May 17, 2011

Coaches pick the most important statistic

Numbers game
We took a look at last season's stats in some of the categories mentioned by coaches.
Turnover margin: Each of the top 25 teams nationally in turnover margin went to a bowl game last season; six of the top 10 went to BCS games. Just nine teams in the top 50 didn't go to a bowl; one of those was USC, which was ineligible for the postseason, and another was Western Michigan, which was bowl eligible but didn't get selected. Seven of the bottom 25 went to a bowl, including two of the bottom 10.

Third-down conversion, offense: All but two in the top 25 went to bowls; Houston and UTEP were those in the top 25 that didn't play in the postseason. Four of the top 10, including three of the top four, went to BCS games. Five in the bottom 25, including three in the bottom 10, went to bowls.

Third-down conversion, defense: Twenty-three of the top 25 teams -- and nine of the top 10 -- went to a bowl last season, with No. 10 Arizona State and No. 17 California the "outliers." Three of the top 10 went to BCS bowls. Seven of the bottom 25, including two in the bottom 10, made it to a bowl.

Tackles for loss, defense: Seventeen of the top 25 teams in tackles for loss went to a bowl last season; two in the top 10 went to BCS bowls. Kent State (which was third), Purdue (fourth), Arizona State (tied for eighth) and Vanderbilt (tied for eighth) were those in the top 10 who did not play in a bowl. Nine in the bottom 25, including three in the bottom 10, went to a bowl.

Scoring offense: All but one of the top 25 teams in scoring offense went to a bowl last season; the one "outlier" was Houston. Five of the top 10 went to BCS games. Three of the bottom 25 went to bowls (Washington, Miami of Ohio and Boston College), but none in the bottom 10.

Scoring defense: All but one of the top 25 teams in scoring defense went to a bowl last season; the one that didn't was Temple, which went 8-4 but wasn't invited to a postseason game. Three of the top 10 went to BCS games. Two of the bottom 25 went to bowls (Michigan and East Carolina, which also was in the bottom 10).

Every college football fan has heard or read about the most important statistic when it comes to winning games.

This guy says it's turnover margin. That guy says it's third-down defense. That other guy says it's scoring defense.

Well, who's right?

We talked to numerous coaches -- head coaches, offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators -- to find out the overriding on-field stat that people should look at in terms of whether a team is going to be successful.

Here are some answers:


Duke's David Cutcliffe
"The game ultimately is about the points. I have found there are two areas I look at. One is net kickoff coverage, which is a relatively new statistic. It is an indicator of a bunch of things. One, it is an indicator of athleticism. You see teams that can really get down the field on kickoff coverage, you will see athletic players. You know you are playing an athletic team. It also is an indicator that they are being coached in the area of special teams. That is not an accident. The other thing I look at a lot on both sides of the ball is what they are doing on third down. Good teams are good third-down production teams on both sides of the ball."

Louisiana Tech's Sonny Dykes
"It depends on how you are trying to win games. There are a lot of different ways to win games. Some guys win with defense and special teams and kind of get by on offense and don't turn it over. Other guys try to outscore people. When I was at Texas Tech, we didn't care much about penalties and time of possession and turnovers. [Mike] Leach would say that if we didn't have many penalties, we weren't playing aggressively enough. But when it's all said and done, I think explosive plays are what matter the most on offense. And a big deal defensively is holding them to negative plays."

Maryland's Randy Edsall
"I look at a few things. Penalties you [commit]. ... I think turnover margin is something you can tell what type of a team someone is. And third-down efficiency on both sides of the ball."

Arizona State's Dennis Erickson "The biggest thing with winning and losing is turnover margin. We lost that last year. With what we do on offense, we may turn it over a little more. So you have to take that into consideration."

Southern Miss' Larry Fedora
"For me, it's turnover margin and explosive plays. Those two things together are what I look at. An explosive run is over 12 yards and any pass over 20 is explosive. Sometimes, the scheme you have can provide more big-play opportunities. If you are spreading the field and you are putting your offensive players in more one-on-one situations, a guy misses a tackles or slips a tackle, you have a chance for an explosive play. But the other part that is non-coaching is athletes. You get a great one, and sometimes it doesn't matter if you block 'em or not. He makes plays for you and creates explosive plays. On the other side of the ball, it is takeaways and stopping explosive plays. At the end of games, we look to see if we won the turnover and explosive-play battles. Most of the time when you win both of those, you will win the game."

Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald
"The tell-tale one for me is turnover ratio. If you take care of the football and take the ball away from people, you have a chance to be pretty good as a football team. Some would say rush offense or rush defense, red-zone scoring, third downs -- there are a lot of different things to look at. But the first thing that jumps out to me is the turnover ratio. We coach the heck out of it on both sides of the ball."

Cincinnati's Butch Jones
"I would say turnover margin. Look at us last year. I never have been part of a year like that, where we hardly generated any turnovers [14] and we had a lot of turnovers [29]. It's about a mentality, a physicality with which you play defense. Another one is red-zone efficiency. On offense, you want to score touchdowns and on defense you want to make them kick field goals. We want to score 100 percent of the time in the red zone, but we want 68 percent to be touchdowns. Usually, the teams that are forced to kick field goals in the red zone end up getting beat. We were No. 1 in the Big East in touchdowns scored in the red zone in the Big East. However, we turned the ball over a lot."

USC's Lane Kiffin
"When I got the Raiders job, I remember talking to the team about turnover margin. The top four teams the year before I got the job -- first, second, third and fourth picks in the draft -- were 32, 31, 30, 29 in turnover margin. The four worst records were the four worst turnover margins. At any level, that is the first thing that you look at. Stanford and Oregon were Nos. 1 and 2 in turnover margin [in the Pac-10] last season and each played in BCS games. I tell our team all the time it's more important than red zone, third down, sacks, rushing yards per carry, whatever. ... Turnovers always say more about whether a team wins or loses games than any stat."

Ole Miss' Houston Nutt
"The first thing we always look at is turnover margin. You win that and, boy, you have a good chance to win the game. We stress it in practice. One of the things we talk about all the time is ball security. But one of the things we haven't done much recently is get a lot of turnovers. We didn't cause fumbles and interceptions. It seems you almost can tell how that thing is going to go early in the season."

Washington's Steve Sarkisian
"You look at the teams every year that have double-digit turnover margin, they all are bowl teams and winners, conference champs. ... It's an amazing stat. You have to place an emphasis on the football. And your defense has to tackle the football. And you call defenses that have an opportunity to create turnovers. It's one thing to stop people; it's another to create a turnover to create a short field for your offense."

Rutgers' Greg Schiano
"We have three things on our defense that are our three biggest goals and a telling sign if we are successful or not and are statistically relevant to winning. The first is holding a team under 100 yards rushing. We win something like 96 or 97 percent of the time when we do that. That is the most statistically relevant stat for winning for us. The second is plus-25-yard plays. If you can hold a team to two or under, you can have a high winning percentage. For some reason, two is the cut off. If you give up three ... . The third thing is turnover margin. I think everyone in America agrees that if you win the turnover battle, you have a great chance for success."


Texas Tech's Neal Brown
"Turnovers would be my first answer. But you also have to look at explosive plays and negative plays. Our goal is to minimize negative plays and get as many explosive plays as you can. An explosive run is anything over 12 yards. An explosive screen is 12 yards. An explosive pass is anything over 16. If I want to know if a team is well-coached, they have very few negative plays and a lot of explosive plays."

Iowa State's Tom Herman
"If you win the turnover margin and the explosive-play margin, you will win almost all of the games. There was an NFL study about 10 years ago that looked over five seasons. And teams that won those two areas won 97.5 percent of the time. For us, an explosive pass is 17 yards or more and an explosive run is 12 yards or more. Some people differ. We have five goals each week: win turnover margin; win explosive plays; be great on first down, and that means making 4 yards or more 50 percent of the time; be 45 percent or more on third down; score 80 percent of the time in the red zone, and we want touchdowns 67 percent of the time. If we win three out of the five, we are undefeated in the six years I have been an offensive coordinator."

Auburn's Gus Malzahn
"I'm an offensive guy, so for us, being a run-play action team, yards per rush is pretty important to us. When it is up, we are good. When it is down, we aren't as good. We have to be able to run the ball successfully to open up everything else that we do."

Oklahoma State's Todd Monken
"When you look at a good team, they are getting explosive plays and they aren't giving up explosive plays. That along with turnover margin are the two biggest reasons why teams win in the NFL [Monken was hired this offseason off the staff of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars]. And it goes down the line from there -- to sacks, lost-yardage plays, third-down conversions, scoring touchdowns in the red zone. And it's just the reverse for the defense. The same stuff, just the reverse. When I was at Louisiana Tech, we went to Miami. They didn't have good players, they had great players. They had four, five turnovers against us. It didn't matter. When you are significantly better, it doesn't matter. ... [Explosive plays] come in a number of ways. You can scheme them by creating space or by throwing over the top or into intermediate windows. But for most, it's natural ability. You can recruit to that. Spread offense has helped with explosive plays. But with that, more turnovers can come."

Boise State's Brent Pease
"We always look at turnovers, where they are as a ratio. Sometimes, a team isn't good because the offense is giving away the ball. Teams in the top 10 are in the plus-10, plus-15 range. When we were second a few years ago [2009], we were something like plus 20 or so [21, actually] in turnovers. Last year, we were 22nd with plus-eight. Very rarely will you have a team with a negative turnover margin in the top 15 or 20."

East Carolina's Lincoln Riley
"It would be turnover margin. Turnovers are the name of the game. You probably see some teams that are average, but a good turnover margin makes them better. You also have to look at how many points you score, scoring offense. Go look at the NCAA stats. All the top 25 teams in scoring offense were all pretty good teams. In today's game, not many people have a defense where you are going to score 13 points and win the game. That is how the game has evolved. You have to be able to score and get turnovers. A lot of the good teams take care of the ball and get turnovers on defense. But if I had to pick one, it would be turnover margin. Anyone can beat another team on any given day. A team that isn't quite as talented, you have to win the turnover battle."

North Carolina's John Shoop
"Besides points scored and points against, we talk about winning the turnover battle and the big-play battle. Those things go hand in hand. Turnovers are obvious to everyone. All of our touchdown drives that were over 50 yards, all but one of them had a big run or pass in it. If you can get chunks in the passing and running game, it's a really big deal. We talk a lot about turnovers and big plays, trying to win those two things."


Penn State's Tom Bradley
"For us, it's missed tackles and big plays. If we look back to the year before at how many explosion plays -- runs and passes over 15 yards -- when that is low, you would know exactly what kind of year you had. Forget yards, points, anything. You just look at those two things; that's it for us. You look at missed tackles because of how much time the game is played on the perimeter now as compared to before. It is much more one-on-one tackles now because the ball is thrown on the perimeter a lot more, even in the pros with more bubble screens. They don't see as many rocket screens because their quarterbacks don't run the ball. You can get even in the box and still play zone in the pros against a lot of that empty stuff. In college, if you want to get even in the box, you have to play straight man. If you are playing straight man out there, they can get out quick if you miss a tackle."

West Virginia's Jeff Casteel
"There are so many things that go into being a good team, I don't know if you can pick out any one stat. In the long run, it becomes a game of scoring defense and scoring offense. There are a lot of things that go into that, whether it's turnover margin, missed tackles, explosive plays. From our aspect, we don't necessarily look at one stat here at West Virginia. But the first thing we look at is points per game. Then we try to dissect how they are scoring. Third-down defense is a big key with people going fast on offense. The quicker you can get off the field will make you more efficient on defense. On third downs, we want to be 65-70 percent. That helps you limit opportunities. ... It's an offensive game. As many times as you can limit offensive opportunities, getting turnovers or getting off the field on third down -- you have to find ways to get off the field."

Texas A&M's Tim DeRuyter
"Scoring defense is the big one. But turnover margin is as big a factor as anything. And it's a function of both sides of the ball. If the offense does a great job taking care of it, that obviously helps. When we were at Air Force, the offense usually did a great job of not turning it over. And if a defense can force 30-plus takeaways, you will win most of those games. Total defense also is important. A lot of it is a function of how many plays you give up. In our league, you have Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Baylor -- all these guys are no-huddle, up-tempo teams, so you are going to play more snaps and total defense gets thrown out. Instead, I am more concerned about pass-efficiency defense and third-down defense."

Virginia Tech's Bud Foster
"Turnover margin as much as anything. There is a big correlation in consistent winning with people who protect the ball from an offensive standpoint or create turnovers on defense. That is one thing you see consistently. Teams that are good are generally pretty good in that area. I think third-down consistency is another area. A team that has dynamic players on either side of the ball can get off the field."

Georgia's Todd Grantham
"I think points allowed is the No. 1 stat. That is an indication you are a solid defense. After points allowed, you look at total yards because you can say you are good on pass defense but everyone may be running the ball on you. Or the other way around. So I think you have to look at scoring defense first -- that is most critical -- and then you look at total yards. If you are low in yards, you probably are good in some other areas -- third down, red zone, getting turnovers, getting off the field when you have to those kinds of things. If you give up a lot of plays and don't stop them, then they will extend drives and they will have more yards over the course of a season."

Georgia Tech's Al Groh
"The number I have found that has great legitimacy is the total of runs and completions for the opponent. There are certain numbers everyone looks at: third-down completion percentage, turnovers, yards per carry, yards per attempt. But this one stat packs it all in there. Offensively, a team will have difficulty having a high run and pass total if they aren't a good third-down team. It's difficult to have a high run and pass total if they turn the ball over. They will have a good run-pass total if they can run effectively and are efficient in their passing game. And you can't have a good run-pass figure if you have a lot of negative plays. As a defense, you have to get the offense off the field, so you have to be a good third-down team, get some takeaways, keep them from running the ball. It is one stat that does a lot to tell the story about what all those other components are."

Nebraska's Carl Pelini
"Lost-yardage plays are huge. These are the things we look at, in addition to points allowed. You have to be great on third downs, so we will look at our defense's third-down success rate, too. Anything under 30 is pretty good. When you start getting 25, 26 percent, you're a damn good defense. No matter how long a drive is, no matter how much success an offense is having, you are going to have two or three opportunities during the course of a drive to get off the field. If you are hitting those 66, 70 percent of the time, you have a great shot of getting the ball back even though you are giving up some yards. We also look at explosive plays vs. lost-yardage plays. We want to have two lost-yardage plays for every explosive play we allow. For us, explosive plays are runs over 12 yards and passes over 17. And turnovers. There was a study years ago in the NFL that I have bought into: If you win the turnover battle, you have more lost-yardage plays than the other team's defense and good starting field position, if you can win two out of three, you win something like 95 percent of your games."

Auburn's Ted Roof
"You can find out a bunch about teams by their explosive plays or if they have a high yards per carry. It varies from team to team. It always concerns you if a team has a high yards per carry. One thing I used to think was important eight to 10 years ago was how many senior offensive linemen a team had starting. Teams that usually had a lot of seniors up front had a pretty good offense. But nowadays, there are so many variables and so much variation from team to team and offense to offense."

Houston's Brian Stewart
"I look at turnover margin and third downs. From a defensive perspective, I look at a team's third-down conversion rate. If they are good on third downs, I have to really examine what they do. We were bad stopping teams on third downs last year [117th in the nation, 49.4 percent]. We were just snake-bitten on some things. If someone looked at us, they'd want to attack us on third down. I also look to see if teams turn the ball over. If they do, you see where it is at. Is the turnover margin high because the defense is opportunistic? Or do they fumble it or throw interceptions? It helps me prepare. I know I have to be solid on third down and do some more things in coverage. But if I see they turn the ball over, maybe we will want to mix some things - especially if they have a young quarterback."

Clemson's Kevin Steele
"Third-down conversions. There are a lot of things you look at, but the first thing I look at on Sunday afternoons is our opponent's third-down conversions. The hidden number is this: If a team has a high third-down conversion, there are two things happening. Either they have a highly efficient quarterback who is dangerous, or they are running the ball good. Their first- and second-down play calling usually is a run and they are getting in a lot of third-and-shorts. It's one of the two. So, when you go back and watch film and the first- and second-down stuff, your antenna is up to see, 'OK, we have to be real successful on first and second downs because if we let them get into third-and-medium and short, we aren't going to be getting the ball back.' "

UAB's Tommy West
"Turnovers. If you win the turnover battle, you have a heck of a chance to win. We also felt that we needed to win the rush, even when we were a throwing team. If we did both, win the turnover battle and rush, we felt we would win nine or 10 games a year. It's just hard to win them both in the same game. Some guys think there are some years when you just get more turnovers. I don't believe that. You coach leverage points on defense -- get the ball where you want it and teach your kids to get it out. If you are a zone [-coverage] team, then you should get more turnovers than if you are a man team. Man teams knock balls down and get a lot of pass breakups. Zone teams get more turnovers. They get more tips and have more guys facing the action and watching the play. When you play man, you have your back to the ball all the time. When you play zone, you have a lot of people running to the ball."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for He can be reached at, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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