Justin Fuente said following the Georgia Tech loss that there is no metric other than score that determines the outcome of a football game more than turnovers. In Virginia Tech’s case, that’s most definitely true. The Hokies have played good, clean football for the most part this year, but they’ve lost the three FBS games in which they’ve lost the turnover margin.
Throwing out the Liberty game and focusing only on FBS opponents, here’s a look at Virginia Tech’s game-by-game turnover margin and the ensuing result…
Tennessee: -4, L
Boston College: +1, W
East Carolina: +1, W
North Carolina: +2, W
Syracuse: -1, L
Miami: +1, W
Pitt: +2, W
Duke: 0, W
Georgia Tech: -3, L
There’s a lot of parity in college football these days. Even programs who recruit 5-star and 4-star prospects such as Clemson can still lose to a school like Pitt when they turn the ball over. Deshaun Watson threw three interceptions on Saturday, including two in the red zone, and the Tigers got upset at home. It’s pretty simple, and it doesn’t require a football genius to figure it out. If you give the other team extra possessions, then you are likely to lose, especially since the talent level is fairly equal throughout college football in this day and age.
Virginia Tech has more talent than Georgia Tech. I don’t think anyone but the blindest of Yellow Jacket fans would admit otherwise. However, they don’t have so much more talent that they can overcome a -3 in the critical turnover margin section of the box score. Give a Paul Johnson team three extra possessions, and it’s going to be very difficult to win, especially with the nature of his offense. Actually, give any team out there three extra possessions and you’re probably going to lose, unless you just overwhelm them with talent. Obviously the Hokies aren’t going to overwhelm very many teams with vastly superior talent, so they have to rely at least in part on turnover margin to win games, like most other teams in the country.
In Sunday’s column, we went over each of Virginia Tech’s miscues, including a few that were not turnovers. Let’s do that for the Syracuse and Tennessee games as well, starting with the Vols.
Tennessee 45, Virginia Tech 24
Turnover #1: A Jerod Evans fumbled on a snap miscommunication gives Tennessee the ball at the Virginia Tech 5-yard-line. Touchdown. This turnover directly gave Tennessee seven points.
Turnover #2: Travon McMilllian fumbles at the Tech 29-yard-line, but Tennessee misses a field goal.
Turnover #3: Cam Phillips fumbled at the Tennessee 25-yard-line. The Hokies were driving and this fumble likely cost them either three or seven points.
Turnover #4: A Tennessee punt bounces off a VT player, and the Vols recover at the Hokies’ 43-yard-line. They converted the turnover into a touchdown. This turnover directly led to seven Tennessee points.
Turnover #5: Another VT fumble on a bad snap is recovered by Tennessee at the Tech 4-yard-line. That’s another seven points for the Vols.
Three of VT’s turnovers led directly to 21 Tennessee points, and another VT turnover likely cost the Hokies three or seven points. That’s a difference of 24 or 28 points, and the Hokies lost the game by 21.
And now, on to the Syracuse game.
Syracuse 31, VT 17
Turnover #1: Jerod Evans was intercepted in the endzone on third and three, which cost the Hokies either three or seven points.
Turnover #2: Evans fumbled at his own 40-yard-line after gaining six yards on a scramble. Syracuse was able to run the final 4:08 off the clock.
The Hokies lost that game by 14 points. Turnovers did not make up the point differential as they did in the Tennessee game, but they certainly cost the Hokies points, field position and valuable time off the clock.
There’s just no margin for error for the Hokies, and that doesn’t make them any different than almost every other team that plays college football. I don’t think anyone would argue that UVA is a better football team than Duke, but the Hoos beat the Blue Devils because of a +5 turnover margin. Likewise, Duke isn’t better than UNC, but Mitch Trubisky threw two critical interceptions that arguably cost his team the game. You see it time and time again every Saturday throughout college football.
The good news is that the Hokies have bounced back strong the previous two times they’ve struggled with turnovers. If they can win the turnover margin against Notre Dame and UVA, they should be able to go to the ACC Championship Game with a 9-3 record. Let’s take a look at how the Irish and the Hoos have done in turnover margin this season. First, Notre Dame…
Texas: +1, L
Nevada: 0, W
Michigan State: -2, L
Duke: -2, L
Syracuse: -1, W
NC State: -1, L
Stanford: +1, L
Miami: -1, W
Navy: 0, L
Army: +1, W
Turnovers have been very costly for Notre Dame in losses to Michigan State and Duke. However, the Irish have only lost the turnover margin in one of their last four games, which is a tremendous improvement from earlier in the season.
And now, for UVA’s numbers.
Richmond: -4, L
Oregon: -2, L
UConn: +1, L
Central Michigan: 0, W
Duke: +5, W
Pitt: -1, L
UNC: +1, L
Louisville: 0, L
Wake Forest: -3, L
Miami: -2, L
Virginia’s biggest win of the season came against Duke (feel free to laugh), and that was the direct result of turnovers. Likewise, the Hoos were extremely turnover-prone in their most recent losses to Wake Forest and Miami.
Turnovers can be somewhat random, and the Hokies probably played tight in the second half against Georgia Tech knowing they had to be nearly perfect to come back to win the game. However, VT hasn’t had a negative turnover margin in back-to-back games against FBS teams all season. They’ve always responded well after a loss, and that bodes well for Saturday’s game at Notre Dame.
I’d argue that turnover margin is more critical now than ever for this Virginia Tech team. Their top three defensive ends are banged up, their traditional inside running game is weak and teams have learned how to defend their passing game. Possessions are now even more important and the Hokies must keep possession of the ball and win the field position battle to beat Notre Dame on Saturday.