BLUM: Turnover troubles

Sep 14, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker O’Rien Vance (34) pressures Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley (4) at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Miami has a chain, Memphis a robe, SMU a chalice, Florida State a backpack. This is not some messed up game of College Football Clue. In what has become a strange fad in college football, teams now utilize turnover tchotchke’s to celebrate securing an opponent’s giveaway.  Iowa State debuted a turnover belt last year to join in on the fun. The Cyclones may very well have another item in mind for 2019, but through two games it has remained under lock and key.   

Through the early part of the college football season, Iowa State is one of just three FBS teams yet to force a turnover.

Unfortunately, Iowa State has given the ball away three times in two games, all coming at inopportune times. This is the chief reason that despite playing very good football, the Cyclones are 1-1 and needed triple OT to get that win. It was also the primary reason, Iowa State came up empty against Iowa on Saturday.

It also means that if the Cyclones turn around the turnover fortune, this can be a very special season.

Many smart people have studied the turnover phenomenon over the years trying to find the secret sauce of creating more chaos. Two conclusions have come from said studies:

  1. Turnovers are a huge factor in determining game outcome.
  2. Turnovers are essentially random.

Research studies show that in college football, if you win the turnover battle, you win the game 70 percent of the time. Iowa State has similar results under Campbell. Iowa State is 13-4 when winning the turnover battle under Matt Campbell, or just a shade over 75 percent. The Cyclones have been very fortunate in all reality because they haven’t won the turnover battle since the Baylor game a year ago, but still won 3 games in that span.

The problem is these same aforementioned research studies show turnovers are essentially random. So despite the turnover chains and belts and robes incentivizing these acts, they often are simple luck. From an ESPN article in 2018 on the same topic, “The analytics say that turnovers are way, way more random than coaches or fans think,” said Ed Feng, the curator of The Power Rank analytics service who has a Ph.D. in applied math from Stanford. “It’s not a perfect way to say there’s no skill. It’s just that turnovers are a really subtle thing, and randomness plays a much bigger role than people want to think.”

Sure, one can coach and practice the act of creating a turnover, but often it’s just a matter of the ball bouncing the correct way.

In 2017, Iowa State forced 20 turnovers, good for 60th in the country.

In 2018, playing the same defense with the same players, Iowa State forced 16 turnovers.

The Iowa State team that forced the most turnovers in the last six years was the one in 2013 that was perhaps the worst Iowa State defense in my memory.

“Man, Blum,” you may be thinking, “This isn’t make me feel better.”

Wait, there’s good news. Since turnovers are frankly random, there is a great chance for the statistics to regress to the mean over time.

I looked back through game data from 2000 on and Iowa State has never gone three games in a row without forcing an opponent turnover. Well, the streak is currently at two.

Once that turns around (and it will, trust me), this Iowa State team is primed to be very good this season. The defense has been as advertised with Greg Eisworth, Mike Rose and Marcell Spears playing at All-American levels to the start the season. The offensive line (the biggest question this year) held up extremely well against a very good Iowa front and allowed Brock Purdy to pick apart the Hawkeyes. The Cyclones have really good players at every single position and I am even more optimistic about the level of play through two games than before the season.

Iowa State is in the top 30 for both yards per play and yards allowed per play. That is a great sign.

This is because yards per play and yards allowed per play are generally very repeatable and a function of the quality of a team. Turnovers are random.

The Cyclones just need to get out that turnover mystery item and eliminate their own mistakes.

Oh, and maybe the opposing kicker could miss for once.