In a season full of question marks, one thing is certain: Georgia's TO margin has to improve almost by default.
When you assume, the old saying goes, you make an ass out of you and me, and predicting a turnaround season for Georgia in 2010 requires a fair bit of that: One has to assume that the Dawgs will learn Todd Grantham's 3-4 defensive scheme fairly quickly, that Aaron Murray will grow into the starting QB role early, that the Dawgs' underwhelming 2008 and borderline-disastrous 2009 aren't harbingers of a greater meltdown yet to come.
One assumption, though, seems pretty rock-solid: The Dawgs can't possibly finish 2010 with a turnover margin as bad as last year's.
Over at his ever-enlightening blog Get the Picture, Senator Blutarsky has done a fantastic job this offseason digging into the statistics and chronicling the trends that could guide Georgia's fortunes one way or the other this season, particularly regarding turnovers. And on Tuesday, he came up with a doozy that pretty much sums everything up in one neat, forehead-slapping little package:
Since the 2000 season, 100 teams have finished a season with a per game turnover margin of minus-one or worse. Only nine of those finished with a winning record. And of those nine, only four were members of BCS conferences. And of those four, only Georgia finished with as many as eight wins.
But it’s even more staggering than that.
If you use a cutoff of Georgia’s minus-1.23 average from last season, then 49 teams have performed as badly or worse than last year’s Dawgs in that department in the last ten seasons. Besides Georgia, the number of teams on that list with winning records? Two: 2000 Miami (Oh.), 6-5 and 2003 Marshall, 8-4.
Wow. Just for comparison's sake, I tallied up Georgia's turnover margins for every season going back to 1996 (the last season for which I could find consistent data); after 2009, their worst turnover ratio during that period was '96, when they wound up -6 in Jim Donnan's first year. (Coincidentally -- or maybe not -- that was also the last time the Dawgs finished with a losing record.) Between '96 and '09, Georgia has had a negative turnover margin only four times in twelve seasons. If you take out 2009, the Dawgs averaged a +4.25 margin over Mark Richt's first eight years in Athens.
So you can see just how big an outlier the 2009 Dawgs' glowing red -16 was in the grand scheme of things. But just for the sake of argument, let's say there's no such thing as the law of averages or regression to the mean and the Dawgs are at risk of being just as hamstrung by turnovers in 2010 as they were last year. For Georgia to put another -16 up on the board, here's what would have to happen:
1. Aaron Murray would have to be just as pick-prone as Joe Cox. Stipulated: When you're putting a redshirt freshman up against a fifth-year senior, it's dangerous to put your money on the freshman in pretty much anything. But the 15 picks thrown by Cox -- God bless him -- as the starter last year were an outlier for Bulldog QBs. No Georgia signal-caller in the last 14 seasons have thrown that many (though Matthew Stafford came close as a true freshman in 2006). In addition, 4.53 percent of Cox's pass attempts were picked off; no other starting QB of the last 14 seasons was higher than 3 percent in that category other than Stafford in '06 and Quincy Carter in his injury-shortened final year in Athens in 2000.
2. The Dawgs' skill players would have to get worse at fumbling. Georgia lost 11 fumbles last season, which basically matches their average under Mark Richt. But three of those were on special teams, which are thankfully under new management in 2010. Caleb King and Washaun Ealey -- who will provide the brunt of Georgia's rushing attack this year -- accounted for only three of the lost fumbles, and both will have the benefit of more experience and an even stouter offensive line.
3. The defense's turnover numbers would have to continue declining to a ridiculous degree. You can't pin all of last year's -16 on the Ginger Avenger. Causing turnovers, like pretty much everything else under Willie Martinez, is something the Georgia defense has gotten steadily worse at over the past few years -- they forced 29 in Martinez's first year, 30 in 2006, 26 in '07, 16 in '08 . . . and a mere 12 last season. Whatever else happens under the transition to Todd Grantham and the 3-4, they almost can't get any worse than that: Only 13 Division I-A teams in the past decade have gone an entire season forcing fewer than 12 takeaways. That constitutes only about 1.1 percent of the squads that have played in that time. You can roll your eyes when Grantham talks about upping the aggressiveness level and attacking the ball more, but you gotta admit it'd be hard for him to move his defense that far to the left on the bell curve.
So take heart, Bulldog Nation -- whatever else happens, this is one area in which the 2010 Dawgs really do have to improve pretty much by default. And there's a weird silver lining to the team's 8-5 slump last year: If they can go -16 in the turnover column and still pull out eight wins, then even a modicum of improvement in that area could help drive the Dawgs toward exactly the kind of bounce-back season for which the fans have been pining.