Time, Tempo, & Touchdowns

For me, the importance of the time of possession stat has always been a lingering question out in space. How important is it and how much does it actually contribute to a team’s success? Perhaps the first part that strikes this chord with me is upon a comment of game strategy to which a team suggests holding the ball on offense to keep the other offense off the field. 

There is validity to that thought. Barring turnovers returned for points the other team cannot score while they do not have the ball. However, you will have to give them the ball eventually and all that is really occurring is that the total number of possessions available for each team is being decreased. Point being, a good offense will score points at the same rate whether they have 11 possessions in a game or 17 possessions in a game.  But yes, limiting possessions and slowing a game down will prevent the game from getting out of hand and out of reach. The onus is still on the offense to score points. 

There is also the idea of keeping your defense rested and off the field and the thought that if they have to trot out for another defensive series after another three and out they will grow tired and make success harder to come by. That is quite logical and self-explanatory and I doubt you’d get any detractors saying otherwise.

In review of the game between Iowa State and Kansas State on Saturday, one major talking point exiting the game was the Wildcat’s time of possession at 40:54 compared to Iowa State’s 19:06. (If you’re wondering, Kansas State’s average time of possession for the season is just a shade over 31:45, the 29th highest in the NCAA). But what does it all really mean?

One contention that I have always had is that a defense experiences wear more based off of total snaps played as opposed to total time on the field. On Saturday, K-State won the time of possession battle by better than 2:1 but the total offensive plays for KSU was 76 and 60 for ISU. There certainly also has to be a factor of immediate fatigue a defense faces when plays come more quickly, such as ISU utilizing the “jet tempo”.

I compiled a stack of stats trying to explain and learn more about the effects of winning the time of possession battle and rightly or wrongly landed on this simple premise when looking at things through the lens of plays per minute instead of the standard time of possession: It is okay to play at a much faster tempo than your opponent with two major considerations: You must achieve first downs and/or you must score efficiently.

I ran some correlation coefficient simulations and wasn’t able to find a strong link between any time of possession numbers when compared to different potential indicators. Time of possession itself does not have a strong link to winning percentage, offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, yards per rush for offense or defense, etc etc…at least for the 2012 college football season thus far.

***  Right now, the Cyclones average time of possession per game is just over 27 minutes – 113th in the NCAA. That in total doesn’t tell the story though because the offensive and defensive prowess along with the team’s win percentage is all over the map up and down the rankings of time of possession. Take Oregon for instance who is 98th in time of possession, Texas A&M at 100th, Louisiana Tech at 113th, and Northern Illinois at 121st; all teams with a win percentage above 0.833.

***  On average over the first six games of the season, 48.38 percent of the plays from scrimmage in Cyclone games are ISU offensive snaps. That is the 32nd lowest in the NCAA and could easily be worse if not for the Cyclone defense stepping up all season long. 

***  The current Cyclone possession on average this season has lasted just 1:51. While that makes Rick Pitino jealous that is the 9th shortest average possession length in the NCAA. So we’ve established that ISU doesn’t possess the ball for long and that probably isn’t a shock to any of us.  But what happens when you dig a little deeper?

***  When it comes to offensive tempo as measured by plays run per minute of game clock, (yes, incompletions and other clock stoppages would play a role but it would be nearly impossible for me to level that playing field) the Cyclones run 2.58 offensive plays per minute, the 32nd fastest pace in the NCAA.

***  But what about the first downs that must be achieved and scoring efficiency? For this analysis, I used first downs per possession as a means to figure how often teams are generating a new set of downs (this does include “empty possessions” where teams would kneel out the clock). The Cyclones are averaging 1.31 first downs per possession which ranks 107th in the NCAA.

***  For to scoring efficiency, I used points scored per possession as the primary measurement. In that category, the Cyclones are scoring just 1.78 points per possession which comes in as the 90th best scoring offense in the NCAA.

Of the 31 teams ahead of Iowa State for running more plays per minute, (i.e. a more up-tempo offense) 10 of them have a win percentage under .500. When you look at those 31 teams and how they rank in first downs per possession the next lowest you find compared to ISU at 107th is Tulsa at 97th, Kentucky at 84th, Arkansas at 79th, and everyone else is 66th or better.

When it comes to those 31 teams and their scoring efficiency, you’ll find Kentucky below ISU at 105th, Washington State at 100th, Buffalo at 97th, and Syracuse at 95th. The next closest scoring team of those 31 ahead of ISU are Troy at 82nd, South Florida at 80th, and the others are all 70th or better.

You’ll notice that the only overlap on those two lists of the top 32 most up-tempo offenses is Kentucky who is 1-6 on the season while Iowa State is sitting at 4-2.  Keeping things simple…when you look at the 32 most up-tempo teams and add their rankings of points per possession and first downs per possession together, (where the lower the number the better) the Cyclones two rankings add up to 197. They are followed by Kentucky at 189, Washington State at 166, Buffalo and Arkansas at 158, and South Florida at 132. So for the 32 teams that I am saying it is the most crucial for them to either achieve first downs or score efficiently, the Cyclones are performing the worst.