The Syracuse Orange football team improved by leaps and bounds in 2018. Reasons for that included a veteran line, a relatively healthy Eric Dungey, three years in Dino Babers’s system, one of the top special teams units in the country, an improved defense and of course, turnover luck.
Syracuse forced the third-most turnovers in the country last year, at 31 — just one behind Utah State and Ohio for the FBS lead. They were also the only Power Five team to force more than 30 on the year. Just eight (including the Orange) forced more than 25.
Turning teams over a lot typically leads to more points, obviously. Especially when your offense is running more plays than most. Quick scores can flip games in an instant, tire out the opposition and take teams out of their respective game plans as they fight to mount comebacks.
ESPN’s David Hale (an SU alum himself) took a look at turnover margin for Syracuse last year and explained just how extreme it was. As Hale points out, Syracuse had a 25-turnover swing from minus-12 to plus-13. Points off turnovers increased by 117 points. The team added 19 takeaways from 2018 to 2019 — the highest single-season jump for a P5 squad in the last decade.
The crux of the article, of course, is that that sort of improvement likely leads to a regression this year. While that’s fair given the extreme here — and Hale’s not hoping for the regression, either — I do see reasons to believe that SU won’t regress so incredibly that it greatly impacts results.
Take a look at the Orange’s turnover numbers over the last 10 years in terms of turnovers forced per game. The first seven seasons were under the same basic defensive scheme with Scott Shafer (as defensive coordinator and then head coach). The last three have been under Dino’s DC, Brian Ward.
The total turnover numbers present very large gaps when comparing 2018 to any season this past decade (2013’s 24 forced turnovers were closest), but the per-game statistics do normalize things a little. This past season (2.38 per game) was definitely an outlier. But 2017’s average (one per) was as well. So yes, 31 turnovers was a lot. But that number looks much bigger when compared to the program’s worst figure in the past decade.
Hale’s research is sound, and this isn’t meant to discount it. But we’re just digging a little bit more into the how and why of these numbers turning out the way they did across a longer stretch of time. Scott Shafer’s teams largely stayed within the same basic band — between 1.3 and 1.9 per game. Those teams played aggressively and took risks. They were also largely offensive liabilities save 2012, which forced them to play that way. Shafer also preferred the game sat in the defense’s hands, versus the offenses.
Another factor is the schedule difficulty. While the early years in here were against Big East competition, Syracuse also scheduled itself into the ground in non-conference play. There’s no easy way to normalize turnovers for strength of schedule — or at least, no normal way I can do so — but it should be mentioned just for the sake of accounting for 2018’s uptick further. The ACC was down last year, with Louisville and Florida State playing below recent trends, and Wake Forest, NC State and Boston College failing to improve by much (at least relative to Syracuse). Add in a manageable non-conference slate of Western Michigan, Wagner and UConn (plus Notre Dame) and it’s easier to see how things jump. That also informs how the raw numbers look similar this year, even with a regression in luck.
Eight of Syracuse’s 31 forced turnovers were against Western Michigan, Wagner and UConn. Add in fellow bottom-dweller Louisville (another four) and that makes for 12 of 31 — well over a third in just four games.
This year, the Orange face an even more manageable non-conference slate of Liberty, Maryland, Western Michigan and Holy Cross. Add in what should still be a questionable Louisville squad and maybe a rebuilding Duke, and per-game regressions may not come just by way of opponent strength (or lack thereof) alone.
There’s also the other reason for the spike: More talent. There’s arguably more talent on Syracuse’s roster now than at any other point in the last decade. And especially when comparing the Shafer teams and early Dino teams, there’s definitely quite a bit more. Andre Cisco’s seven picks alone account for a lot with regard to the turnover increase. He’s not the only great defensive back on the squad either; though he was the newest one, hence the additional turnovers.
Similarly, Brian Ward’s change in scheme plays a role in how things improved so much from one year to the next. As the team embraced a more aggressive style and mixed in more talented players that were a fit for the system, that meant better players were also better situated to take advantage of situations generated by luck. Turnovers do have to factor in luck, but scheme and talent play a role as well. Syracuse’s additions on the two latter points were big parts of how you end up completing a 25-turnover swing like that.
Hale points out that some sort of regressions is inevitable, and he’s largely right. But he also points out that given how one-sided Syracuse’s wins were last year, it may just mean closer Ws, not fewer of them. That should be encouraging. For what it’s worth, however, I’m high on that regression being a little on the conservative end given the factors spelled out above.