Turnovers: The Deciding Factor When Betting on NFL and College Football Games

In the game of football and any sport, scoring more points than the opposing team is the most important stat and determines wins, losses, and ties 100% of the time. However, scoring points in an NFL or college football game is not as simple as crossing the goal line with possession of the ball because how it’s done is almost as important as the act itself. The key word in the previous sentence is possession. A football team can only score when it has possession, and according to several studies over the past several decades, one statistic can determine whether a team wins or loses each week: Turnovers.

Turnovers are the biggest deciding factor when it comes to scoring more points than the opposing team and winning the game. A +/- turnover margin is calculated by the number of takeaways/giveaways a team has in a game or season. Takeaways occur when a team gets possession from an error committed by the opposing team, and a giveaway happens when a team commits an error, giving possession to the opposing team. Turnovers often cause huge swings in momentum and not just in the case of having better field position, but also as an emotional advantage as well.

Take the NFL for example: Every game in the NFL, and college football as well, has 60 minutes of in-game time. Studies have shown, on average, both teams will combine for a total of 24.7 possessions throughout the course of a game, giving each team essentially 12 tries to reach the end zone. In an average NFL game, teams will score either a touchdown or a field goal on 8.6 (35%) drives out of the 24.7 total possessions. This falls in line with 23-20 being the most common final score of an NFL game, needing 9 possessions to achieve this total score (total of 4 touchdowns, 5 field goals).

However, of those 24.7 total possessions, a turnover will happen on 3.2 (13%) of the 24.7 drives. So, for every turnover committed, a team would theoretically lose a possession and an opportunity to score, and in turn, give the opposing team a possession and an opportunity to score.

Use this example: Team A commits 4 turnovers to Team B, and Team B commits 0 turnovers to Team A during an NFL game. Team A would have a -4 t/o margin and Team B would have a +4 t/o margin. Using the historical statistics above, Team A would only have 8 possessions (average of 12 possessions minus 4 committed turnovers) to 16 possessions (average of 12 possessions plus 4 forced turnovers) for Team B. If Team A only has 8 possessions, and knowing teams score on 35% of possessions, then they would score on 2.8 possessions. By rounding to 3 possessions (1 touchdown, 2 field goals), Team A would have scored 13 points in this game when taking the historical averages into account.

Team B, having 16 possessions, scoring on 5.6 of drives (35%) and rounding up as well to 6 for simplicity, would likely give them a total of 26-30 points depending if 6th score is a touchdown or field goal. This is all based on historical averages and keep in mind every single other statistic is constant: If a team has a +4 t/o margin then it equates to a 13-17-point margin of victory or roughly 3-4 points per turnover forced.

Since the 1966 and the start of the Super Bowl era, the team with a better t/o margin wins the game 77% of the time and in terms of the Super Bowl itself, teams who win the t/o margin in the big game go on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy 88% of the time. And in college football, look no further than the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide team, who would go onto win the CFP National Champion. During the 2017 season, the Crimson Tide went 38 quarters (9 and a half games) without committing a single turnover, dating all the way back to the 2016 Iron Bowl matchup against the Auburn Tigers. In fact, a Nick Saban-led Crimson Tide team has only turned the ball over one time in six national championship games. His record in the championship game? 5 wins to 1 loss.

In summary, when it comes to betting on any NFL or college football game, look at the number of takeaways and giveaways a team has and compare it to the turnover margin of the opposing team. Sure, it isn’t the only factor deciding the outcome of a game, but according to statistics, it is one of the most important statistic when deciding who wins and who loses most NFL and college football games.