In 1998, Tennessee dramatically improved its turnover ratio to a plus-16 (a 24 turnover swing) and were able to overcome the loss of such stars as Manning, Lewis and Nash to post a 13-0 record and win the school's first national title since 1951. Having nearly two more possessions per game than its opponents that year enabled the Vols to come out on top in several very close contests.
For instance: The Vols forced five turnovers against Florida that year, including one fumble at the goal line, to hold a potent Gator offense in check en route to a 20-17 overtime victory. Sean Ellis' 90-yard interception return for a touchdown was the key play in the Vols 17-9 win at Auburn in which Lewis went down for the season with a knee injury. The Vols compiled just 210 yards of total offense vs. the Tigers that day. Tennessee forced three turnovers the next week, including an interception and fumble recovery by Deon Grant, to beat undefeated Georgia in Athens. Billy Ratliff's fumble recovery in the final two minutes against undefeated Arkansas made the Vols 28-24 come-from-behind victory possible. And Dwayne Goodrich returned an interception 54 yards for a score in the BCS title game just before the half to give the Vols the lead for good in their 23-17 victory over Florida State.
In the four seasons since 1998, the Vols have posted turnover ratios of plus-3 in 1999, plus-3 in 2000, plus-5 in 2001 and plus-2 in 2002. While those totals are all positive they add up to plus-13 combined, or three less than Tennessee had in 1998 alone.
This year Tennessee stands at minus-5 in the turnover department with 12 giveaways vs. seven takeaways. Moreover, the Vols have recovered just two fumbles in six games and are on pace to the lowest number of fumble recoveries by a UT team since 1986 when it had four in 11 games. Incidentally, a total of 14 Tennessee defenders have recovered the same number of fumbles in one game that the Vols have recovered collectively this season.
Turnovers used to be a hallmark of Tennessee defenses and in keeping with General Robert R. Neyland's first two Maxims of Football: (1) The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. (2) Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way — SCORE.
That's what Georgia did on the last play of the first half, returning a fumble 92 yards to turn a potential 14-13 half-time deficit into a 20-7 lead. The Bulldogs turned four turnovers into 24 points in their 41-14 victory over the Vols. The week before the Vols were storming back against Auburn when an interception in the red zone ended the rally and preserved the Tigers 28-21 victory.
Last year's home losses to both Florida and Alabama were sparked by critical turnovers that the Gators and Crimson Tide cashed in for quick points. And the same statement could be made about virtually any loss the Vols have suffered throughout their proud history. All the attention has been on Tennessee's lack of a running game and its inability to stop the run this year but, as improbable as it sounds, trade turnovers for takeaways and the Vols could easily be undefeated.
In 1971, Tennessee amassed just 2712 yards in total offense and scored a mere 22 touchdowns in 11 games. The Vols passed for 951 yards that season, completing 39 percent of their attempts for three TDs. Despite that lack of production and balance, UT finished the year 10-2 by intercepting 25 passes and recovering 21 fumbles. The Vols turned five of those turnovers into instant points including: an 87-yard fumble return by Carl Johnson vs. Kentucky, a 76-yard fumble return by Conrad Graham vs. Penn State, an 83-yard interception return by Danny Jeffries vs. South Carolina. Eddie Brown had a 72-yard INT for a TD in that same game and Gordon Turnage turned an pick into a 71-yard TD against Tulsa.
The 1970 UT squad set the turnover standard for not only the Vols but college football with 36 interceptions and 21 fumble recoveries. Those 36 picks in 11 games compares to 38 interceptions the Vols have had over their last 42 games. Obviously, that was a different era in which passing attacks weren't as sophisticated and Tennessee used zone coverage almost exclusively which gives DBs a better chance to break on the ball. But still those 36 INTs were made in just 358 attempts compared to 1286 passes attempted by opponents since 1999.
Another Big Orange to BIg Orange comparison comes in the category of return yards with turnovers. The 1971 Vols holds the school record with 782 yards in interception returns. During that same era All-American linebacker Jackie Walker (1969-71) picked off 11 passes and returned them for 281 yards and five touchdowns. This season Tennessee has returned five interceptions for 23 total yards.
This isn't offered purely as criticism but to show that it's difficult to overstate the importance of the turnover ratio when calculating a team's chances for success. You can overcome a lot when this number is anywhere between a plus 1.5 to a plus 2.0 per game. In 1990, the Vols led the nation in turnover ratio with a plus-23, an average of plus-1.916 per game. They also won the SEC Championship and beat Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.
A defensive touchdown is one of the most exciting plays in football and perhaps the most demoralizing to an opponent. It can drastically alter momentum and is almost always a factor in the outcome of a contest. Defenses that do well in this category normally have a mindset that states: ‘the ball belongs to us and we're going to get it back.' It's not just about stripping the ball but about sticking the helmet to the midsection. It's about swarming the runner and ripping at the ball. It's about timing, striking and surprising opponents with blindside blows. It's a fire that drives players to get the football and get off the field. The nearly 29-minute deficit in time of possession during UT's last two games against Auburn and Georgia is due in a large degree to turnover ratio.
Certainly turnovers have been big in the Tennessee-Alabama series. Last year, the Crimson Tide turned six Vol miscues into a 34-14 victory. Bama's first score of the game was off a pass in the flat that was ruled a lateral and returned for a TD. Alabama also returned a Clausen interception to the 1-yard line in the second half to end a UT rally.
In 1970, the Vols set a school record with eight interceptions in a 24-0 victory over Alabama. In 1969, Jackie Walker picked off a Bama pitch and returned it for a score to ignite the Vols to a 41-14 victory. And who could forget Dale Jones' incredible deflection/interception off Mike Shula that allowed the Vols to escape Birmingham with a 16-14 victory in 1985? Or Leonard Little's bone-jarring blast that knocked the ball loose and set the tone for UT's 41-14 victory over Bama in 1995?
Saturday starts the second half of the regular season and it's a chance for Tennessee to begin a new slate, break a two-game losing streak and start a winning streak over Alabama. The key to turning over a new leaf in this storied fall classic is with takeaways.