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Quantifying FSU’s astonishingly bad 2018 fumble-recovery luck

Inside the soul-crushing numbers.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you’ve heard us discuss, on several occasions, Florida State’s horrendous turnover luck this far in 2018, and that has been on display nowhere more than with recovering fumbles.

First, let’s trash this notion that recovering fumbles is not luck. I’ve chatted with some friends who think that hustling to the ball can increase your chances of pouncing upon a loose ball, and while it sounds great, and may be a fantastic motivational ploy for those coaching youth football, it’s just not the case. Okay, a tiny concession: yeah, you’re more likely to jump on a fumble if you’re remotely close to the rock, as opposed to, say, on the other side of the field.

But through five games, FSU’s only fumble return this season occurred this past weekend, at Louisville, when the Seminoles’ Brian Burns snatched an errant pigskin and returned it 14 yards in the second quarter. The fumble happened at the end of a UL rush, during a pileup. Was Burns charging toward the scrum at 100 MPH? No. Content that the tackle had been secured by his teammates, he was watching from yards away, when the ball came free and literally hit him in the ankle.

This is an apt microcosm of fumble-recovery luck. If Burns is on top of the pile, the same fumble is likely recovered — if not advanced — by a Cardinal offensive lineman, who was the next closest player to the ball aside from Burns. The simple truth is that footballs are oblong objects that take funny bounces, and when they do so, they do so amidst traffic, which means a number of large feet moving in every direction. You just can’t guess when a ball is going to come out, how it may be kicked, or where it will head when it does, provided that it doesn’t bounce off another player and redirect yet again.

Let’s examine when FSU was less fortunate in the Louisville game— which has happened much, much more often this season for the ’Noles. On UL’s first drive, quarterback Jawon Pass is seized upon in the pocket by Florida State linebacker DeCalon Brooks, and the ball drops free. Everything about the play suggests a massively positive result for FSU. The two are physically engaged, so any kick of the ball would likely boot it farther backward, away from the Seminole goal and toward the Cardinals’ end zone. Yet, inexplicably, the pigskin, somehow, bounces straight back to the one free hand that Pass has, after which, he juggles the ball again yet still retains possession. Brooks did nothing wrong here, other than falling prey to the jaw-droppingly bad luck that Florida State has experienced this year.

So those are a couple of examples, working both ways, as to the fickle mistress that is fumble-recovery luck. And while images paint a picture, the numbers will make you want to tear down the canvas and cut your ear off.

This season, the Seminoles have forced more fumbles (8) than all but four FBS teams in the country, a tie for fifth, nationally. But forced fumbles are a different statistic than opponents’ fumbles, total, which include unforced errors. In that category, only Clemson has seen its opponents fumble more often than FSU’s (17-13), a mark which ties the ’Noles for second in the country.

But here’s where luck, or lack thereof, comes in. The ’Noles have recovered just two of their foes’ 13 fumbles. That’s a 15.38% recovery rate, 121st out of 126 FBS teams to have had an opponent fumble.

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Eight teams have recovered every single one of their opponents’ fumbles— and one of them is Virginia Tech, by whom FSU was vanquished on opening night. Northern Illinois has come up with 63.64% of its opponents’ fumbles. Louisville? 50%. Syracuse is at 40%. All Florida State opponents, all of whom have had much better luck when it comes to collecting loose balls. Those figures aren’t just for stats geeks. They change the numbers on the scoreboard.

But just how bad has the Seminoles’ turnover luck been, historically? That current recovery rate of 15.38% would be the worst in the FBS in 2017, when Vanderbilt occupied the cellar at 16.67%. And 2016, when NIU and Appalachian State came in at the bottom with the same percentage. You have to go back to 2015, when Mississippi State finished with a dreadful 7.69% to see a team with worse fortunes— and that year, the second worst team, Michigan, still boasted a better recovery rate than FSU’s current mark, at 18.18%.

Even the math is impressed here, folks. Assuming a 50/50 ball on the ground, the chances of a team recovering only two of thirteen fumbles is less than one percent. Considering your best chance is to recover six or seven of these (41.5% chance), FSU is waaaaaay outside of the mean, on the wrong side.

It’s been said that you’d always rather be lucky than good, but that’s ignoring an important causal relationship. Frankly, being lucky, when it comes to recovering fumbles, is a big part of being good.