Interceptions 2021

Jul 23, 2021

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Happy tenth anniversary to this post. The first time I wrote about Illinois being dead last in college football in interceptions was 2012. So this is the 10th article. The first few years, I traced back to 2002 (the first year's data was 2002 to 2011), and for a few years after that I just kept adding a year to it. About five years ago, a reader suggested I switch to a running 10-year total and that's what I've done since 2016. When compared to the rest of college football, where do we stand on total interceptions across the most recent 10 seasons?

Last year, we jumped out of the bottom-10 for the first time since I had been tracking data. It was significant when we were no longer last (we had that one-on-one battle with Eastern Michigan for a long time for last place), but it was really significant when were were no longer 10th. This year? Well, let's just get to the data first and then talk about it.

Here's the running 10-year total, 2011 through 2020. And I'd like to note that this is the first time there's some noise in the data. Georgia Southern led college football with 18 Interceptions last year. Colorado State was dead last with 1. Georgia Southern played 13 football games last year. Colorado State played 4.

So as I carry this forward, the 2020 data will always be a mess. I guess I could go back and do this per game, but that's 10 years of researching 120+ teams to see if they played 11, 12, 13, or 14 games that season. I'm probably not going to do that.

I don't think the noise will change much, to be honest. For a school like Georgia Southern, well, they're not even on my list. If you were not an FBS program for 10 years when I first started doing this in 2012, you didn't make my list. So Georgia Southern and UTSA and Coastal Carolina and maybe a dozen other schools are not included.

OK, the data. Total interceptions, 2011 through 2020:

155 Louisiana Tech
152 Clemson
152 Houston
151 Oregon
150 Alabama
150 San Diego State
147 Ohio State
140 TCU
139 Oklahoma State
138 Arkansas State
138 Iowa
137 Florida
137 Northwestern
136 Arizona State
135 Boise State
135 LSU
135 Michigan State
135 Mississippi State
132 Utah
132 Virginia Tech
132 Washington
131 Baylor
131 Ohio
130 Kansas State
130 South Carolina
130 West Virginia
129 Northern Illinois
129 Tulane
128 BYU
128 Cincinnati
127 Florida State
127 UCF
127 Wisconsin
126 Louisville
126 North Carolina State
125 Texas
125 USC
124 Memphis
123 Western Kentucky
122 Florida Atlantic
122 Oklahoma
121 Boston College
120 Georgia
119 Central Michigan
119 Utah State
118 Miami (Florida)
116 South Florida
115 California
114 Mississippi
114 UCLA
113 Georgia Tech
113 Troy
112 Arizona
112 Auburn
112 Nebraska
111 SMU
111 Syracuse
110 Marshall
110 Missouri
110 Penn State
109 Kent State
109 Middle Tennessee
109 North Carolina
109 Virginia
108 Connecticut
108 Notre Dame
108 Rutgers
108 Stanford
108 Tennessee
107 Fresno State
107 Wake Forest
106 Kentucky
106 Louisiana-Lafayette
106 Purdue
106 Washington State
105 Bowling Green
105 North Texas
105 Toledo
104 Duke
103 San Jose State
101 Pittsburgh
101 Texas A&M
100 Temple
100 Tulsa
100 Western Michigan
99 Indiana
99 Miami (Ohio)
99 Minnesota
99 Oregon State
99 Southern Mississippi
98 Florida International
98 Nevada
97 Ball State
97 Hawai'i
97 Wyoming
95 East Carolina
95 Texas Tech
94 Navy
93 Buffalo
93 Michigan
93 Vanderbilt
92 Iowa State
92 Kansas
92 Louisiana-Monroe
92 New Mexico State
91 Akron
91 Arkansas
90 Illinois
89 Maryland
88 Army
84 Air Force
83 Colorado
80 Colorado State
77 Rice
76 New Mexico
75 Eastern Michigan

I thought the 2020 data might be a rough one for Illinois, mostly because the year that was coming off the 10 year list was 2010, and 2010 was one of the few double-digit interception years (11). As it turned out, Lovie's last team did grab seven INT's in eight games (quite similar to 11 in 13 games from 2010), so in the overall balance of the rankings, we didn't move much. Still staying just outside the bottom 10.

My first thought when looking at that: this is half Lovie data here. The data set runs from Zook's final year in 2011 to Lovie's final year in 2020. Did Lovie improve the numbers at all? Here's the data:

First five years: 13, 7, 3, 7, and 10 interceptions from 2011 to 2015. 40 in 62 games. 0.64 interceptions per game.
Five years of Lovieball: 7-9-15-12-7 from 2016 to 2020. 50 interceptions in 57 games. 0.88 interceptions per game.

So I think the final verdict there was yes, it was improved. 50 in 57 is better than 40 in 62. But it's still nowhere near the game-changing, short-field-inducing interceptions grabbed by our Big Ten West neighbors Iowa (138), Northwestern (137), and Wisconsin (127). That might not seem like much (127 for Wisconsin, 90 for Illinois), but as I say every year when writing this post, just think about those 37 drives which not only didn't end in points for the opponent but also set up excellent field position (or provided points with a pick six). 3.7 more interceptions every year is at least one win. Probably two. Just on interceptions alone without changing any yardage statistics.

Yes, sometimes they're luck (both good and bad). Oregon was #1 on this list but only grabbed 5 interceptions last year. Indiana was on the other side of that luck, with 7 interceptions in 13 games in 2019 turning into 17 interceptions in 8 games in 2020 (lol). How could Indiana finish the season negative in yardage (they gave up more yards than they gained on the season) and still somehow finish ranked #12 in the AP Poll? A stupid, ridiculous, 2.4 interceptions per game.

Yes, that defense is much improved, and yes, some of those interceptions are skill, not luck. But when your highest interception-per-game number the previous 10 years was 1.1 interceptions per game in 2018 and then you average 2.4 INTERCEPTIONS PER GAME in 2020, it's not "the players are better" (even though they are). It's just one of those "every time there was an overthrow it felt like it was directed right to our deep safety" seasons. Some interceptions are skill; some interceptions are the work of the turnover fairy.

But I digress. This is about Illinois and interceptions. We had one of those crazy interception years in 2007 (17, so not TOO crazy) and we rode it all the way to the Rose Bowl, but besides 2018, we really haven't been able to replicate it. We did have some insane fumble luck in 2019 and we rode it to the Redbox Bowl (we recovered something like 78% of the balls that hit the turf that year - over 10 seasons that number will level off right around 50%), but we're still waiting for that season like what Indiana just had.

Maybe 2021 is the year?


Tolkien73 on July 23, 2021 @ 07:04 PM


This is one of the articles I look forward to all year, along with Freshman Number Jersey Day (I hope we'll be getting a post for that) and the basketball and football previews.

One thing I just thought of. You said above that fumbles will tend to balance themselves out. But does the data support the same thing for interceptions? My hypothesis would be that bad team would tend to have a cumulative negative number (based upon a combination of bad quarterbacks on offense and bad secondaries on defense).

runs off to do some quick research, comes back

Oh, Lordy it's BAD. Over the last ten years we are a net NEGATIVE TWENTY-SIX. Which includes gruesome 14/3 splits in 2013 and 19/9 in 2017.

So take Robert's "3.7 more INTs = one win" and that's almost ONE WIN PER YEAR simply due to a negative interception margin. In the last ten years we've NEVER had a margin better than +5. But we've had four years that were -5 or worse.

Suddenly Coach B's desire for a game manager makes sense. Run the ball, stop the run, play well on special teams, and most of all, DON'T THROW THE BALL TO THE OTHER TEAM.

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on July 24, 2021 @ 07:59 AM

Great work Robert and Tolkien. Can't wait to see the on field results for this new staff.

jono426 on July 28, 2021 @ 11:10 PM

Since turnovers are football can you do a post with total turnovers forced and turnover margin over 10 years?

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