NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The NCAA logs 56 official football statistics.

Stat keepers track net punting, passes defended, third down conversion percentage – everything, it seems, but the volume of chicken wings consumed by the offensive line at the postgame victory party.

One number sticks out in this mountain of minutiae: turnover margin.

“It’s the biggest stat in every football game that is played,” LSU coach Les Miles said on Saturday. “There isn’t any question that there’s one predictor of victory.”

If that’s the case, they might as well starting carving “LSU” on the Waterford Crystal Coaches’ Trophy, awarded to the winner of Monday night’s Bowl Championship Series title game between top-ranked Ohio State and No. 2 LSU.

Miles’ Tigers rank third in NCAA turnover margin; in an average game, LSU takes the ball away 1.38 more times than it gives it up.

By contrast, Ohio State is losing the turnover battle this season. The Buckeyes had 19 turnovers and 18 takeaways.

It might be a case of butterfingers: Buckeye defenders have dropped 14 interceptions, according to an unofficial team count. Perhaps, but the Buckeyes also haven’t been able to jar the ball away from ballcarriers, to the mystification of their coaches.

“The thing we haven’t got is fumbles, and I can’t really understand why,” Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “We’ve talked about it from camp on.

“Interceptions are obvious to point out; hey, we’ve got 14 drops. We haven’t got the fumbles that probably we would like, and that’s something that we’ve been addressing and talking about over and over.”

Modern coaches like to drill their players on “ball security.”

John Heisman had a different way of teaching the same lesson. “Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football,” Heisman is said to have told his players.

When it comes to turnovers, Heisman knew, it is definitely better to receive than to give.

That’s held true in the first four BCS games, each won by the team with fewer turnovers.

The Kansas Ballhawks – err, Jayhawks – led the nation in turnover margin this season. They were at it again in a 24-21 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. Takeaways led to 17 Kansas points, including Aqib Talib’s 60-yard interception return for the game’s first score.

“Our defense was able to get turnovers and get us the ball in good position, and that was huge for the game,” Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing said. “It was really an up-and-down game, a roller coaster of emotions.”

In a sport ruled by wild emotional swings, nothing can inspire a team and its followers like forcing a fumble or picking off a pass.

“Not only does it give you as a team a lift, it gets the crowd going,” Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said. “It’s a lot of motivation for your team.”

Likewise, nothing is quite so deflating as someone putting the ball on the turf or tossing it to the other team.

Just ask Illinois.

With the Fighting Illini trailing USC 21-10 in the Rose Bowl, receiver Jacob Willis appeared headed for a third-quarter touchdown when a USC defender punched the ball out of his hands. The Trojans recovered in the end zone.

Underdog Illinois had blown its best chance to make USC sweat. The Trojans awoke and reeled off 28 of the game’s final 35 points.

“You can’t turn the ball over in any football game, much less this football game,” Illini coach Ron Zook said.

There are exceptions to the turnover rule. LSU lost the turnover battle in two of its most stirring victories – a 30-24 win over Auburn on Oct. 20 in Baton Rouge and a 41-34 victory at Alabama on Nov. 3.

Meanwhile, the Tigers won the turnover battle in both of their losses, to Kentucky and Arkansas.

But across a season, coaches say, turnover margin is the best way to separate the winners from the losers. Miles and the Tigers hope it’s also the difference against the Buckeyes on Monday night in the Superdome.

“If you had to say what one statistic is there, it’s number of turnovers,” Miles said. “If you win the turnover battle, you have a legitimate chance to win the game.”

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