Is it time to panic about the disappearing Florida run game?
Florida clinched the program’s 13th outright SEC East title Saturday in Knoxville, an outstanding accomplishment for a program that was a 4-win mess only 3 Decembers ago. Thanks to an ascendant Georgia and the brilliant recruiting of Kirby Smart, it’s tougher than it has been since Florida and Tennessee were dueling national powers in the 1990s and early 2000s to win the SEC East. This divisional title should feel different and more special than the two Jim McElwain won at Florida in the middle of the last decade because it was tougher to win.
Of course, Dan Mullen isn’t at Florida just to get to Atlanta. The idea is to go to Atlanta and win SEC Championships. Florida hasn’t done that since 2008, and in truth, save the 2009 Gators and a few terrific Georgia teams, the SEC Championship has been a house of horrors for the SEC East champion over the past decade-plus. Mostly, it’s an exercise in hope.
It might go ok! -SEC East representative 2009-present
— Jon (@TYAC_Jon) December 6, 2020
The building narrative around the 2020 SEC Championship Game is that this is a titanic battle between two Heisman candidate quarterbacks leading two of the nation’s most electric offenses. Throw in the legitimate “who is the best pound for pound player in college football” debate between DeVonta Smith and Kyle Pitts as a bonus if you’d like, but essentially, the dialogue has centered around the two offenses and the secondary question of whether Florida can do anything defensively to slow Alabama and allow it to stay in the football game.
There’s nothing wrong with that analysis, per-se, it just seems a bit shortsighted if you’ve been watching the Gators over the past month.
The reason Florida now ranks 8th in offensive success rate nationally as opposed to Alabama’s first is really quite simple. Over the past month, Florida has simply not been able to run the football. This is a problem that has gotten worse in November and early December and while the lack of any threat of balance hasn’t cost the Gators against the likes of Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee, it will absolutely haunt them in Atlanta in 2 weeks.
Before you casually argue that “Florida couldn’t ever run the ball, what are you talking about Blackmon,” well allow me to retort.
The numbers don’t bear that out. In fact, they show that Florida’s lack of a run game is a recent, and highly concerning, phenomenon.
After Florida’s 44-28 win over Georgia, the Gators ranked 38th in success rate running the football. What does that mean? It means that the Gators ranked in the top 40 in the country in successful running plays, or, the number of running plays where a running back gains 40% of the yards needed on 1st down, 60% of the yards needed on 2nd down, or 100% of the yards needed on 3rd or 4th down. That number isn’t elite — but it provided Florida enough of a threat of balance to hurt defenses. The Gators actually improved to 34th in rushing success rate after the Arkansas game, too, a game that saw Florida churn out 208 yards rushing on 45 carries, allowing Kyle Trask and the passing game to collect over 10 yards per attempt and throw for 7 touchdowns (Emory Jones had 1).
Unfortunately for Florida, the 63-point outburst against Arkansas was the high-water mark for the offense. Since then, the Gators have been limited to 38, 34 and 31 points by the likes of Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee. Of those 3 opponents, only Kentucky ranks in the top 50 nationally in total defense.
The biggest reason Florida has struggled?
The run game has fallen off the face of the earth.
Florida grinded out 173 yards rushing against Vanderbilt, but that came on 40 carries and Florida saw its rushing success rate fall out of the top 40 for the first time all season. Florida’s effort against Kentucky was even weaker, with only 104 yards on 25 attempts. The result of that effort was Florida’s lowest point production game from an offensive standpoint on the 2020 season and a Florida run game that fell to 55th nationally in rushing success rate.
Saturday against Tennessee, what had been a struggling run game disintegrated altogether. The Gators mustered only 19 rushing yards on 17 attempts, and 17 of those yards came on a Jacob Copeland reverse early in the second half. Florida’s running backs, who played such a huge part in the offense early in the season, tallied only 7 yards on 11 rushing attempts. Only 1 of Florida’s 11 attempts by a running back was a “successful” run, and only 3 of Florida’s 17 rushing attempts on the day were “successful.”
As a result, Florida’s rushing success rate is poised to drop out of the top half of the sport.
On the one hand, that makes the Gators standing as a top 10 success rate offense — and the season Trask is having — all the more astonishing. On the other hand, the lack of any threat of a run game may give Nick Saban the liberty to drop 8 men into coverage. Georgia tried that, of course, and it didn’t go particularly well. But Florida faced Georgia without their All-American safety Richard LeCounte, and Georgia’s second-best safety, Lewis Cine, was ejected after an illegal hit on Florida tight end Kyle Pitts. At least for now, Alabama is healthy in the secondary and, like the Dawgs, stout enough up front to generate some pressure with 3 or 4 and slow an anemic Florida run game without much help.
Mullen is one of the best offensive minds in the sport, and he’ll scheme up something to react to that adjustment, just as he did against Kirby Smart. But remember, Florida’s ability to run the football, especially in the first half, was a huge reason the Gators succeeded against the Bulldogs at a 63% success rate clip on the day. If Florida can’t at least grind out some rushing yardage in Atlanta, they’ll find life harder against the Crimson Tide.
The bottom line is Florida isn’t going to beat Alabama without scoring 40 points or more. Alabama has lost 3 games over the last 3 seasons, including 2020. In each loss, the opponent scored 40 points or more. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 2017 Iron Bowl to find an Alabama loss where the Tide surrendered less than 40 points and still lost. If you throw 2016 into the mix, the Tide have lost only 5 games in 5 years, and in 4 of those defeats, opponents scored 35 or more.
Does the Florida passing game qualify as good enough to test Alabama? Absolutely. The Gators rank 3rd nationally in passing success rate and protect Trask well, ranking 9th nationally in sack percentage allowed and 16th in limiting pressures.
But the electric Florida offense you saw against Georgia, Arkansas and in other games this season was fueled by balance, which Florida has lacked over the last month.
That shouldn’t spoil Florida’s SEC East title celebrations just yet, but it might spoil the third Saturday in December.