Kevin Steele (above) is in charge of the Auburn defense.
Auburn's average national ranking in forced turnover margin the past five seasons is No. 83. During four of the last five seasons, Auburn has finished at No. 92 or worse with 2014 being the only solid season with a No. 21 finish.
The Tigers’ inability to force a high number of turnovers has been magnified by their issues in total defense and scoring defense. Last season under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the Tigers significantly improved in almost every major defensive category except for forcing turnovers.
From 2000-2016 a forced turnover has been worth 3.6 points for the Tigers. During this period 22 percent of the points scored by Auburn have been the direct result of a turnover, defining the value of forcing those plays. The point value doesn’t include the missed scoring opportunities by the opposition because of a forced turnover created by the Auburn defense.
A statistic many are not familiar with and rarely mentioned is “turnover opportunity.” It is the percentage of combined interceptions and fumble recoveries divided by the number of pass breakups and forced fumbles. The national average is 33.5 percent during the past five seasons with Auburn checking in at 26.5 percent. Toss out the 2014 season and Auburn's “turnover opportunity” drops to 23.5 percent during the remaining four seasons. Auburn's national ranking in this category is No. 111 in 2012, No. 107 in 2013 and No. 31 in 2014. Auburn was No. 98 during 2015 and dropped to No. 123 last season.
Several of these missed opportunities during the past two seasons were possible game-changing moments. A pick-six or scoop and score opportunity normally comes along once every few games, and Auburn has missed out on the majority of them the past two seasons. Auburn is currently tied with four other SEC teams for dead-last the last three seasons in defensive scores.
Non-offensive touchdowns became the talk of college football during the 2016 season, an area Auburn has struggled in the past three seasons. Alabama leads the conference with 25 non-offensive touchdowns the past three seasons. Georgia is No. 2 with 17 and Florida is No. 3 with 15. South Carolina and Auburn were tied for last with four non-offensive touchdowns during the last three seasons.
Forcing turnovers is becoming more challenging across the nation. From 2000-2002 a turnover was forced every 34.4 snaps. From 2014-2016 a turnover was forced every 43.8 snaps, a 21 percent decrease.
System oriented offenses incorporating spread and no-huddle concepts have reduced interceptions by 20 percent during the same time periods. Fumble recoveries are down nearly 26 percent from 2000 through 2002 compared to 2014 through 2016. Because turnover-frequency has declined, making the most of the opportunities has become more indispensable. Auburn over the past 20 years has won 83 percent of the games in which it has won the turnover battle.
Since the 2000 season Auburn is 19-27 during games the defense failed to register a single turnover. Over the past two decades Auburn has won 65 percent of its games decided by seven points or less. The winning percentage increases to 70 percent when Auburn wins the turnover battle during those close ball games.
Defensive end Marlon Davidson will try to improve on his total of 2 1/2 quarterback sacks as a freshman.
So what can Auburn do to increase turnovers? The most obvious solution is better performance up front on the defensive line. Auburn has an average ranking of No. 102 in sack ratio the past three seasons. Auburn's best ranking in sack ratio over the last ten years is No. 48 nationally, which occurred during the 2010 season, followed by a No. 52 ranking in 2013.
More pressure on the opposing quarterback increases the probability of an errant pass. Auburn has been recruiting for more speed on defense, which should aid the Tigers’ fumble-recovery percentage. During the past three seasons Auburn's defense has fallen 48 percent below the national average in fumble recoveries. Speed can provide quicker reaction to loose footballs on the turf along with increasing the number of Auburn jerseys around the football.
The lack of quality time coaches have to work directly with personnel has limited specialized training and practice geared towards forcing turnovers. There once was a time when coaches could push the fundamentals of football, but not so much today. Installation, schemes and situational play have become the priority in coaching at the collegiate level. Teaching technique has more to do with developing the primary fundamentals of playing each position more so than improving every aspect related to the individual's skill set.
The lack of time to develop players places more of a burden on recruiting than player development. At the end of the day forcing turnovers also incorporates some degree of luck and fortune. Sometimes it comes down to being at the right spot at the right moment. As talented and well-coached as Alabama has been on defense under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide has finished in the top 20 of turnover-ratio four times out of ten seasons.