Monday, August 29, 2011

Spurrier Versus Urban: Who Had the Bigger Impact?

My pissing matches with Heisman Pundit are usually just for fun.  My tiny niche on the Internet is the Statler & Waldorf role, usually by criticizing other writers and media types.  I like arguing, so this is an easy role to fill.  It also generates chances for cheap, lazy posts, so it is consistent with my half-assed approach to this endeavor.  However, my latest exchange with the college football blogosphere’s favorite PR guy actually led me to an interesting question: did Steve Spurrier have a bigger offensive impact on the SEC than Urban Meyer? This point seemed self-evident to me:

The funny thing is that HP could actually tell the story he’s trying to spin if he set 1990 as his starting point instead of 2005.  When Steve Spurrier came to the conference, it was in the throes of basic I-formation football.  The 80s were dominated by Vince Dooley early and Pat Dye late, with Johnny Majors having some success sprinkled in the middle.  Running and defense was the dominant style.  Spurrier’s passing attack took the conference completely by storm and his teams proceeded to finish first in the conference for six of the next seven years.  Spurrier’s success led the rest of the league to innovate, with such examples as the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid offense at Kentucky, Auburn going spread-ish with Dameyune Craig, and Tennessee modernizing its offense with David Cutcliffe.  Spurrier had a massive impact on the SEC and opponents either imitated or died.  Thus, the conference that Urban Meyer joined 15 years after Spurrier’s arrival was anything but the backwater that HP imagines.

HP rebutted in the comments section:

1. If Spurrier started an offensive revolution in the SEC, it sure didn't show up much in the offensive data for other teams…

7. Your claim that Spurrier changed offenses more than Meyer did in the league is absurd. The proof is in the offensive numbers, the titles and the Heisman winners. For instance, the Heisman is only won with superb offensive numbers. That's a truism. So, it's no shock that the only SEC Heisman winner between 1986 and 2007 came from Florida, the only SEC school that had outstanding offensive production. Of course, since 2007, there have been three SEC Heismans, which coincides with the league's offensive explosion (as I demonstrated by the numbers in my post). Do you think it's all just a cosmic coincidence?

8. I grant you that Spurrier did introduce the forward pass to the SEC. But those offenses that started passing were nowhere near as innovative as Spurrier's and they did not keep up with some of the other leagues and that is reflected in the national offensive numbers during that time (as I pointed out, only 1 SEC team averaged over 35 ppg from 1998 to 2005, and 10 have since...another coincidence?)

The crazy thing about sports arguments is that there are usually numbers to help resolve arguments.  With the help of the ESPN SEC Football Encyclopedia* and the invaluable college football section at, as well as heavy usage of Microsoft Excel, I created a chart to measure a number of factors over the past 31 years of SEC football:

  • Points per game scored by SEC teams collectively;
  • SEC teams finishing in the top ten nationally in scoring offense and total offense;
  • Consensus offensive All-Americans from the SEC;
  • SEC offensive players who finished in the top ten of the Heisman voting; and
  • The SEC’s SRS Rating and conference rank based on SRS.

I included the last two categories because I wanted to compare the overall strength of the conference with its offensive numbers.  Normally, I wouldn’t care about individual awards in assessing overall conference strength, but HP suggested them as a yardstick and they do have some value in assessing the subjective opinions of the media regarding SEC’ offenses.  I would have liked to have included yardage figures on the chart, but I couldn’t find those figures for the 80s and since the point of this exercise is to test whether the 80s were more of an offensive dark age than the first half of the Aughts, I couldn’t use yardage as a measuring stick.  If someone knows where I could find those figures, I’d be all ears.  

* – I bought the Encyclopedia on my last trip to Borders because “everything must go!”  Yup, my last purchase at one of my favorite stores was shaped by one of my online Newmans.

To steal a line from Brian Cook, chart?  Chart.     

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
2010 30.88 2 1 2 2 8.20 2
2009 28.2 1 2 3 2 10.35 1
2008 25.22 0 1 3 1 6.83 2
2007 30.06 0 1 3 2 9.78 1
2006 25.2 0 1 1 1 9.02 1
2005 23.83 0 0 2 0 4.61 5
2004 24.69 0 0 2 1 4.85 5
2003 27.15 0 0 1 1 7.10 1
2002 25.43 0 0 1 0 6.32 2
2001 27.56 1 1 5 1 8.57 1
2000 26.35 0 1 0 1 5.32 4
1999 24.68 0 0 3 1 7.71 2
1998 25.51 1 1 3 2 5.52 4
1997 25.58 2 1 3 2 10.68 1
1996 24.38 1 1 3 2 6.04 2
1995 26.67 2 4 0 2 5.86 3
1994 26.17 2 1 1 2 6.98 2
1993 24.33 2 2 1 3 6.13 4
1992 21.63 1 1 2 1 4.96 3
1991 24.26 2 0 0 1 5.74 2
1990 23.15 1 1 2 0 1.89 6
1989 23.07 0 0 2 1 7.17 1
1988 22.06 0 0 1 0 4.52 2
1987 24.74 1 1 2 2 8.47 1
1986 23.18 1 1 2 1 6.26 2
1985 22.72 0 0 3 1 9.24 1
1984 23.98 0 0 2 0 8.91 1
1983 21.91 1 1 1 1 11.22 1
1982 23.43 0 1 1 1 9.09 2
1981 19.63 1 1 1 1 7.49 2
1980 21.94 0 0 1 1 9.80 1

There are two major points to be made here.  First, look at the difference between the SEC before and after Spurrier as compared to the SEC before and after Meyer:

Before and After Spurrier

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
1980-89 22.66 4 5 16 9 8.21 1.4
1990-2001 25.02 15 14 23 18 6.28 2.83

Even accounting for the fact that we are comparing a ten-year period against a 12-year period, there can be no argument that Spurrier wrought a massive change to the SEC.  Look at 1995.  That year, there were four SEC teams in the top ten nationally in scoring offense, or one fewer than the SEC produced in the entirety of the 80s.  So much for the claim that only Florida was moving the ball in the 90s.  Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, and Kentucky all appeared in the top ten in scoring or total offense during the decade, with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia all appearing multiple times.  Also in 1995, SEC teams averaged a touchdown more than they did in 1991 and a half a touchdown more than they did in the last season before Spurrier.  That is some fast, significant change.

If you want the kicker, look at the SRS numbers.  Despite the fact that the SEC was a defense-heavy conference in the 80s, the league was better in that decade relative to the rest of college football.  According to SRS, the SEC was the best conference in the country six times in those ten years and second in the other four years.  During Spurrier’s 12 years, the league finished outside of the top two six times.  The conclusion here is simple: offensive success does not correlate to overall strength.

There is also a conclusion to be drawn that success in the form of national titles isn’t necessarily evidence of a strong conference (although I certainly take that position a lot when the topic of the Big Ten comes up).  The SEC was extremely strong in the 80s, but the decade did not produce a national champion for the conference after Georgia’s title in 1980.  There were certainly close calls, specifically for Georgia in 1982, Auburn in 1983,* and possibly Tennessee in 1985, but no SEC team even played in a bowl game billed as a national title game after 1982.  Maybe the conclusion to be drawn is that a defense-heavy super-conference is less likely to produce a national champion than a more balanced one.     

* – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that Miami was a unanimous national title in 1983 is indefensible.  Auburn finished with the same record and played the toughest schedule in the nation.  According to SRS, the Tigers played five of the top ten teams in the country.  Miami didn't play a single team in that category until they had the good fortune to play Nebraska on their home field in the Orange Bowl.  In short, the voters overrated Nebraska in 1983 (dominated a schedule that turned out to be fairly soft) and then overreacted to Miami upsetting Nebraska.  And to think that we might have been spared the entire era of Da U if voters were more rational.   

Take Auburn as an example.  In 1988, the Tigers had an epic defense and missed out on a shot to play Notre Dame for the national title in the Sugar Bowl because of the Earthquake Game, which Auburn lost 7-6.  Fast forward to 2010 and Auburn went unbeaten and won the national title despite playing in more close games than the ‘88 team.  The team with a great defense and average offense lost a game did not play for the title; the team with the great offense and the average defense did.  Is this a lesson that a defense-oriented conference is less likely to produce national champions?

Before and After Meyer  

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
1999-2004 25.98 2 2 12 5 6.65 2.5
2005-10 27.23 3 6 14 8 8.13 2.0

Yes, there is a difference, but it is not as pronounced as the difference pre- and post-Spurrier.  Scoring has gone up, but not as much as the Spurrier era versus the 80s.  SEC offensive players have been more likely to receive individual accolades, but how much of that is because the offenses are better and how much is because the teams are outstanding?  (Counterpoint: SEC teams were excellent in the 80s, but they didn’t have a raft of award-winners, so simply winning isn’t enough.) 

That said, the last four years have seen an offensive explosion.  In two of the past four years, the SEC’s scoring average exceeded 30 points per game.  There is a strong parallel to be made to the Spurrier era.  Offensive change does not occur overnight.  It takes time for other programs around the conference to look at what the Gators are doing and ramp up what they are doing offensively.  In the Spurrier era, it took five years.  By 1994-95, SEC teams were scoring 3-4 points more per game than they had in the 80s.  In the Meyer era, it took only three years for the conference’s offenses to see similar progress, followed by a major regression in 2008 (apparently, Meyer’s influence isn’t complete) and then a progression back to 30 ppg in 2010. 

Coming later this week, an answer to a follow-up question: did the changes in scoring in the SEC after Spurrier and Meyer track offensive changes in college football overall?  In other words, did scoring go up simply because of a rising tide of points in college football generally?


Anonymous said...

"Spared" us from Da U? Miami was one of the most entertaining teams in college football history! We are all better off as cfb fans because of the existence of Miami.

peacedog said...

We are none of us better off as cfb fans because of the existenceof Miami.

See, I can do it too!