The SEC’s spread offense experiment

As the Southeastern Conference has turned the college football world into its personal playground in the course of the last six years, fans, analysts and the like have come to accept that while SEC-style football may lack the pyrotechnics of offensive-minded conferences such as the Big 12, it is brutally effective.

The league lives – and far less often dies – by the well-worn cliche that running the ball and stopping the run are the keys to winning football. Pass-happy squads such as the Patriots, Saints and Packers have somewhat undermined that notion in the pros. However, despite the huge offensive numbers being put up by the Oklahomas and and Oregons of the world, ground-and-pound still rules college football’s roost.

Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report’s newly minted SEC blogger, picked up on that theme earlier this week in an article predicting imminent doom for the Texas A&M Aggies when they join the conference in the fall. Sallee points out that the only programs that have had success with the spread* in the SEC are Florida and Auburn, both of which have won national championships during the league’s run of dominance with an emphasis on running the ball. A&M coach Kevin Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, both offshoots of the Mike Leach tree, prefer the Air Raid flavor known for putting up prolific passing numbers. Therefore, Sallee argues, the Aggies will be in for a world of hurt without revamping their O to make the run a more integral part of their attack:

“You have to run the football in the SEC – no matter what your system is. Kingsbury better realize this before toe meets leather this fall, otherwise it’ll be a long season in College Station.”

(*There are so many versions of the “spread” as it relates to offensive schemes that the term itself doesn’t have much utility now. The offenses run by Urban Meyer and Mike Leach really have little in common. In reality, teams are mixing and matching so many offensive concepts today that trying to fit any scheme into catch-all buckets is generally pointless.)

Sallee is absolutely correct that teams running spread offenses along the lines of the Air Raid generally haven’t been found near the top of the SEC standings. But how many have really tried? Sallee points out two notable pass-happy flame-outs: Dave Clawson’s offense at Tennessee in 2008 and Tony Franklin’s half-season at Auburn.

Personally, I’ve never been big on the immutable rules in sports like “you have to run to win” and “defense wins championships.” The goal is to have at least one more point on the scoreboard than your opponents at the end of the game, no matter how you get there. Too often, I think we all fall into the trap of conflating “style” with “success.”

The guys out on the field ultimately win championships. The SEC stands head and shoulders above the rest of the country in that regard. We’re talking about a league that oozes NFL talent and pays handsomely to acquire top-notch coaching minds. That matters far more than style.

Within the conference, the same holds true, too – check out the recruiting rankings of LSU, Alabama, Florida and Auburn versus the rest of the league. Look at what the top-tier programs are paying their coaches relative to the middling ones.

The chances that Kingsbury and Sumlin’s offense will continue to put up the same Nintendo-like numbers they’ve become accustomed to are slimmer than the prospects of finding a vegan restaurant in Tuscaloosa. The overall level of talent in the SEC is simply better, and Big 12 immigrants A&M and Missouri, another pass spread team, will find themselves even lower in the talent stack than they were in their previous home. Only the most blatant of homers would expect them to keep on lighting up the scoreboard. Likewise, unless the Aggies and Tigers are able to leverage the move into massive recruiting upgrades, I have strong doubts that either program will match the overall levels of success going forward that they enjoyed in the Big 12.

In the court of public opinion, however, they will provide interesting test cases for the viability of the Air Raid in the SEC. Fair or not, if Mizzou and A&M flop, I suspect the scheme will take a disproportionate share of the blame.