The Pass Happy SEC

It's often comical to listen to the talking head "experts" of the world ramble about the SEC, complete with all of these notions about how the conference is based upon run-first offensive philosophies where premiums are placed on establishing the run and winning the time of possession battle in order to grind out victories. It's comical because those notions are so far from the truth that it is laughably absurd that supposed "experts" would ever make such obviously false claims. At times you would swear some of these guys haven't watched an SEC game in thirty years.

For decades, the SEC was the conference mentioned above. You saw big uglies up front paving the way for star tailbacks to get 25 carries per game, all the while offenses ran the football on 65 or 70 percent of all downs, and at times more. Offensive systems like the Single Wing, the T-formation, the Notre Dame Box, the Wishbone, the Veer, and the Power-I dominated for decades on end. Oh sure, you saw some good passers and receivers from time-to-time, and some good passing attacks too, but even so that was never what the conference was ultimately all about. At the end of the day, it was all about running the football and stopping the run.

But times change.

The running game is still very important -- and nothing here is meant to denigrate its importance, nor should it be construed as such -- but the SEC has slowly evolved into a conference that loves to throw the football. I think so many people get caught up in this long-held notion of the dominance of the running game that they have allowed the rise of the passing attack in the modern game to go almost completely unnoticed. Though nearly everyone realizes that we throw the ball a lot more today than in the past, a lot of people still cling to the notion that you should achieve offensive "balance" -- though that term is never properly defined -- with something near a 60/40 run/pass ratio. It is often just quietly assumed that teams are running the football more than they are throwing it, and that they are using the pass as a lethal, but nevertheless secondary, method of moving the ball and scoring points.

To say the hard data doesn't support those notions and assumptions is a gross understatement.

All told, a little over 3,000 passes were thrown last year in conference play. That works out to about 32 passes per game per team. Factor in another couple of sacks per game, and a few scrambles too, and suddenly you are talking about a conference average of about 40 passes per game per team. When you take into account running plays, suddenly you are looking at a conference-wide run/pass ratio that is near 50/50, but a ratio that actually sees more passing plays than rushing plays.

I went back through the game data for all of the SEC games this season, and crunched the run / pass numbers. The major issue when doing so is taking into account quarterback runs. Of course, many quarterback runs are actually not designed runs, but are in fact busted passing plays that resulted in sacks and scrambles. To take this into account, I added up all of rushing attempts by quarterbacks and operated under the assumption that half of them were designed runs, and half of them were actually passes that ended in sacks and scrambles. Now, I should say that I don't think the actual number of designed runs was anywhere near the 50% I accounted them for -- I figure it's probably much lower than that in reality -- but I did want to err on the side of caution and take no chance whatsoever of overstating the raw numbers in favor of the pass. As a result, I think the following numbers slightly underestimate the percentage of passing plays, but nevertheless that is what we will operate with.

The following are the run / pass ratios for the SEC teams in conference games this season:

Runpasssplitsbn7_medium

Surprising? All of this stuff about teams striving to find a 60 / 40 balance just isn't a reality when you look at the actual numbers. Six teams effectively threw the ball 54 percent of the time or more. LSU and Vanderbilt were right at a 50 / 50 clip. Mississippi State, who had a solid running game and was forced to play the majority of the year with a third-string true freshman quarterback, nevertheless threw the football right at 49 percent of the time (48.99% to be precise). Even Georgia was a fair bit high in terms of run / pass splits relative to what we are commonly told is ideal in today's game.

The only two SEC teams that really approached the traditional ideas of balance and the dominance of the running game were Auburn and Arkansas. Auburn had terrible quarterback play with a solid running game, and they came in near the 60 / 40 split we hear so much about. I didn't crunch the numbers for Arkansas -- with McFadden occasionally throwing the football out of the Wildhog and it representing such a large portion of their offense (with no true quarterback even on the field much of the time), I was not quite sure how to take account for them statistically -- but they were probably just as run-heavy as Auburn was, and perhaps even a bit more. Again, though, those were the only two teams that approached the run / pass splits that are supposed to be ideal.The rest of the league threw the football far more than is commonly deemed appropriate.

And the interesting thing going forward is that the only two run-heavy teams from the 2007 season, Arkansas and Auburn, are both undergoing fundamental changes in offensive philosophy that will ultimately result in them throwing the football much more in the coming years. Bobby Petrino has arrived in Fayetteville to take over the Arkansas job, and he has installed his spread scheme that saw the Cardinals throw over 700 passes in his final two years in Louisville. On the Plains, Tony Franklin has taken over the offensive reins for Auburn, and though I do think Tuberville will keep his spread attack watered down a bit, there is absolutely no question that, at a bare minimum, Auburn's passing attempts will go up dramatically in 2008 and beyond.

The point of the matter is that even the couple of run-heavy teams left in the conference, a dying breed as though they were, are about to start airing it out too.

While all of the talking heads of the world keep yammering about how SEC football revolves around establishing the run offensively and stopping the run defensively, in the meantime the entire conference has gone and fallen in love with the forward pass.

Recruits know it. The top wide receiver prospects are flocking to the SEC now -- last year five different receivers rated as five-star prospects signed in the SEC. The same thing goes with the top quarterbacks and cornerbacks, too, which the top SEC teams continue to stockpile by the bushel. The offensive line has changed as well. Long gone are the days in which you are looking for these massive, immovable linemen with names like Pork Chop, Big Daddy, and Fat Back. Today you see teams going after highly athletic lineman that can handle the also incredibly athletic defensive linemen in pass protection. Bottom line, the modern day SEC loves to throw the football, and the top recruits know it, even if many of the self-proclaimed experts don't.

The times have changed.

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