You see it on literally every statistical recap graphic on television following a quarter, half or full game of football. After rushing yards, passing yards, total yards, turnovers, etc. there it is at the bottom. Time of Possession. For as often as it's shown to viewing audiences, you would think it has some deep value connected to success in football.
I'm here to tell you that it is one of the most meaningless stats you could possibly consider when determining if your football team is good or bad. How long you possess the ball is irrelevant if you don't or can't do anything with it. That still won't stop people from pointing to TOP and hand-wringing about the Lions.
For example, here's a tweet from Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette:
Fun Facts: Penn State-Iowa. Hawkeyes are 6th in time of possession, Nittany Lions are 126th. https://t.co/3mvvCpIO1o— Mike Hlas (@Hlas) September 18, 2017
You might think that would be cause for concern! But dear readers, I assure you it is not.
wild ranges of T.O.p.
I'll get straight to it. Some of the teams that hold the ball for long periods ARE very good. Wisconsin, for example, was No. 1 in the nation in TOP last year at almost 35 minutes per game. They're No. 2 nationally so far this year with an outrageous 37 minutes per game. All of this, en route to 14 wins in their last 17 games. I would argue that this is the only style in which Wisconsin can consistently win. If they don't control the clock on offense, they're not able to hold up defensively against high-powered offenses. It's a style they've perfected over the last 20 years, and for them it works.
However, it's not a clear marker for success. Other teams in the top 26 of TOP include Pittsburgh, Tulane, Rutgers, Miami (OH), Virginia, Hawaii, Nebraska, and all three service academies. Teams not at the top of the time of possession battle nationally? Basically the entire AP top 25. Only Wisconsin (No. 9), San Diego St. (No. 22), Utah (No. 23), and LSU (No. 25) are ranked teams holding the ball for 33 minutes/game or more.
In fact, some of the best teams in the nation are at the very bottom in TOP. Oklahoma State (101st), Ohio State (107th), Washington (113th), and Penn State (125th) all average less than 27 minutes/game in possession. Last year's title game participants, Clemson (55th) and Alabama (46th), were barely top-half nationally in TOP. The nation's two most explosive offenses (measured by touchdowns of 20+ yards) in 2016 were South Florida (114th) and Penn State (102nd).
what you do with the ball is more important
Basically, the best teams do the most with their opportunities, mixing in consistency and big plays. What good did Pitt's three 15-play drives do for them, other than keep the ball out of Penn State's hands? Three points. Forty-five plays and 17 minutes of game clock netted the Panthers a single field goal. Of course, Penn State didn't score during those 17 minutes, but Pitt essentially loitered.
Forty-five plays and 17 minutes of game clock netted the Pathers a single field goal.
Joe Moorhead's offense is a revelation, designed to take advantage of every weakness shown by the defense. So far in 2017, the Lions are only averaging 57 plays per game, while their opponents average 77 plays per game. That seems bad on first glance, but dig a bit deeper and you find it's perfectly fine. Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorely and company are so brutally explosive that the Nits are averaging 8.3 yards per play and 1.95 points per play. Think about that! Nearly 2 points for every play run! Opponents have averaged 3.57 yards per play, and .061 points per play.
The Big Ten is full of ball-control offenses, and for good reason. Only a handful of schools can consistently recruit defensive talent that can go toe-to-toe with explosive offenses. When you have to protect your defense, holding the ball on offense for as long as possible seems like an okay idea. It's sort of the opposite of the model adopted by the Big 12, where defense is basically eschewed in favor of mind-bending offensive production.
Among our conference brethren, Wisconsin has run 50 more plays than Penn State for just 126 more yards. Iowa has run 54 more plays than the Lions for 212 fewer yards. All three B1G heavyweights have played exactly nobody, so I feel confident that the statistics can be looked at as a fair comparison. Other ball control offenses include Minnesota (44 more plays for 245 fewer yards) and Michigan (36 more plays for 199 fewer yards).
This examination shows that success in today's college football landscape, quality/efficiency is entirely more valuable than quantity. If you're still not convinced, and think Penn State is doomed without more sustained drives, take ease. If teams want to drop safeties in an attempt to prevent explosive plays, JoMo will attack the soft intermediate game, and TOP will go up. Until then, enjoy watching an offense that can hammer you 10 different ways. They'll never be able to stop them all.