Sports, Thrill of Victory

The Turnover Forecast in the SEC West

Turnovers aren’t often talked about going into games, but they often determine the outcome of them. I looked at the impact that turnovers might have on the seasons of each Southeastern Conference Eastern Division team on Monday, so here’s a look at the West today, including what each team did the last five seasons.

Alabama
2008-12: +6, +19, +12, +8, +14

If you want a measure of how disciplined coach Nick Saban’s teams are (and therefore, another reason they keep winning), look no further than the turnover category, where the Crimson Tide has posted no worse than a plus-4 margin in any year since he arrived in 2007.

This year, it should be more of the same. Quarterback A.J. McCarron has thrown eight interceptions in his 690 career pass attempts, and certainly isn’t regressing. The one area where Alabama could stand some improvement is in hanging onto the ball when it runs: the Crimson Tide put the ball on the turf 24 times and lost it 12 (after numbers of 12 and four the year before), and I’ll bet that improves.

Alabama did lose some outstanding defenders, but does it really matter any more? Saban will just plug in and make do with the latest set of 4- and 5-star recruits, plus build around maybe the nation’s best linebacker in C.J. Mosley. With Alabama’s size and speed in its front seven, it will get pressure on the quarterback, and then let the secondary clean up on rushed throws from there.

Forecast: Another positive, double-digit performance.

Arkansas
2008-12: -9, +15, +1, +1, -19

Okay, so the Razorbacks were terrible on defense last year, but lost in that was the fact that they rushed the passer reasonably well (31 sacks). That often leads to turnovers, and with a couple of all-conference caliber linemen in Chris Smith and Bryan Jones back, the Hawgs should be able to not only generate pressure, but also to get more than the six picks they had a year ago given that their starting secondary returns.

On the other side of things, new coach Bret Bielema will make UA a run-first team, meaning Arkansas probably won’t get picked 16 times as it did a year ago. The problem for Arkansas was hanging onto the ball: an astounding 36 fumbles, 15 of which were lost. That needs to improve, and the other risk will be breaking in a new quarterback as well.

The Razorbacks seemed to lose focus early in the season, and the fact that John L. Smith was obviously a lame-duck coach didn’t help. A change in coaching, combined with all those other things, and the Razorbacks are probably the one team in the SEC guaranteed to do better in turnovers than they did last year.

Forecast: The Razorbacks should break even, and maybe even come out slightly ahead given that the ball won’t be in the air as much.

Auburn
2008-12: -8, +1, +5, +2, -12

The best news for Auburn: Kiehl Frazier can’t throw any more interceptions now that he’s playing safety. With Jonathan Wallace treading water, it appears that coach Gus Malzahn will choose between Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. This is where the bad news comes in: Marshall threw 20 interceptions in JUCO ball last year — and the SEC is infinitely tougher — and Johnson, despite the talent that made him Alabama’s Mr. Football, is a true freshman. That’s not the ideal recipe for success.

On defense, it’s another good news-bad news scenario for Auburn. The good news is that the Tigers couldn’t register just two interceptions for the entire stinking season again if they tried. The bad news is that the Tigers got some lucky bounces when in recovering a phenomenal 11 of the 15 fumbles they forced. On top of that, Auburn really doesn’t have a lot of play-makers on defense.

Forecast: The net effect is that Auburn will probably be better than in 2012, but they’ll still probably wind up in negative territory.

LSU
2008-12: -1, +4, +8, +20, +16

No team in the SEC has come within a couple of light years of LSU’s plus-36 over the past two seasons combined, but the Tigers won’t be the same team in 2012, thanks to massive losses in the front seven. They were also fortunate to land on all but seven of the 22 fumbles they forced.

But, let’s not forget that LSU tends to re-load on defense. Last year, the Tigers were really, really green in the secondary, and still registered 18 interceptions. This year, defensive coordinator John Chavis has a number of experienced, talented players ready to fill in and take on bigger roles, including possible first-round pick Anthony Johnson, a defensive tackle. What this all means is that LSU will likely force a lot of miscues once again, though I’d bet against against a repeat of last year’s 33.

The offensive part hinges on which version of quarterback Zach Mettenberger shows up. It was a mixed bag for the senior last season, but on the good side, he managed just seven picks in 352 attempts.

Forecast: The level at which the Tigers have achieved in the last two years is probably not sustainable this year, but since 2006, the Tigers have wound up on the negative side just once — and that was minus-1 in 2008. You have to figure that LSU will post a positive number again, but it’s probably in the single-digits this time.

Ole Miss
2008-12: -2, -7, -6, -8, -1

The Rebels are a preseason Top 25 team in the minds of many, and if I had to come up with a Top 25 of my own (which I haven’t yet), they’d probably sneak into my rankings, too. But there’s a big concern with the Rebels, and it’s around quarterback Bo Wallace, who tied for the national lead with 17 interceptions a year ago. It’s not that Wallace is a bad quarterback — he played really well at times, and was the team’s MVP in the eyes of some — and you’d expect improvement in his second year as a starter. However, Wallace is coming off major shoulder surgery, and some of the old habits seem to persist, as coach Hugh Freeze recently called him out for being careless with the ball again. Throw in the fact that the Rebels allowed 34 sacks last year, and that’s a recipe for trouble.

On the other side of the ball, the Rebels improved markedly on defense as the season progressed. Overall, they’ll be better again this year. However, they forced 28 turnovers last season, and it’s going to be hard to improve on that.

Forecast: It looks like a break-even year for the Rebels.

Mississippi State
2008-12: -4, -5, +7, 0, +16

MSU’s plus-16 last year was a product of a couple of things: picking on weak opponents (a combined plus-17 vs. Jackson State, Auburn, Troy, South Alabama and Arkansas) and a really good secondary (19 interceptions) led by Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, both of whom were taken in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The schedule is a little bit more difficult this time around, and those two things combined start MSU in a bit of a hole. Plus, the defense is unlikely to pick up fumbles (14 recovered in 19 chances) at the rate it did last year.

Now, for the good news: MSU still has some quality experienced players at defensive back, and the defensive line is expected to be improved. Offensively, fifth-year senior Tyler Russell (10 picks last year) is solid and with four returning starters on the offensive line, there’s no reason to expect MSU to commit a slew of turnovers.

Forecast: It should be about a break-even year.

Texas A&M
2008-12: -10, -2, -5, -9, -5

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite off-season topic, Johnny Manziel. His devil-may-care attitude permeates his personality on and off the field, so he’s probably going to take some risks that cost him at times this season. However, A&M turned it over 12 times through the air and 11 on the ground, and I’m not sure I see things getting worse.

Defensively, the Aggies didn’t make a lot happen: just 10 interceptions and four fumble recoveries out of 14 opportunities. That’s kind of hard to believe given the presence of Demontre Moore, who’s now gone. The Aggies also lost some key linebackers and may not be as good on the front seven, but the defensive backfield should benefit from more experience. The bottom line is, the Aggies may not be as good here, but should catch more breaks than the 14 turnovers they got last year in spite of that.

Forecast: It’s hard to see how A&M will get worse here, but Manziel’s lack of self-discipline and the front seven’s lack of play-makers may limit the upside beyond being more than a plus-4 or 5.