SEC Getting Back to its Roots

ATHENS - As trends go, it doesn't shake the Richter scale much, but the Southeastern Conference is slowly returning to its roots.

In the last five seasons, rushing attempts in the league have gone up almost 10 percent. They have increased each year except 2002.

In 2000, SEC teams rushed the ball on 51.9 percent of their plays. This season, rushes account for 59.1 percent of plays. Rushing production is also on the rise. In 2000 and 2001, SEC offenses got less than 40 percent of their yards on the ground. This year, 45.4 percent of offense is coming from rushing.

"Every coach you ever hear at a press conference says, 'We have to stop the run and we have to establish the run,'" South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. "Maybe now they are just starting to practice what they say all the time."

Even Georgia's Mark Richt, a noted practioner of the passing game, has been caught up in the movement.

The No. 10 Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 SEC) rushed for 273 yards against Vanderbilt last week, the highest total of Richt's tenure. Georgia has gained 43.7 percent of its total yards on the ground this year. That number never topped 38 percent in Richt's first three seasons.

Only twice this season has Georgia passed the ball more than it has run the ball in a single game. The first time came against South Carolina (38 passes, 37 rushes), when the Bulldogs had to rally from a 16-0 deficit to win, and the second time was against Tennessee (41 passes, 29 rushes), the Bulldogs' only loss of the season.

"Georgia could not run the ball against Tennessee," South Carolina coach Lou Holtz said. "Ole Miss had trouble running it against Tennessee. They both lost. Auburn, on the other hand, with their great backs, was able to run the ball against Tennessee."

Holtz didn't have to remind anyone the Tigers beat the Volunteers 34-10.

The SEC numbers don't reflect a national trend. Around the country, running plays have accounted for between 56.3 percent and 55.6 percent of offensive plays in each of the last five years.

There are several theories that could explain the regional trend. Richt and Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe think the biggest factor is the flood of good to great running backs in the league.

"Auburn comes to mind right away," Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said.

The Tigers average 201.9 yards on the ground thanks to Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. Georgia has the third-leading runner in the league in Danny Ware and another true freshman standout in Thomas Brown. Alabama has two rushers -- Ray Hudson and Kenneth Darby -- in the top four in the SEC. Florida has Ciatrick Fason, and Tennessee has Cedric Houston and Gerald Riggs.

"You're going to give the ball to the players who are most effective," Cutcliffe said, "and we've had a run of tremendous running backs in our league."

VanGorder thinks it's a natural cycle. Defenses have spent the last 10 years concentrating on stopping more and more intricate passing games, he said.

"We had to, and that's one of reasons you may be seeing some teams now starting to open up the passing game with the running game," he said.

From an offensive perspective, defenses had begun to catch up with and even pass the offensive schemes that were cutting edge a decade ago. Blitzing schemes, in particular, have become more complex.

"It used to be you could have an answer for every blitz," Richt said. "Now it has turned into more of a guessing game."

Offenses have countered with more variety in the running game, VanGorder said. In the last five years, the amount of runs out of the shotgun formation have increased and more linemen are pulling in an attempt to open more perimeter running lanes, he said.

The new schemes are giving offenses the confidence to run the ball against defensive formations they wouldn't have several years ago, Richt said.

"It used to be if those safeties come down in there, we're not running it, we're throwing it," he said. "Now offenses are figuring out ways to run it with those safeties in there."

Holtz thinks the strength and speed of SEC defenses is another factor teams are running the ball more than the national average.

"It's just hard to move the football on these people," he said, "but I think running is the surest and easiest way to control the football game."

SEC running game
Rushing and rushing prodcution have gradually increased in the SEC in the last five years. Below is a chart that shows the steady growth of the running game based on the percentage of running plays called and the percentage of total offensive yards running accounts for.
Year Plays Yards
2004 59.1 45.4
2003 56.3 41.8
2002 58.4 45.5
2001 53.7 38.6
2000 51.9 38.6

The Richt Years
Georgia coach Mark Richt has been a part of the SEC trend. His team is running the ball more, and more effectively, than it ever has in his tenure.
Year Plays Yards
2004 55.9 43.7
2003 54.9 35.4
2002 54.6 36.2
2001 55.1 37.5

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