STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott keep throwing the ball to the other team. Alabama players can’t figure out how to hang onto the football.
None of the three programs seem able to stop committing football’s cardinal sin: turnovers.
Yet in a strange twist of statistics this fall, all of them are winning. No. 1 Mississippi State, No. 2 Florida State and No. 4 Alabama are all among the favorites to win a national championship despite turnover numbers that would make any coach nauseous.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen acknowledges he’s worried his team’s luck could run out soon.
“If we continue down that path,” he said, “they will get us.”
The numbers are ugly: Mississippi State is 84th in the country with 18 turnovers while Florida State is 99th with 19. Alabama has lost a whopping 11 fumbles this season, which ranks 112th.
Tide quarterback Blake Sims has lost three. Not surprisingly, Alabama coach Nick Saban is frustrated.
“We are doing the best we can in every way to try to emphasize the fundamental things we need to do so we have good ball security,” Saban said. “But there have been (fumbles), especially at the end of games, which is critical.”
So how are the Seminoles, Bulldogs and Tide surviving? Really good defense and maybe a little luck.
Alabama is second in the country in scoring defense and fourth in total defense. Mississippi State and Florida State are especially good when it matters - the Bulldogs rank No. 1 in red zone defense while the Seminoles are 14th.
Still, it’s a dangerous way to live. Alabama (No. 5 CFP) hosts Mississippi State (No. 1 CFP) this weekend in Tuscaloosa, and both teams are aware that an ill-timed turnover could be the difference.
A couple national title contenders in the SEC West have already been hurt by the turnover bug. Ole Miss fumbled twice near the goal line in a loss against Auburn on Nov. 1, and then the Tigers turned around one week later and did the same thing in their loss to Texas A&M.
Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, has already thrown 11 interceptions through nine games for the Seminoles (No. 3 CFP). That’s more than the 10 he threw in 14 games last season.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Winston isn’t being careless. He believes opponents are simply more familiar with Winston and the Seminoles’ offense.
“His reads are still taking him to the right places,” Fisher said. “I think people adjust and spend more time on us. People spend a lot of time in the offseason. They study what you do. They study your tendencies.”
Stopping turnovers can be a tricky business and as much of a mental task as physical. Prescott, who has thrown five interceptions over his past four games, said it’s possible to become too careful.
“I’ve been kind of hesitant pulling the trigger the last couple of games,” Prescott said. “So I am ready to get back to just playing confident and letting it go.”
Not all of this year’s national title contenders are having turnover troubles.
No. 3 Oregon (No. 2 CFP) ranks third in the country with just seven turnovers. No. 5 TCU (No. 4 CFP) has 11 turnovers but has also forced 27 for the best turnover margin in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Those numbers are much more in line with national champions of the recent past. The last seven had 18 or fewer turnovers - a number Mississippi State and Florida State have already reached. Florida was the last champ with a higher total, committing 24 in 2006.
TCU safety Chris Hackett has five interceptions, which is tied for the Big 12 lead.
“Any time you get a turnover,” he said, “that’s another opportunity for the offense to score.”
AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins in Fort Worth, Texas; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Associated Press writer Kareem Copeland in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this story.
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