away a possession every other game.

To be sure, one game can swing the conversation. The 2015 Vols finished 28th nationally in turnover margin in all games by going +4 in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern. The 2016 Vols went +4 against Virginia Tech, -4 at Texas A&M, -3 at South Carolina, +4 against Missouri. Lane Kiffin’s team did this best in league play, but only after an excruciating -3 against UCLA. But overall, the Vols haven’t landed in the black since then.

We struggle to make any good comparison to this year, but the closest in football might be 2005. The stakes were much higher then as a preseason Top 5 team and the defending SEC East champs. But the Vols never got the quarterback situation figured out between Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen, and finished a disastrous -7 overall in turnover margin, including catastrophic fumbles at the goal line against Alabama and South Carolina that cost the Vols both games.

If you’re trying to piece together what went wrong this year, the most simple explanation is the defensive touchdowns allowed. But to get where we all want to go, the program has to get on the right side of the turnover battle. Create more havoc defensively: the Vols haven’t finished inside the Top 30 in total takeaways since 2010. And find a better sweet spot offensively between taking no chances and putting ourselves in a bad situation.

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