Florida football fans probably do not recognize Steve Spurrier these days. At the least, they must believe Spurrier speaks a different language.
“As we all know, there’s all kind of ways to win,” Spurrier said. “There’s all kind of ways to win the game. The best one is to play outstanding defense, special teams and run the ball. There’s been a lot of champions that ran the ball.”
The man who introduced the forward pass as a lethal weapon to SEC football and won six conference championships and a national title doing so, now says the route to winning football includes a stout running game.
How times have changed, not only for Spurrier but for the SEC.
Spurrier’s transformation from the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” to the “Ground ‘n’ Pound” is representative of a conversion of offensive tactics in the SEC. Alabama, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, is ninth in the SEC in passing. South Carolina and Florida, the teams that will slug it out Saturday for supremacy in the SEC East Division, rank seventh and 14th in the league in passing.
Alabama coach Nick Saban even went so far a week ago as to say the no-huddle, spread offense used around the country is not good for college football. Spurrier said Sunday that the passing game is, well, passé, at least in the SEC.
“I don’t think that style of offense can hold up too much because the quarterback would get hit an awful lot if you tried to throw 40 or 50 times a game the way they do,” Spurrier said. “It’d be difficult. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I think it’d be a lot more difficult with SEC-type defensive players out there.
“Sort of like the pros, they haven’t gone to 40-, 50-pass offenses yet because their athletes are so quick and fast.”
Whatever the reasons — bigger, faster defenders and more complex blitzing and coverage schemes are as good as any — SEC headliner games of late have resembled old-school football with the outcomes being decided “in the trenches,” as coaches like to say.
That is a far cry from the 1990s and the first few seasons of this century. Once Spurrier showed the SEC that championships could be won by primarily throwing the ball, other programs joined the passing frenzy.
In Spurrier’s first season at Florida in 1990, three SEC teams averaged more than 200 yards per game rushing. Three teams also averaged more than 200 yards passing. By 1997, the SEC had become a passing league. Over a five-season stretch beginning in ’97, either no team or one team averaged 200 or more yards rushing in a season. During that same period, as many as eight or nine teams averaged 200 or more yards passing each season.
Of course, Spurrier’s Florida teams led the passing charge. His 1995 club averaged 361 yards through the air to lead the SEC and rank second nationally. His 2001 team led the country with an eye-opening average of 405 yards passing. (By comparison, USC’s single-game high in passing under Spurrier is 397 yards vs. East Carolina this season).
Because of his high-powered passing attack, Spurrier seemed to constantly field a farm full of top-level quarterbacks and receivers. During his 12 seasons at Florida, he produced five first-team all-SEC quarterbacks and 11 first-team receivers. At USC, no quarterback has earned such an honor and only receivers Sidney Rice (2005), Kenny McKinley (2007) and Alshon Jeffery (2010) have garnered first-team All-SEC notice.
Interestingly enough, it was just four years ago that opposing coaches used Spurrier’s penchant for passing against him in recruiting. Opponents questioned whether highly touted running back recruit Marcus Lattimore would get enough carries in a Spurrier-coached offense.
With few exceptions, that hardly has been the case. Lattimore has charged up USC’s all-time rushing list and is its career leader in rushing touchdowns with 40. He remains the focal point of USC’s offense at a time when the pendulum appears to be swinging back to the running game in the SEC.
Passing is still a big part of the league’s game with 10 teams averaging more than 200 yards per game. At the same time, six clubs are averaging at least 200 yards per game rushing. USC is not one of those six, but the Gamecocks clearly have changed their mode of operation under Spurrier to a run-first attack.
USC’s past two games are as good an indicator as any of a running game’s importance to success. USC manhandled Georgia thanks to a 230-115 advantage in rushing. LSU did the same to USC with a 258-34 rushing advantage.
There is a good chance the outcome of USC’s game Saturday against Florida will be determined by which team runs the ball best. Welcome to the new SEC.