Jackets Don’t Need to Throw the Ball to Win
By Matthew Osborne
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While they should continue to strive for efficiency, a solid passing attack is not necessary for Georgia Tech to compete for championships.
Having spent the 2011 season living in Atlanta as the Georgia Tech beat writer for Southern Pigskin, I feel very confident in saying that there are few things in college football more polarizing than the triple option offense.
Supporters and detractors of Paul Johnson’s spread option attack alike are staunch and unyielding in their opinion of Georgia Tech’s relatively new offensive scheme. Fans from both side of the fence never hesitate to regurgitate facts and figures which support their side of the argument, often only causing a vexatious divide amongst the Yellow Jacket faithful.
Whether for or against the option offense, Georgia Tech fans found common ground in the understanding that greater efficiency would be needed out of the passing game in order for the Yellow Jackets to take the next step as a program. In the minds of the majority of the Tech supporters, the Jackets would not only need to increase their passing efficiency; they would also need to lessen the disparity between rushing and passing on offense.
The argument itself seems simple and agreeable enough. It is fair to say that most college football fans would agree that efficiency throwing the football and offensive balance are necessary components of any championship formula.
But does statistical data provide verification for both of those lines of logic?
Each of the top three finishers in total offense in 2011 – Houston, Oklahoma State and Oregon – employ offenses which primarily focus on one aspect of offensive football. For Houston and Oklahoma State, throwing the football equated to success on the gridiron, while Oregon’s offensive attack was primarily predicated on the success of the ground game.
Georgia Tech ran the football on approximately 79% of their offensive plays last season, a number that certainly would not have been quite as extreme had it not been for a string of early season contests in which that Yellow Jackets basically stopped throwing the football by halftime due to the lopsided score.
While that statistic undoubtedly is alarmingly high for many Tech fans, it really is not much greater than the 69% run-to-pass ratio which Auburn implemented to capture its 2010 national championship.
To create a better comparison, it is only fitting to examine the last great option team in major college football: The Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Led by legendary Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne, Nebraska enjoyed an extended stint of excellence during the 1990’s using a triple option offense. In fact, the Cornhuskers finished undefeated in three of Osborne’s final four seasons in Lincoln.
The most memorable offense produced under the guidance of Osborne was the 1995 Nebraska unit, which is arguably the greatest offensive unit in college football history.
Led by star quarterback Tommie Frazier, the Cornhuskers impressively averaged over 50 points per game during the 1995 season, including a season-low output of 35 points against Washington State.
Being considered possibly the greatest offense in college football history, it is hard to believe that Nebraska experienced this tremendous amount of success while running the ball on an astonishing 83.2% of their total offensive plays.
While that is surprising and perhaps somewhat perplexing, Nebraska prided itself on running the football, and Coach Osborne did not think that increased offensive balance was necessary to win championships.
Obviously, he was correct in his line of thinking.
Tommie Frazier completed 56.4% of his passes in 1995, which was actually his highest completion percentage in his four years in Lincoln. For his career, Frazier completed less than 50% of his passes, and threw for just over 3,500 yards.
Interestingly enough, Frazier’s career completion percentage (49.5%) is right on par with Georgia Tech starting quarterback Tevin Washington’s completion percentage from last season (49.3%).
What these statistics are supposed to show is that a team doesn’t necessarily have to excel at both running and throwing the football in order to yield a dominant offense. Many of the most recent national champions have been extremely one-sided in their run-to-pass ratio offensively, while an even greater number of the top scoring offenses have been simplistic with their offensive approach.
The bottom line is that there is no one particular magical offense which automatically produces a champion. You can win football games using a wide variety of formulas and schemes.
For Georgia Tech, running the football has been their bread and butter. The Yellow Jackets have finished in the top four nationally in rushing offense every year since Johnson has been head coach, meaning that they are obviously very good at what they do.
While teams should always strive to become more efficient in every phase of the game, having a dominant passing attack is not necessary for the Yellow Jackets to compete at the levels which they hope to compete. In fact, looking back at our example of the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, it isn’t necessarily imperative that the Yellow Jackets even be extremely efficient in the passing game in order to win football games.
Coach Johnson has frequently alluded to the fact that he would throw the football with greater frequency if he thought it would give his team the best chance to win. And at the end of the day, that is all that matters: Giving your team the best chance to win.
Paul Johnson has proven that his spread option offense can be successful in a BCS conference (Georgia Tech finished 21st in scoring offense last season). Therefore, my advice to Georgia Tech fans would be to allow Coach Johnson to run his offense without the persistent scrutiny of his fan base.
Coach Johnson’s offense has been called many thing – “easy to defend”, “a high school offense” and “not good enough to work against the big boys” – but, ultimately, his offense has proven to be productive.
Say what you want about Georgia Tech’s current offensive system, but if the Yellow Jackets are never again to compete for a national title or a spot in a BCS bowl, you can rest assured that Coach Johnson’s spread option attack will not be at fault.