The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.

That's one of college football's most recited adages.  Coaches remind their players of that line before games.  A game maxim of Tennessee's Robert Neyland, that line has filtered down through his coaching tree for more than half a century.

But when it comes to common mistakes -- penalties -- do they really have an impact on winning in the SEC in this day and age?  Short answer -- nope.

Readers of this site know of our turnover research.  Now those are mistakes that are very, very difficult to overcome.  Show us a team that turns the ball over a couple of times in a game and we'll show you a loser.  But a team that backs itself with penalties?  Those self-inflicted wounds aren't anywhere near as deadly.

Below is a look at the SEC's penalty numbers from 2007 through 2013.  We've looked at penalty yardage by SEC versus SEC games only.  At right we show you how many yards per SEC game each squad has been penalized over the past seven seasons.  We have included Missouri and Texas A&M, though they have played just two SEC seasons to date.  At the far right are the total number of SEC wins (including championship games) for each team over that same span.

 

School SEC Games Played Yards Penalized Yds Penalized/Gm SEC Wins
Missouri 17 616 36.23 9
Alabama 60 2232 37.20 48
Miss. State 56 2269 40.51 22
Vanderbilt 56 2450 43.75 18
Kentucky 56 2499 44.62 12
S. Carolina 57 2584 45.33 33
Ole Miss 56 2642 47.17 24
Tennessee 57 2701 47.38 20
Texas A&M 16 770 48.12 10
Arkansas 56 2698 48.17 23
Auburn 58 2795 48.18 31
LSU 59 3119 52.86 41
Florida 58 3248 56.00 38
Georgia 58 3332 57.44 38

 

Looking only near the top of the table, one might look at Alabama's 48 victories and good penalty-yards-per-game number and conclude that yellow flags -- or a lack thereof -- do make a big difference in a team's record.  But check out the bottom of the table.  There sit LSU, Florida, Georgia and Auburn.  Together they've combined to make eight SEC Championship Games in the last seven seasons winning five of the league's last seven crowns.  Meanwhile, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Kentucky have been well-disciplined on the field but unsuccessful on the standings board.  Those three schools have combined for just 52 SEC wins over the past seven years.

 

Observations:

* Let the conspiracy theories fly.  Since 2007, Alabama has had fewer yards walked off against it than any other member of the SEC's old guard.  So are the refs -- ya know the SEC awfice is in Birminhayum! -- taking care of Nick Saban's team or does Bama's coach just produce uber-disciplined football teams?  

* Throwing Missouri into the mix, the two best disciplined squads in the conference are coached by guys off the Don James coaching tree -- Saban and Gary Pinkel.  Coincidence?

* Georgia has come under fire of late due to a spate of player arrests.  They also begin each season with a number of players serving suspensions (though we feel that's a product have having tougher mandatory punishments than other league members).  Still, some will take a look at the number of flags tossed at UGA over the last seven seasons, marry it with the arrest/suspension issues and decide that Mark Richt's program might lack discipline overall.

* The least penalized SEC season between 2007 and 2013 was Missouri's 2012 campaign.  Only 237 yards of penalties were stepped off against the Tigers... who went all of 2-6 in SEC play.

* The most penalized SEC season belonged to Georgia in 2009.  The Bulldogs went 4-4 in league play despite being hit with 601 yards of penalties in conference play.

* No other school logged 600+ yards in penalties, but several passed the 500-yard mark: Florida (506 last season), Georgia (522 in 2012), LSU (515 in 2011), Arkansas (531 in 2010), Florida (537 in 2008), Georgia (577 in 2008), LSU (573 in 2007) and Arkansas (518 in 2007).

* LSU won the SEC crown in 2007 and 2001 despite leading the league in penalty yardage.

 

No team wants to dodge flying yellow flags on an Autumn Saturday.  One crucial penalty could obviously change the outcome of a game.  

But on a large scale, overall penalty yards don't seem to have much impact on a team's win/loss records.  Some disciplined teams rack up losses.  Some undisciplined teams rack up wins.

When it comes to the mistakes a team can survive, penalties can be overcome by superior talent.  Turnovers are a much different animal.