Balance in SEC Offensive Playcalling 2006 - 2010

I was skimming Mike Leach's book the other day. He made an interesting point about a balanced offense in college football. He says:

To me, a balanced offense is one where each skill position touches the ball and every position contributes to the offensive output. There is nothing balanced about running it 50% of the time and throwing it 50% of the time if you are only utilizing two or three offensive skill positions and only attacking part of the field.

Vineyarddawg brought this up a month ago, and we discussed it as it applies to Mike Bobo and the Georgia offense. 

I would like to take a more general look at the second part of Leach's assessment as it applies to the SEC. Specifically I want to examine the following Balance Measures over a course of a season:

  1. distribution of run and pass plays
  2. distribution of running and passing yardage
  3. distribution of running and passing touchdowns 

From this we will be able to see which teams are the most or least balanced in their play selection, yardage production and scoring. Then, I will evaluate whether or not there is a correlation between any of the Balance Measures and the following Offensive Production Measures:

  1. Third down conversion rate
  2. Red zone scoring rate
  3. Red zone touchdown rate
  4. Points per game
  5. Sacks allowed per game
  6. Turnovers lost per game

The population for this analysis will be the seasons of all SEC teams from 2006 through 2010.

If other interesting data should emerge, we'll take a look at them as well.  

 Explanation of Terms and Compilation of Data:

I scheduled the following data for each season for each team in the SEC from 2006 to 2010 using statistics from (who are awesome at life).

General Passing Statistics Rushing Statistics
Games Played Attempts Attempts
Wins Completions Yards
Winning % Completion % Yards Per Carry
Total Plays Yards Touchdowns
Total Plays Per Game Yards per Attempt Attempts Per Game
  Touchdowns Yards Per Game
  Passer Rating  
  Attempts per Game  
  Yards per Game  


These are the standard line for running backs and quarterbacks in box scores.

Next I calculated the Balance Measurements for each team for each season as follows:

For play selection, yardage production, scoring: 
1) Percent pass and percent run
2) Percent run minus percent pass (run / (pass) heaviness)
3) absolute value of percent run minus percent pass (Absolute Balance)


The results are summarized below:

Play Selection
Percent Pass Percent Run Run (Pass) Heavy Absolute Value Balance
Maximum 54% 69% 38% 38%
95th Percentile 53% 67% 33% 33%
85th Percentile 51% 63% 25% 25%
75th Percentile 49% 60% 20% 20%
50th Percentile 44% 56% 13% 13%
25th Percentile 40% 51% 3% 5%
Minimum 31% 46% -8% 1%
Mean 44% 56% 12% 14%
Standard Deviation 6% 6% 12% 10%
SEC Average 44% 56% 12% 14%
"Mike Bobo" Average 44% 56% 11% 11%
Ten Win Team Average 39% 61% 22% 22%
Yardage Production
Percent pass Percent Run Run (Pass) Heavy Absolute Value Balance
Maximum 74% 64% 27% 47%
95th Percentile 70% 58% 16% 40%
85th Percentile 66% 52% 4% 31%
75th Percentile 63% 49% -3% 27%
50th Percentile 56% 44% -12% 16%
25th Percentile 51% 37% -26% 8%
Minimum 36% 26% -47% 2%
Mean 57% 43% -13% 18%
Standard Deviation 9% 9% 18% 12%
SEC Average 57% 43% -13% 18%
"Mike Bobo" Average 59% 41% -18% 18%
Ten Win Team Average 51% 49% -2% 9%
Touchdown Production
Percent pass Percent Run Run (Pass) Heavy Absolute Value Balance
Maximum 74% 74% 49% 49%
95th Percentile 67% 70% 40% 44%
85th Percentile 60% 64% 27% 33%
75th Percentile 56% 60% 21% 27%
50th Percentile 47% 53% 6% 17%
25th Percentile 40% 44% -13% 10%
Minimum 26% 26% -48% 0%
Mean 48% 52% 3% 19%
Standard Deviation 12% 12% 23% 13%
SEC Average 48% 52% 3% 19%
"Mike Bobo" Average 49% 51% 2% 18%
Ten Win Team Average 41% 59% 17% 21%


So to unpack these a little bit, the top table shows the distribution of run vs. pass plays selected. This means, the team which passed the most frequently in the SEC over the last five years threw the ball 54% of the time (2007 Tennessee, 2008 Arkansas and 2007 South Carolina all hit this number). Conversely 2010 Auburn and 2010 Mississippi State ran the ball on 69% of their offensive snaps for the most over the last half decade.

The run (pass) heavy column is the difference between those two. That is, the team with the most lopsided run to pass ratio (Again Auburn 2010) ran the ball on 69% of their plays and passed it on 31%.  The 2007 Tennessee Volunteers were the heaviest in the opposite direction passing the ball 54% of the time and running it 46%.

The absolute value column is the same calculation as the run (pass) heavy column except that it does not treat teams which favor the run or the pass as opposite signs. For instance in 2008 Georgia threw the ball on 52% of plays and ran the ball on 48%. South Carolina that year threw the ball 48% of the time and ran it 52%. In the absolute value column these are the same result, a 4% spread.

Just for fun I've thrown in the average of all SEC teams, the "Mike Bobo" average (Georgia's average), and the average for teams that won ten games during the season.

The second and third tables are identical to the first except that they replace play selection with yards produced and touchdowns scored.

Before we move on to how these measures correlate to other offensive production measures here are a few remarks for discussion:

  • Nobody in the SEC throws the ball all that often. No team in the past five years has thrown the ball on more than 55% of downs. 18 teams have run the ball on 60% of downs or more.
  • However, that does not carry over to yardage. It's almost equally rare for a team to gain more than 50% of their yards on the ground. It has happened 13 times out of the last five years.
  • About a quarter (16 out of 60) of the seasons observed had an absolute value balance of plays run of 5% or less - meaning they had the type of balance that Mike Leach is describing as not necessarily useful. Of those 16 two resulted in 10 win seasons.
  • Average, thy name is Bobo. I mean no offense by this, but as far as these measure go, it's a fact.

Correlation to Offensive Production Measures

So what if anything does this mean? To find out if Mike Leach is correct, I measured the correlation between the statistics above the offensive measure of production. Results are summarized below:

Correlation of: Third Down Conversion % Red Zone Score % Red Zone TD % Points per Game Sacks Allowed Per Game Turnovers Lost per Game
Run Heavy Play Selection                 0.19           0.10         (0.01)           0.22         (0.37)           (0.17)
Balance of Play Selection                 0.21           0.20           0.05           0.29         (0.35)           (0.13)
Run Heavy Yardage Production                 0.05           0.04         (0.11)           0.14         (0.46)           (0.11)
Balance of Yardage Production               (0.00)         (0.06)           0.09         (0.03)           0.34             0.21
Run Heavy TD Production               (0.12)         (0.08)         (0.13)         (0.04)         (0.29)           (0.12)
Balance of TD Production               (0.19)         (0.20)         (0.36)         (0.18)           0.15             0.22
Bottom Top
Strong Positive                 0.50           1.00
Moderate Positive                 0.30           0.49
Weak Positive                 0.10           0.29
No Relationship               (0.09)           0.09
Weak Negative               (0.10)         (0.29)
Moderate Negative               (0.30)         (0.49)
Strong Negative               (0.50)         (1.00)


The yellow area represents areas where there is no statistical relationship or a weak statistical relationship between the two variables. So third down conversions, red zone scoring, points per game, and turnovers? Leach is right. There really is no bonus to being balanced, at least not for its own sake. Of course there are teams which are balanced and succeed (for instance Arkansas scored 36.5 per game using a 52 to 48 run pass mix) and teams that are balanced and fail (2008 Mississippi State set back offensive football for decades with a 49/51 pass to run mix and 15 points per game).

The unbalanced teams are striking as well. The 2010 Auburn, 2009 Alabama and 2008 Florida teams all ran the ball over 60% of the time and gained between 4% and 14% more rush yards than pass yards. They also won 100% of the national championships awarded in those years. Teams that run this often and lose tend to be from Mississippi including the 2006 and 2010 Ole Miss teams that ran 60% of the times winning 4 games in each season and Mississippi State in 2009 that ran 68% of the time and won 5 games.

So what's the take away? Mike Leach is basically right. Teams that have been run heavy have had a lot of success, but it is certainly no guarantee of success. Teams that have been balanced have succeeded and failed in the name of diversity. Being balanced or unbalanced for its own sake doesn't correlate to the areas of offensive production I measured. Yarrgh!

Other random things that turned up from this for further research (looking at you Xon) or discussion:

  • There have been sixteen 10 win seasons in the past five years. There have been 18 seasons with 6 wins or less. Their results compare as follows:

10 Win 7 + Loss Difference
Percent Pass Plays 39% 46% -7%
Percent Run Plays 61% 54% 7%
Percent Pass Yards 51% 58% -7%
Percent Run Yards 49% 42% 7%
Percent Pass TD's 41% 48% -7%
Percent Rush TD's 59% 52% 7%
  • Of the six SEC teams with the most rushing attempts per game over the last five years, three have one national championships (Auburn 2010, LSU 2007, Alabama 2009). The other three were Dan Mullen's Mississippi State teams and 2007 Arkansas.
  • The only team to finish with a passer rating above 150 and win fewer than 8 games were the 2010 Georgia Bulldawgs.
  • Of the nine teams with the lowest turnovers per game in this analysis, four have won the national championship. 2010 Georiga was number 10.  

What are you doing there little kitty cat?

Go Dawgs!

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