If you spent part of the 2022 college football season thinking, "USC can't possibly keep getting away with this!!" then you should know this: Your hunches were as statistically sound as they were exasperated.
For much of last fall, the Trojans' defense was good at one and only one thing: pouncing on the football just in the nick of time. They lacked in just about every other department -- they were 93rd in scoring defense (29.2 points per game), 106th in total defense (423.9 yards per game) and a ghastly 124th in yards allowed per play (6.5!) -- but they forced 28 turnovers, sixth-most in the FBS.
Every football coach in existence preaches the importance of turnovers and turnover margin. But while you can impact your own turnover margin to some degree with how well you teach ball security and ball pursuit, how aggressively you go after the opponent's quarterback, how aggressive your own offense is, et cetera, there's still a massive amount of fortune involved here. And USC's fortune meter was turned all the way up.
In the first five USC games of 2022, there were nine fumbles, and the Trojans recovered all nine. Fumble recoveries revert to 50% over a long enough period of time, but USC got to an 11-1 record by having recovered 18 of 23 (78%). While a team typically intercepts about one pass to every four pass breakups, their regular-season ratio was 1-to-1.9, and their interceptions total was seven higher than national averages would suggest.
The INT ratio regressed to the mean late in the season, and the fumble recoveries will probably do the same soon enough. Luck and randomness play a massive role in the game of football -- especially the version played by 18- to 22-year-olds -- and as we slowly gear up for 2023, let's take a look at who benefited the most from the bounce of the ol' pointy football.
Fumble recovery rates
Indeed, over a large enough period of time, a team will recover about 50% of all fumbles. There's a slight correlation between where a fumble occurs and which team is more likely to recover -- the further downfield it is, the more likely a defender will pounce on it (primarily because there are usually more defenders in the near vicinity) -- but even then the fates don't change a ton. By simply looking at who recovered a particularly high or low percentage of loose balls, we are learning a lot about who benefited from fortune and who will be impacted by future regression toward the mean.