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The Pass Happy SEC Reconsidered

We all know that the SEC is a run-heavy conference, right? To be sure, we have reached the point to where offensive "balance," loosely defined, is considered a must, but clearly the general thinking among many talking heads and most fans is that any offensive design needs to be tilted towards running the football. The consensus among talking heads and casual fans alike, for whatever reason, focuses on how teams are striving to achieve a 60/40 run/pass split. I can personally sure you that will hear Gary Danielson cite that every single week this Fall, for example. But is all of that stuff really true, and does the generally accepted notion of the 60/40 run/pass split realistically describe modern day SEC football?

I asked those very same questions last year, and after a bit of research I ultimately came to the conclusion that none of those generally accepted notions contain any real truth. I frankly have no clue where the notion of a supposedly ideal 60/40 run/pass split came from, but one way or the other it is not embodied in the raw data. Not a single team in the SEC was as conservative as the 60/40 run/pass split -- Auburn ran the ball more than any other team in the conference, about 58% of the time -- and only the War Eagles and Georgia were even remotely close. Furthermore, despite all of the notions about the SEC being a run-heavy conference, the exact opposite was true. In fact, in 2007, the SEC saw more passes than runs, and eight teams in the league were effectively throwing the football 50% of the time or higher. Despite popular contention to the contrary, the SEC was in fact a pass happy conference. 

I ran those numbers again recently for the 2008 season, using the same methodology, and the ultimate conclusions were the same, if not to an even greater degree. The following are the run / pass ratios for the SEC teams in the 2008 season:


As you can see, the SEC was a pass happy conference yet again in 2008, as expected. Only three teams effectively ran the ball more than 50% of the time, and the conference as a whole once again saw more passing attempts than rushing attempts. In fact, far from the ideal 60/40 run/pass split, as a whole SEC teams threw the ball roughly 52% of the time, and ran the ball only about 48% of the time.

Digging deeper, the conclusions become even more definitive. For example:

  • Tennessee ran the football more than any other team in the conference besides Alabama, but the numbers are a bit misleading. In their first six conference games, Tennessee threw the football roughly 55% of the time, and ran it only 45% of the time. Those numbers, however, completely flipped with the results of the final two games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, when an ousted Phil Fulmer, tired of watching his quarterbacks throw games away, ran the ball 104 times against only 17 passing attempts. Those two outlier games turned UT into a run-heavy offense on the whole, but the point remains that they were predominately a passing team throughout the majority of the season. 
  • Florida's spread option scheme heavily utilizes the quarterback as a rushing threat. Furthermore, Florida spent most of the season annihilating opponents to the point of where the game would be effectively over by halftime, and should have theoretically been spending the rest of the game running out the clock. Nevertheless, despite all of that, Florida still threw the football over 47% of the time.
  • Auburn had terrible quarterback play all season long, and Tony Franklin was fired mid-way through the season. Furthermore, they played in close games all year long (sans the Iron Bowl), but nevertheless still ended up throwing the football almost 54% of the time.
  • LSU likewise had terrible quarterback play, with Jarrett Lee tossing pick sixes left and right, and with a true freshman leading the way the past two games of the season. Furthermore, they also had one of the strongest running games in the SEC, led by Charles Scott and a stout offensive line. Even so, the Bayou Bengals still threw the football right around 50% of the time.

The only true run-heavy team in the conference was Alabama, where the Tide ran the football almost 65% of the time. From the outset, this answers any lingering questions about whether or not such a run-heavy team can still win big; clearly they can, and it should come as no surprise. There is no surer way of victory than to be able to consistently and repeatedly line up and run the football straight down your opponent's throat. Of course, though, having all of the pieces in place in order to be able to do that consistently is a very difficult thing to do, and the 2008 Crimson Tide was very much a rarity in that it had all of those pieces in place. Also, the run / pass numbers for the Tide are skewed a bit because we spent most of the season with huge leads at which point we were just trying to run out the clock for the remainder of the game. Without having done the specific research just yet, I imagine our run / pass splits were nowhere near this extreme in situations where the game was still very much in contention. Furthermore, moving forward, with Nick Saban having lined up three highly-touted quarterback recruits, more than ten wide receivers rated four-stars and higher, and several elite tackle prospects, the Tide will air it out much more often in the coming years. Even for Alabama, the extreme run-heavy levels of 2008 will be an anomaly.

Once again, on the whole, the conclusions seem quite clear. Talking heads may go on and on about how the SEC is a run-heavy conference, but that is simply not the case. That may have been true many years ago, but the modern day SEC is simply a pass happy league.

ed- As some of you may have noticed, I did not include Ole Miss in this analysis, just as I did not include Arkansas last year. The reasoning in both cases was their widespread usage of the Wild Hog / Rebel, and with both teams using that so heavily, it made them effectively impossible to fit into this type of analysis. With tailbacks and wide receivers lining up at quarterback and occasionally throwing the football, etc. it’s just impossible to get a good grasp on what was actually going on without specifically breaking down the game film.

I will say, though, even if you apply this exact same methodology to Ole Miss’ 2008 season, they would have been one of the more run-heavy teams in the conference, but nothing overly special. They were 55% run and 45% pass, and the difference is negligible to the point that the overall conference run / pass splits only drops a few tenths of a percentage point as a whole.