TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was the week after the University of Alabama football team lost at home to Ole Miss, and the frustration was showing on Nick Saban’s face.
After having so much success, the head coach had gotten to the point that he hated losing more than he liked to win, and the way the Crimson Tide lost for the second straight year to the Rebels was particularly bothersome.
“We have emphasized turnovers more than I ever have in 42 years or however long I’ve been coaching,” he said.
“The most important thing is the ball, the ball, the ball.”
Alabama lost five turnovers (two fumbles and three interceptions) in that Week 3 game, which, combined with a pair of unusual touchdown passes, added up to the 43-37 loss. In the process, the Crimson Tide finally found a starting quarterback in Jake Coker, but that didn’t prevent Saban from harping on the mistakes.
“It still goes back to execution,” he said. “We can’t throw interceptions. Can’t throw the ball in the wrong place. We have to execute and do what we need to do to have the whole offense function, and that’s something that we need to keep working on. It’s our responsibility as coaches to help these guys do better, and that’s what we’re focused on trying to do.”
At the time, Alabama had a turnover ratio of minus-two, which was unheard of for a team that regularly finished in double digits on the plus side. But the extra work eventually paid off, and the team ended the season at plus-10.
It’s the most overlooked statistic of the Crimson Tide’s 2015-16 national championship, and possibly the most important. Not only did Alabama not lose a turnover in the title game against Clemson, but it also totaled just one in the three postseason games, including the SEC Championship Game.
Overall, Coker finished with eight passes intercepted in 15 games, but he had only one during the second half of the season and none after facing Mississippi State on Nov. 14.
After defeating Georgia and Arkansas in October, the Crimson Tide never had more than one turnover lost in a game the rest of the way.
“Turnovers are part of the game, so it’s just minimizing damage once everything happens,” Kenyan Drake said about his only lost fumble of the season, which came against Ole Miss. “It’s more mental than physical, honestly, so once you understand the mistakes that you made, you learn from them and you move on.”
Alabama’s approach probably won’t change for 2016, when it hopes to continue the trend despite once again having all new starters in the backfield.
How the new candidates protect the ball will go a long way in determining who those players will be.
Specific to fumbles, Alabama finally saw improvement after three seasons of decline. After having just four lost fumbles in 2011, which not only led the SEC but also tied Wake Forest for fewest in the nation, Alabama kept reaching double figures.
In 2014, it had 18 fumbles and lost 12, which tied for 93rd in the nation out of 125 teams. Only Auburn (13) had more in the SEC, while Missouri (three) and Kentucky (four) led the Football Bowl Subdivision.
That total tied for the most fumbles lost since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. While the most-ever for any Saban team was LSU in 2004, when the Tigers lost 15, it was still an eye-opening trend for a program that rarely saw a loose ball with Mark Ingram Jr. or Trent Richardson in the backfield.
This past season, Derrick Henry had the most fumbles (four fumbles, three lost) on the team on 406 touches.
The real numbers to pay attention to for 2015, though, were Coker’s, who, despite all of the hits he took, had just three fumbles and one lost. Some of that was due to being an older quarterback, but it doesn’t hurt having a third-year starter at center, Ryan Kelly.
In comparison, three of the four players with the most fumbles since Saban arrived in 2007 have been quarterbacks, many on botched snaps and sacks.
Not surprisingly, they were all multiple-year starters, with AJ McCarron having 11 fumbles and five lost over three-plus seasons and John Parker Wilson with 11 and four, respectively.
Coker’s only lost fumble came when trying to run for a first down in the rain against Georgia when Alabama was up 35-3.
Incidentally, two notable players who were never credited with a fumble during their careers were wide receivers Amari Cooper and Julio Jones out of a combined 442 times touching the ball. Following suit, none of Alabama’s wide receivers had a fumble in 2015.
Since 2007, Alabama’s running backs have had 55 fumbles, losing 35, or averaging 6.1 and 3.9 per season, respectively. On average, that’s 35 percent of the Crimson Tide’s fumbles and 44 percent of those lost during the past nine years.
Ingram lost just two fumbles during his entire career, and Richardson had only one. Henry finished with three.
That translates to Ingram having a fumble every 211 times he touched the ball (including carries, receptions, two returns and the one pass attempt) and a fumble lost every 317 touches.
Richardson had seven fumbles during his career, with the only one lost against Ole Miss as a freshman. That’s an average of a fumble every 90.9 touches but a fumble lost every 636 touches.
Eddie Lacy couldn’t match that. He finished his career with a fumble every 65.0 touches and a fumble lost every 97.5, and T.J. Yeldon’s numbers were pretty much in line.
Although Yeldon only had two fumbles during his final season in 2014, he finished his career with one every 61.3 times he touched the ball (receptions included) and one lost every 87.6.
Henry, who was a much bigger target than the other running backs, had a fumble every 154 times he touched the ball and a fumble lost every 206.3. The two he lost during the regular season were against Georgia and LSU, against which he ran for 148 and 210 yards, respectively.
Consequently, while the Ole Miss game proved to be the turning point to the season, it also provided some optimism due to how the turnovers happened—which the coaches now hope to carry over into 2016.
Both of the Crimson Tide’s fumbles were on kickoff returns and easily correctable, while the interceptions occurred after Alabama found itself in a big hole and essentially ditching the game plan.
“We had five turnovers and still had a chance to win at the end of the game,” wide receiver Richard Mullaney said. “I don’t care who you are, but if you’re in that situation, I mean, you’ve got to be pretty good. And we knew that after that game that we definitely lit a fire under us, and we knew we had to win out. And we took the most of every opportunity.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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