As I was embarking on my remarkable timesuck this weekend of putting 31 years worth of SEC standings into an Excel spreadsheet so I could calculate scoring averages, it occurred to me that I cannot discuss the question of SEC offensive performance over the years without comparing the conference against the national average. I may have dropped Stats 402 at Michigan within a week because my small section was badly overcrowded, the TA barely spoke English, and “holy s***, this is math!,” but I have enough sense to know that any statistical study requires a baseline. If we are looking at the changes wrought by Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, then we need to know whether the SEC was simply moving along with the rest of college football or if one or both coaches had a significant when they joined the league.
So, thanks to some rudimentary skills with Excel (although not enough skill to convert this to a colorful graph) and a great nap from my two-year old that gave me the time to do this flight of fancy, here is SEC scoring versus the national average from 1980 to the present:
|Year||SEC PPG||National PPG||Margin|
Some thoughts on the numbers:
- There is no doubt that Urban Meyer and the Spread has had a major impact. After his first year, SEC scoring has exceeded the national average in four of five years, each time by at least a point. 2010 was the most offensive year in the 31-year sample by some margin. Ironically enough, Meyer’s offense was dreck last year, but the slack was picked up by Malzahn’s Auburn, Petrino’s Arkansas, Spurrier’s South Carolina, Mullen’s Mississippi State, and Saban’s Alabama. If one viewed 2006-10 in isolation, then one could reach the conclusion that offenses in the SEC took a quantum leap and therefore the conference got better, but…
- The link between offensive success and conference success is broken when one looks at the 80s. In four of ten seasons, scoring in the SEC was below the national average. In those years, the SEC was the best conference nationally (as measured by SRS) twice and finished second in the other two years. Look at 1983. According to SRS, this was the best year for the conference in the entire sample. Auburn finished 11-1 and should have won the national title. Georgia’s only loss was to Auburn and the Dawgs then beat unbeaten, #2 Texas in the Cotton Bowl. (“What’s the time in Texas? Ten to nine.”) Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama were all excellent. There wasn’t a single SEC team that finished with an SRS number below zero. The SEC was wildly successful in 1983 despite the fact that its teams scored below the national average.
- A related note: Pat Dye won four SEC titles at Auburn. In three of those four years, the league finished below the national average in scoring. There’s no question as to what environment was favorable for Dye’s Tigers.
- In terms of Spurrier’s impact, the effect took a little while. Scoring generally went up, with a major blip in 1992. A major part of that blip was Alabama’s epic ‘92 defense, not to mention the fact that Georgia had by far its best defense of the decade, allowing only 12.9 points per game. Spurrier’s team had its worst offensive performance of the 90s in 1992, scoring only 24.2 point per game. Scoring then picked up thereafter, reaching an apex in 1994 and 1995, the height of the Spurrier offensive boom. By 1996-99, the effect was over. Also, it’s worth noting that the SEC’s second-best performance in terms of collective SRS rating took place in 1997, when the conference matched the national scoring average exactly. Again, offensive prowess is not necessary for the league to succeed.
- What the hell happened in 2006? Generally speaking, the national scoring average has shown a stead, gradual ascent, adding a touchdown over the course of 31 years. 2006 looks like a massive, isolated recession. Scoring dipped by over two points from the prior season and then shot up by over four points in 2007. 2007 was a wacky year in sorts of ways, one of which is that it featured the highest scoring average in modern college football history.
- 2008 stands out as a transition year for the SEC. It was the last year in which the Meyer offense was truly great, as Dan Mullen took his talents to Starkville after the season. On the other hand, it was the offensive nadir for Tommy Tuberville, it featured an Alabama team that had not yet figured out how to move the ball effectively, it was the training wheels year for Petrino at Arkansas, and it was the end of the line for Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State. Think of 2008 as the SEC’s awkward teenage year.
- If I put words in HP’s mouth that the offensive dark ages for the SEC was the first half of the Aughts, then the numbers belie his conclusion. SEC scoring out-paced the national average in 2000, 2001, and 2003 before collapsing in 2004 and 2005.
- If I had to sum up my views on the changes wrought by Spurrier and Meyer, I would say that both pulled the SEC in the direction that college football was headed generally. As college football moved from I-formation running to passing out of multiple receiver sets in the 90s, the SEC followed suit with Spurrier at the vanguard. As college football has progressed to be dominated by the Spread in the second half of the Aughts, the SEC has again tracked the trend with Meyer’s offense as the shining example. Stepping into the realm of speculation, the SEC is especially well-suited to take advantage of the Spread because of the number of athletes in the South who can both run and throw, thus filling the critical role in the Spread? (Where did Oregon find Darron Thomas? Where did Michigan find Denard Robinson?) Did I just give myself another research project?
- Man, I am getting desperate to have some actual games to discuss.