Since the now famous and oft referenced Northern Iowa game, Iowa has owned the Time Of Possession (TOP) advantage in every game they have played. There has been considerable debate over the meaning of TOP in football over the years and in the age of the spread, pass-first offensive era few agree on its value. However, we do know this, it is a statistic that has been kept and included in box scores as long as I have been alive (which is to say over 40 years) and it is worth looking at.
I'll admit TOP is not a sure fire way of determining the winning team, but other than final score no statistic can reliably and consistently confirm that. To shed light, TOP needs to be bunched in with other factors of the game to reveal any valuable meaning--and even then, as a statistic, it may not be a reliable predictor of much at all. As a test, I looked at 20 games this past weekend and analyzed TOP to see if it has any correlation to final score. It did and it did not. In some cases it was wildly unreliable, in others it confirmed the outcome.
Northern Iowa was the last team to own more TOP than Iowa at game's end. It comes as no surprise to me that's a game Iowa probably should have lost. In analyzing this statistic for the Hawkeyes, TOP appears to be a crucial dimension of Iowa success if not a planned element of its game plan. Owning a TOP advantage, no matter how small, allows Iowa's defense to play at its best. The defensive philosophy of Bend Don't Break is brilliant at the college level as it banks on offensive precision flaming out sooner rather than later. But BDB does not work if the defense is languishing on the field due to our own offensive ineptitude. Iowa's defensive front does not rotate, sure that is both a strength against no huddle schemes but a team that we can't get off the field will most likely eventually exhaust us and at some point, and that's when big plays happen. For our defense to have a strong push up front they need to occasionally get some rest; one would think they couldn't be on the field endlessly and do well. Therefore, if our offense can sustain drives it allows our defense to be dynamic.
What is the upshot?
To me TOP is one of the confirming factors of Iowa's impressiveness as a top-flight football team. In several games this year Iowa was in a significant TOP hole to start the game and yet they found a way to turn the tables on their opponent and win that TOP battle-and in each case the score was a mirror reflection of TOP in the first quarter and final score. Wisconsin had a sizeable advantage after the first quarter in TOP, so did Penn State, and in each case the score reflected their advantage. But, in both cases the defense made adjustments and started forcing three-and-outs and the offense righted itself to sustain longer drives. Without a shift in TOP Iowa probably loses both these games.
Admittedly TOP really deserves to be analyzed as part of a much more complicated matrix of relevant statistics and I am just not that guy to tease it all out. But what Iowa's TOP tells me the layperson is that our offense is doing its job splendidly. They are avoiding too many three-and-outs, and those seem to almost disappear toward the middle two quarters of the games, and they have raised up again and again to grind out long drives just when the defense needs it. While we are not accumulating the kind of rushing statistics we have become accustomed or spinning off a lot "fuck you, you can't stop me" drives, TOP suggests that we are doing enough.
When I look at our opponents from here on out I am looking to see how they have performed in terms of TOP. Those teams that are consistently outperformed scare me little. Michigan Stats is 50th nationally, so they are not habitually bad or good in term of TOP. But in each of their losses, their opponent won the TOP battle and in each of the wins they won the TOP battle. Telling.
Needless to say, I think TOP will be a huge factor in this game.