One of the main narratives that has emerged with the rise of the up-tempo offense is the notion that is makes things hard for the defenses that have to keep up with it.
Even if the offense is scoring, the thinking goes, it’s doing so on drives of only around a minute or two, which doesn’t give the defense much time to rest up from its last drive. Extend that over a game, and the defense is out there 60 percent of the time, or 12 minutes longer than the offense.
Over a 12-game season, that’s a difference of more than two hours of game possession. That’s a lot, and the defense gets tired and starts letting up yards willy-nilly.
So the thinking goes. And do you know why the thinking goes that way? Because, for the most part, it’s true.
And it makes sense. The offense gets off the field quickly, the defense is on the field for a lot longer, it faces more plays and, ergo, more chances to give up more yards.
It’s part of the reason Missouri ranks 103rd in the nation in total defense through three games this season after ranking sixth last year. There are more reasons than just this one, but suddenly playing opposite one of the fastest-paced offenses in the nation is one.
To run an up-tempo offense, you’ve got to have some measure of ball control to make sure your defense isn’t on the field for, oh, 61.25 percent of every game, as Missouri’s has been thus far this season.
To get some measure of ball control, you’ve got to have either a run game (or a very efficient short pass game) that can consistently move the chains down the field and grind the clock. Missouri doesn’t have that either.
Is there a way for your offense to be terrible at time of possession and still win a majority of its games?
We looked at the bottom five in average time of possession for this young season (Missouri is one) and the five full seasons before (2011-15). This year, only one of the bottom five — the mighty, 2-1 Akron Zips -- has a winning record. From 2011-15, only 10 of 25 did. The average team has a winning percentage of .446, or about 5-7.
What do the winning ones have in common? We looked at total defense and run game metrics to try and figure that out:
So check it out.
These 35 teams we surveyed (and, yes, five of them are only a quarter of the way through this season) averaged a rank of 97th in total defense nationally, 74th in defensive yards per play, 74th in rush yards per game offensively and 60th in yards per rush.
Their rate is better than their bulk. But, for most of them, neither are very good.
A full 20 of the 35 rank 100th or worst in total defense, Missouri being one of them. The Tigers are also one of the 12 teams ranked 89th or worse in rush yards per game.
(DFP, by the way, is an acronym made up for a made-up stat called “Defensive Field Percentage,” or the percent of the game a team’s defense is on the field.)
“Alright, Buzzkill McDownerson,” you might be saying to yourself right about now. “So how does Missouri make this model work?”
Let’s go to the evidence.
If you’re going to give up a lot of yards, make the other guy work for them
Of the 11 teams who pulled (or are pulling) winning records, only three (2013 Oregon, 2012 North Carolina...on probation...downer...and 2011 Mississippi State) ranked in the top half of the FBS in yards allowed per game. But only four (2016 Akron, 2014 Bowling Green and Texas A&M and 2012 Miami...also on probation...downer...) ranked in the bottom half in yards per play allowed.
On this front, Missouri’s in pretty good shape, ranking 43rd in yards per play allowed. Then again, 2015 Troy and 2013 Louisiana Tech ranked right around there, and both went 4-8.
If you’re not going to get the chance to run the ball a lot, at least do it well when you do
The average winning team in the low time-of-possession ranks averaged a pedestrian 53rd nationally in rush yards per game, with 2011 Oregon (fifth), 2013 Oregon (eighth) and 2015 North Carolina (18th) being the all-stars.
But those same teams averaged 34th in yards per rush, with all three of those teams pulling top-five spots nationally.
Of the 19 losing teams, only four (2015 Oregon State, 2013 Wyoming and Indiana and 2011 Maryland) ranked in the top half of the FBS in rush yards per game, and only seven (those four, plus 2014 Texas Tech, 2013 Louisiana Tech and 2012 Houston) ranked in the top half in yards per rush.
Missouri’s sitting 89th and 105th right now in yards per game and rush which...doesn’t exactly bode well.
Only one of the 10 winning, low-possession teams from 2011-15 ranked that low in yards per game (8-5 Houston, 93rd in 2013), and none of them ranked near Missouri’s 105th in yards per rush. That Houston team came closest, at 76th.
So how do you win when your offense barely sees the field? I don’t know, ask Oregon. The Ducks seem to have a pretty good handle on it.
Or, you know, Missouri might be able to look to its not-so-distant past.
In 2008, the Tigers held the ball for an average of 25:49.14 per game, which ranked 119th out of 120 FBS teams (above only Oregon, coincidentally). That year, Missouri went 10-4, won the Big 12 North and advanced to the conference championship game, where mumblemumblemumblemumblemumblemumble.
How did Missouri do it? Did the Tigers follow our formula for low-possession winners?
They ranked 100th in total defense and 61st in yards allowed per play, both of which are on the high end of our 2011-15 winners. But they also ranked 53rd in rush yards per game and 14th in yards per rush, both of which fit seamlessly into the 10 low-possession winning teams we found from 2011-15.
Plus, you know, a crazy-efficient quarterback in Chase Daniel.
I will say, though, that the 2007 Tigers (the ones who went 12-2) managed to possess the ball for 28:50 a game while running the same offense as 2008. So it follows that having the ball can make it easier to control (and win) games.
If this year’s Tigers want to keep letting their offense on the field only 40 percent of the time, they have a good enough defense, compared with their historical counterparts. They have a quarterback that has the potential to get to a Daniel-like gamechanger level in Drew Lock.
Now...the run game...