When Time of Possession Matters
Be skeptical when you hear a “key to the game” or a “key to the season” involving time of possession.
“If the opposing offense isn’t on the field, it doesn’t score”… wait…Did you finish the statement to the logical conclusion in your mind? “…which will provide the team controlling the ball an advantage by limiting the opponent’s points and increasing its own points which better enables the team to win.”
For a Season
After the official NCAA time of possession statistics for the last 5 college football seasons (2005-2009) for all DI-A schools were combined, averaged and dissected, a few things are abundantly clear from the season averages for 594 season records over some 7400 game records (actually it was 7399 but I ain't hunting down the one).
Over the course of a season, average time of possession of 30 minutes per game or more carries an even record or better in 70% of the seasons. But we aren't looking to break even. Arkansas Fans want to know about ranges associated with winning 9 games or more per season. At 30 minutes or more per game, 38% of the teams (112 of 298) won 9 games or more.
As any fan might expect, as the average time of possession per game over the course of a season increases, so does the likelihood of having a better season. Increasing time of possession by 1.5 minutes to a minimum of 31:30 per game, teams who were able to do so logged 9 or more wins 47.7% of the time. But time of possession doesn't cure all ills. Even for times of possession between 31:30 and 31:59 per game for an entire season, 17 teams still managed losing seasons.
Only a few ticks higher at 32:00 or more per game does the stat equate with winning 9 games or more better than 50% of the time. 52 teams over the last five years have achieved that level and for 32 of them (61.5%) the reward was a nine-game or better winning season. In the same range, only two teams had losing seasons.
Below is a chart of the time range of a team’s average offensive time of possession per season followed by the number of teams falling into the particular time range along with a compilation of their seasons’ records.
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Sort as you like.
Over 2009 Arkansas averaged 28:50 seconds for time of possession for the season and 30:26 the year before.
If you think for a moment, which of Arkansas’ last two offenses was better? 2009’s, of course. The fact that Arkansas’ time of possession was lower last year would seem to fly in the face of trend above. Arkansas won more games as our time of possession went down. Higher times of possession will sometimes equate with defensive efficiency while lower times of possession equate with a higher level of offensive efficiency. At the extremes, TCU’s 2008 team averaged more than 35 minutes per game on offense. The hallmark of that team was its Defense. On the other end, the 2009 Cincinnati and 2008 Oregon teams averaged times of possession less than 25:30 average time of possession for the season while racking up records of 12-1 and 10-3 respectively. Both were known for explosive offenses.
Below 30 minutes of time of possession per game, teams managed to win 9 games or more 19% of the time while losing records were 55% of the entries.
Arkansas’ 2009 average time of possession is in the lower half’s statistical sweet spot if there is such a thing. For times between 28:00 and 28:59 per game teams posted 9 or more wins about 24% of the time. The rate of teams winning 9 or more games goes down between 29:00 and 29:59 and then only picks up to 29% of the teams winning 9 or more games in the range of 30:00 to 30:29. Before hitting the extremes, teams between 30:30 and 30:59 make up another sweet spot by having 9 or more wins 42% of the time.
Broad statements over seasons don’t tell us anything about particular games though.
Bobby Petrino and Time of Possession
For Coach Petrino’s 4 years at Louisville and 2 years at Arkansas as a Head Coach, here are his games, the time of possession for each and whether each was won or lost.
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Bobby Petrino TOP Game by Game
Over 75 games, Coach Petrino’s head coaching record is 54-21 (72%) regardless of time of possession. At the high, his 2006 Louisville team held the ball for more than 38.5 minutes against Wake Forest. His 2004 squad really wanted some bench time against Cincinnati. It kept the ball fewer than 18.5 minutes in route to a 70-7 win.
38 of Coach Petrino’s games have times of possession above 30:00, making 37 games below. Of the 38 games above 30:00, his squads are 29-9 or 76%. Below 30 minutes per game, his Arkansas and Louisville teams have won 25 of 37 (68%).
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Ark./ UL ToP Summary
But the experience of Coach Petrino’s games tracks the national averages, only at different values. Arkansas’ 2009 time of possession of 28:30 was in a “sweet spot nationally” but the national stats suggest that increasing the time of possession wasn’t necessarily better unless Arkansas added at least a minute and a half to more than 30 minutes. Nationally, holding the ball for 29 to 30 minutes was statistically worse.
But past experience for Petrino’s squads at both Louisville and Arkansas suggests that adding 1.5 minutes might not be a good thing either. For any 1 minute time segment from 18 to 19 minutes up to 38 to 39 minutes, the range between 30-31 minutes is the only one where Coach Petrino has a losing record at 4-5. Between 30:30 and 30:59 his teams are 1-3.
However, above 31 minutes per game, the sky is the limit. His teams have won at an 86% rate.
At Arkansas alone Coach Petrino’s teams are 7-2 (78%) when holding the ball more than 31 minutes. Above 30 minutes (technically 30:25) Arkansas is 8-4 (67%). Below 30 minutes, Arkansas has a 5-8 (38%) record with 3 wins occurring when Arkansas holds the ball between 27-28 minutes per game. Off that mark, Arkansas is 0-3 in games where it has the ball 26-27 minutes (one minute shorter) and 0-3 in games 28-30 minutes (up to two minutes longer).
Pick a perspective, whichever one suits you best, national, Louisville and Arkansas, or Arkansas alone. However it’s accomplished on the field and whether its driven by the offense grinding out the ball or the defense becoming more efficient, time of possession only really starts to matter at 31 minutes or more per game for a Bobby Petrino offense at Arkansas.
When game time comes, the concept of time of possession takes a back seat to scoring the most points and moving the ball up the field whether it’s through the air or on the ground.
We can talk about improving Arkansas’ rushing all we want, but we’ve seen enough from Coach Petrino to know that he’s not insane. If some scheme isn’t working, he’s not going to continue to employ it on the offensive side of the ball expecting a different result. If he’s getting 3 yards on the ground and 6 in the air, the mix of plays will be different than if both were netting 5 yards a play. From the offensive side of the ball, the time of possession won’t likely increase unless the option of running the ball is almost as attractive and effective as throwing the ball to Childs, Adams, Wright, Williams, etc. As we can see from his Cincinnati experience above, the issue isn’t one of time of possession as much as it is of offensive scoring efficiency until his offenses are holding the ball 31 minutes or more.
While increasing the time of possession is ultimately favorable, in all likelihood the increase needs to be driven by the Defense in terms of quicker stops against opposing offenses as opposed to the offense trying to “grind out” yardage and adding an extra play or two to 10 different drives. More drives would be the preferable way, and the offense can’t create that.
Listen closely to whatever comes after “Arkansas needs to increase its time of possession.” It will probably be a better indicator of how astute the media person is rather than an indicator of how the game should go.