SEC teams seek offensive balance in title pursuit
The gaudy rushing, passing and receiving statistics being put up in the Southeastern Conference have grabbed headlines, but offensive balance is what leads to SEC titles.
Teams rarely achieve a true split running and passing the ball, but those that have found a way to produce an attack that yields a balance in total yards have been the most successful. Five of the last six SEC champions have had a strong ground game and big-play passing offenses.
Florida (2008) and Alabama (2009, 2012) won with nearly equal yardage totals, while run-dominated champions such as Auburn (2010) and LSU (2011) also had totals close to the middle.
It's not impossible for one-dimensional teams to succeed in the SEC, but it's difficult. That's why SEC rushing leaders Arkansas and Georgia, along with Texas A&M and its prolific passing attack are trying to move closer to that middle ground.
''We are always looking to be balanced,'' said LSU coach Les Miles, whose 15th-ranked Tigers have run the ball more than twice as many times as they've thrown (246-116) but are nearly even statistically (226.2-236.6 yards per game). ''We want the situation when you take a down and distance, the defense has to defend the pass.
''In back half of a game, we may want to use time. In a game that is tied or is a close game, we want to be very balanced in the run-pass ratio.''
The ground game has been critical for the past six SEC champions who combined to run the ball 3,121 times in 4,721 regular-season plays - or 66 percent of the time. But when it comes to total yards, the percentages for yards amassed on the ground (56 percent) and in the air (44 percent) are much closer.
This weekend, the SEC's top four offensive squads square off in Mississippi.
Sixth-ranked Texas A&M takes the conference's top passing and overall offense (594.6 yards per game) into Starkville against No. 12 Mississippi State. Just 16 yards separate the rushing and passing yards for the Bulldogs' third-ranked offense.
In Oxford, No. 11 Ole Miss hosts No. 3 Alabama, which has passed for just 309 more yards than it has run - thanks mostly to junior receiver Amari Cooper (655 yards, five touchdowns).
Alabama center Ryan Kelly said the Crimson Tide are nonetheless motivated to ground it out in hopes of beating the Rebels, who boast the SEC's top defense.
''The more that we can run the ball, the more it evens out the passing game,'' he said. ''We don't want to be a heavy pass team, but we're going to take advantage of the looks we get.''
For many coaches and offensive coordinators, the weekly challenge of devising a workable ratio to keep defenses guessing also means being open to change.
Asked if he has an ideal run/pass percentage in mind, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said, ''It fluctuates. It changes a little bit. Over the years it's been my experience, you know, I don't like to talk myself out of something during the week.''
There are times when the gameplan can work out in the box score but not necessarily on the scoreboard.
Mike Davis' 104 yards rushing last week against Missouri were forgotten because South Carolina allowed 14 fourth-quarter points and lost 21-20 to the Tigers. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said it was a first for him and lamented losing a lot of ''good statistics.''
But Spurrier remains committed to striving for a balanced attack - after running 42 times and passing 37 against the Tigers - while being flexible.
''Normally play-callers, you call what's working,'' he said. ''If you're not throwing very well, you try to run a little bit more. If you're throwing well, maybe you keep throwing more. It's pretty common sense on that.''
For Georgia coach Mark Richt, offensive balance right now comes on the ground in the successful combination of Bulldogs junior Todd Gurley (610 yards) and freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, who have combined for 369 yards and four TDs.
But Richt and the Bulldogs might start passing more with wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley returning from injuries this week, their first action of the season. That doesn't mean, however, that Richt won't still rely heavily on a ground game that has the Bulldogs chasing an Eastern Division title.
''If we weren't giving (Gurley) and Chubb and Sony and (Keith) Marshall the ball a good bit, I think most people would be saying `Why aren't you giving those guys the ball?,''' Richt said. ''So I don't think we're going to have quite the same balance as we've had in the past because of the dynamics of that backfield right now.''
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia; Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee; Jeffrey S. Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Brett Martell in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.