October 2, 2011

Rise in turnover margin explains Longhorns' resurgence

Lots of factors have combined to carry No. 11 Texas to today's unexpected perch as the state's highest-ranked college football team in The Associated Press poll.

Lots of factors have combined to carry No. 11 Texas to today's unexpected perch as the state's highest-ranked college football team in The Associated Press poll.

Most can be summed up in two-word snippets. Impact freshmen. Better defense. Quarterback change. Friendly schedule. A&M meltdowns.

But if you're seeking the biggest reason why Texas, a 5-7 team last season, will carry a 4-0 record into Saturday's matchup of unbeatens against No. 3 Oklahoma (4-0) in the Cotton Bowl, look no further than this two-word synopsis:

Turnover margin.

The Longhorns, who were dreadful in that area last season, climbed to seventh nationally in turnover margin after a 3-0 exchange rate during Saturday's 37-14 victory over Iowa State.

Texas is plus-6 in turnover margin (plus-1.5 per game), sharing the seventh spot in the official NCAA statistics with No. 6 Oklahoma State (4-0). A year ago, the Longhorns finished at minus-12, placing 116th among the nation's 120 FBS schools.

How pivotal is that statistic? Among the nation's top 10 teams in turnover margin this season, none have losing records. Four remain undefeated: Texas, OSU, No. 1 LSU (5-0, plus-9) and Texas Tech (4-0, plus-8).

Clearly, the Longhorns are trending in the right direction after wallowing among the NCAA bottom-feeders in 2010.

"If you force a lot of turnovers and take care of the football like we did, you're going to win a lot of football games," coach Mack Brown said after watching the Longhorns hand Iowa State (3-1) its first loss. "Our guys are doing great."

Texas raced to a 34-0 halftime lead, effectively scoring an early knockout, by collecting three first-quarter turnovers in Ames, Iowa. Texas also collected three first-quarter turnovers in a 49-20 victory over UCLA on Sept. 17. The Longhorns won the turnover battle that day by a 4-2 margin and hold an 11-5 edge for the season.

The biggest turnaround has come in interceptions. The top two quarterbacks on Texas' depth chart, Case McCoy and David Ash, have yet to throw one this season.

Garrett Gilbert, last year's starter, threw more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (10) in 2010. He contributed both of the team's interceptions this season in a 17-16 victory over Brigham Young before Gilbert was shut down by season-ending shoulder surgery.

Other than Gilbert's interceptions, Texas' remaining turnovers have come on three lost fumbles. The Longhorns have more than compensated by collecting six interceptions and recovering five opponents' fumbles.

Brown praised the savvy shown by his young quarterbacks during two consecutive road victories but acknowledged McCoy and Ash will "have to do the same in Dallas" against OU for Texas to have any chance to upset the Sooners.

"The guys are growing up each week," Brown said. "I thought the big plays [against Iowa State] were tremendous again. I think they'll just keep getting better and better."

But the bar will be raised dramatically the next two weeks in judging the extent of Texas' turnaround. The Longhorns, who have used 18 incoming freshmen this season -- most among FBS schools -- have yet to face a ranked opponent. Their 4-0 mark has been built against teams with a combined mark of 9-9 (Rice, BYU, UCLA, Iowa State).

That changes against Oklahoma, which fell one spot Sunday in the AP poll but remains No. 1 in the coaches' poll. Texas follows its Red River Rivalry showdown with a matchup against Oklahoma State, giving the Longhorns consecutive tests against top 10 opponents.

Based on the number of young players in key roles for these Longhorns, it's unlikely that Texas wins either game. But confidence is up because the turnover margin is spiking in the right direction. And there's no telling where that could lead if the Longhorns continue to collect timely turnovers.

"Not a lot of people would've thought five weeks ago that we would be 4-0 right now," Brown said. "Guys are playing with a lot of confidence. We know a lot more about us now than we did when we started the season."

By the night of Oct. 15, we'll have a true read on the extent of Texas' turnaround. For now, the Longhorns can legitimately revel in their unexpected status as the state's top-ranked college football team.

Key number

.900Winning percentage by Big 12 teams in non-conference games this season (27-3 record), tops among FBS leagues and best in league history.

Moving up

Seth Doege: Texas Tech QB ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency (169.35 rating) and leads the Big 12 in lowest interception percentage: 0.62 pct. Doege has a 14-1 ratio of TDs to INTs this season.

Moving down

A&M's ball security: The Aggies rank 112th among the nation's 120 FBS schools in turnover margin (minus-5) after a 2-0 shortfall in a 42-38 loss to 10th-ranked Arkansas.

Key games this week

No. 11 Texas vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl): Both teams head to Dallas with undefeated records for the first time since 2008.

No. 24 Texas A&M at Texas Tech: The Red Raiders (4-0) seek to remain undefeated against an A&M team with a two-game losing streak.

Missouri at No. 20 Kansas State: Mizzou will have had two weeks to prepare for the undefeated Wildcats.

Follow Jimmy Burch on Twitter @Jimmy_Burch.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

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