Teams that commit the fewest turnovers generally win more football games. Teams that turn the ball over frequently generally lose more football games. These are fairly safe axioms to live by, because more often than not they hold true.
But not always, especially in the sometimes-backward Pac-12, where the offense is fast and furious and the defense is underrated.
An examination of turnover margin in the league the last three seasons reveals some very interesting results, trends and trend-busters.
Here’s how Pac-12 teams have shaped up the last three seasons:
Some intriguing takeaways (pun intended):
Stanford, the two-time defending conference champion, is well known for its hard-nosed defense. Yet in 2013, it had a turnover margin of zero (19 takeaways, 19 turnovers) and the Cardinal are in the lower half of the league the last three seasons in total turnovers generated. Worth noting, however, that Stanford also takes care of the ball better than anyone in the league, with a conference-low 54 turnovers in the last three seasons.
Oregon has more takeaways than any team in the conference the last three seasons, including a robust turnover margin of plus-21 for the 2012 season (tops in the league for a single-season over that three-year stretch). Wait a second: Doesn’t Oregon catch flak for not playing defense? Huh. The Ducks are second in the league behind Stanford with just 57 turnovers over the last three seasons.
Only Arizona State, Oregon and Washington had a positive turnover margin in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Only California, Colorado and Washington State had a negative turnover margin in all three seasons.
Stanford is the only team to have a zero margin in a season during the last three years.
ASU is the only team in the league to have at least 30 takeaways in all three seasons.
During that three-year stretch, only two teams have created more turnovers than Oregon State. During that same stretch, only two teams have committed more turnovers than Oregon State. So while the Beavers' 83 takeaways look great on paper, the 80 turnovers don’t. Makes sense that in the Beavers' best season, 2012, they had a plus-8 margin with 31 takeaways and 23 turnovers. In its worst, 2011, it was minus-8 with 23 takeaways and 31 turnovers.
Washington State has the most total turnovers (86) in the last three years. But Colorado has the worst turnover margin. Worth noting that last season the Buffs cut their margin down to minus-3 from the minus-19 in 2012.
USC tied with Colorado in 2012 for most turnovers in the league (34). So despite 71 takeaways the last three seasons, their 69 turnovers gives the Trojans only a plus-2 margin. Worth noting that after back-to-back seaspns of negative turnover margin in 2011 and 2012, USC was on the plus side last season at plus-5.
Arizona reached the plus side of the turnover margin last season (plus-4) after back-to-back seasons of negative margin in 2011 and 2012.
The most turnovers in a season in the three-year stretch was from Washington State, which had 35 last season.
The most takeaways in a season in the three-year stretch was by Oregon, which had 40 in 2012.
Washington’s much-maligned defense of 2011 still finished the season with a plus-1 turnover margin. Though during the last two seasons under then-coordinator Justin Wilcox (now with Steve Sarkisian at USC), the Huskies are plus-12.
The fewest turnovers in a season in the last three seasons is 16 – both from Washington and UCLA last season. Stanford is the only team in the conference to be in the teens in turnovers all three years.
Until last season, Utah had been solid at getting takeaways. It led the Pac-12 in turnovers and turnover margin in 2011 (33 takeaways, plus-10 margin). Even in 2012, the Utes were on the plus side, but failed to make a bowl game. Last year Utah dipped to minus-9.
So as you can see, there is obviously some correlation between turnovers and wins/losses. The three Pac-12 teams that didn’t make the postseason last season -- Cal, Colorado and Utah -- each had negative turnover margins.
But it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that the team that has the most turnovers will lose every game and the team with the most takeaways wins. Stanford is a perfect example of that, winning the league last season with an even margin. You don’t need a lot of takeaways to play great defense, but it doesn’t hurt, either.