SEC Football: It’s All About the Run
By Jeremy Hillman
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In order to win football games in the SEC, you must control the ground game.
This off-season, each college football team is striving to become solid and proficient in every aspect of the game. Coordinators and position coaches focus on things like field goal kicking, passing routes, blocking techniques, and kick returns. You will also hear a lot of analyst speak about stats like turnover margin and red zone efficiency. All of these things are important parts of the game. However, there is something, especially in the SEC, that you must be able to do if you want to win consistently: run the football on offense, and stop the run on defense.
Winning in the SEC is found in the running game. Grinding out rush yards and the clock on offense, and shutting down opposing rushing attacks on defense. There is a direct correlation to doing these things well and winning consistently in the Southeastern Conference.
I looked at each SEC team and how they fared the past five seasons in running the football and stopping the run. I included only conference games in this comparison and ranked the teams with the equation of offensive rushing yards per season as compared to rushing yards allowed per season on defense. The rankings are as follows:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (2009 SEC & National Champion, 2010 National Champion)
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): +357
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 34
2. Florida Gators (2008 SEC & National Champion)
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): +231
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 28
3. LSU Tigers (2007 SEC & National , 2011 SEC Champion)
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): +189
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 30
4. Auburn Tigers (2010 SEC & National Champion)
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): +148
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 23
5. Georgia Bulldogs
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): +134
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 26
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -46
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 15
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -79
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 21
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -167
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 28
9. Ole Miss Rebels
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -186
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 10
10. Vanderbilt Commodores
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -190
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 9
11. Tennessee Volunteers
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -243
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 17
12. Kentucky Wildcats
Run Margin (rush yards-minus rush yards allowed, 2007-2011): -352
Conference Wins (2007-2011): 12
Note: New SEC additions Texas A&M and Missouri are not included because they did not play against SEC competition. However, Texas A&M has a +32 rush margin over this five year span and Missouri has an impressive +186 margin. That would place them sixth and fourth, respectively, in the above list. It will be interesting to see if they can keep up these solid rush margins against a Southeastern Conference schedule.
This stat, rush margin (offensive rush yards – rush yards allowed on defense) is uncanny in how it divides the conference. The four teams that have won the past five national championships are first through fourth in the rankings above. Each of these teams excel in running the football and stopping the run. These same teams have not excelled in all other stats as a group; like turnover margin (Florida struggles here), pass defense (Auburn struggles here), special teams (Alabama has been poor here), and passing offense (LSU struggles here). The common denominator for top SEC teams, and thus top national teams, is rushing the football and shutting down opposing rushing attacks.
Teams like Tennessee and Arkansas have excelled in passing the football over recent years, putting up huge numbers in the air. However, these teams have failed to win a championship with that approach and, as a matter of fact, the Volunteers have dipped into a heavy slump as they prosper with the pass and have failed at running the ball.
Teams such as Vanderbilt and Kentucky have had success defending the pass over recent years, but have failed at slowing down opposing rushing attacks. They find themselves without many conference wins and, as the rankings above show, run margin is a primary reason.
It is clear that to win in this conference, you need to find a way to consistently run the ball well, and consistently stop opposing rushing attacks.
Of the five teams with more rushing yards gained than rush yards allowed the past five seasons, each of them has won 23 or more games, and average 28 conference wins among them over the past five seasons.
Of the teams that have allowed more rush yards than they have gained, each of them has won 21 or less conference games the past five seasons, and have averaged just 15 conference wins the past five seasons among them.
What does this all mean for the upcoming SEC football season?
It means over the next two months, I will be looking less at big armed quarterbacks, spot on kickers and flashy wide outs. I will be focusing less time worrying about cover corners and bulky tight ends.
Instead, I will be looking closely at solid offensive lines that can run block, nasty defensive lines that can clog up running lanes and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and big, fast and durable running backs that can grind out yardage in a tough SEC schedule. Teams with these characteristics will most likely find themselves on top of the conference at the end of the year.
This description fits LSU best, and makes them my favorite for the SEC title in 2012. The Tigers have a slew of big and productive backs, big offensive lineman and a very talented and athletic defensive line.
Alabama should be strong in all these areas as well, but must replace a few guys on defense that helped stuff the run big-time in 2011.
Look for these two teams to battle it out in the West Division.
South Carolina and Georgia fit this bill in the East. Each has a stud running back on offense and playmakers on the defensive line. Will their offensive lines perform to an elite level so they can challenge the West in Atlanta?
Based on this profile, Auburn is the dark-horse here. They have a slew of talented running backs and a mobile quarterback and a starting defensive line stacked with NFL caliber talent. The question will be whether a hugely talented, but young, offensive line gels quickly?
The potential disappointments, based on run margin indicators, could be Florida and Arkansas. The Razorbacks will benefit from a healthy Knile Davis at running back, but have questions all along the offensive and defensive line. Their obvious strength is in the passing game. For the Gators, they have to prove their defensive front is tougher than they have played in recent seasons and find a running back to step up and deliver, unlike last season.
Of the remaining teams, Vanderbilt fits this profile the best and could continue to put upset fear into the opposition and fight their way to another bowl invite. Commodore running back Zac Stacey is the SEC's leading returning rusher and the defensive line has playmakers.
Ole Miss, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee may continue to struggle to get over the hump. I don’t see great play in the running game from any of these teams in 2012.
As far as the newcomers, I look for them both to struggle running the ball against SEC defenses and stopping the top SEC backs, at least more so than they did against Big 12 squads. Especially since they both lost their 1,000+ yard rushers from last season (Gray to the NFL for the Aggies and an injured Josey for the Tigers). They will be competitive in year one, but I do not see them challenging the top programs just yet.
As the season nears, pay attention to the running game on offense and defense That will tell you more about how your team will do overall than any other indicator. Anything can happen in an individual game, and there are certainly other important factors in winning football games, but the run margin is likely the biggest in the long run.