Running your way to an SEC title

Florida coach Will Muschamp has never been around a good football team that was mediocre or worse at running the football.

“And I don’t know that I’ve seen one,” Muschamp said.

It’s no coincidence, then, that Muschamp’s Gators lead the SEC in rushing offense, averaging 259 yards per game, and head into Saturday’s showdown against No. 3-ranked Alabama knowing they will need to run the ball at least a little if they’re going to win.

Nobody is suggesting Florida needs to rush for 250-plus yards to win this game.

But if you can’t run the ball at all against this Alabama defense, history suggests you’ve got no shot.

Here’s something else history suggests, at least recent SEC history: If you’re going to win a championship in this league, you better be able to run the football.

Seven of the past eight SEC champions have finished in the top three in the league in rushing offense.

The only one that didn’t was Auburn in 2004, and the unbeaten Tigers were fifth that season. Still, they averaged 183.3 yards on the ground and finished 29th nationally in rushing offense. So it wasn’t like running the football wasn’t a big part of their repertoire.

Remember Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown?

Each of the past four SEC champions has averaged at least 214 rushing yards per game, and all four finished in the top 12 nationally in rushing offense.

Over the past decade, there hasn’t been an SEC champion to average fewer than 139 rushing yards per game. Georgia won the SEC title in 2002, averaging 139.6 yards per game and ranking 67th nationally in rushing offense.

The coaches in this league will tell you that running the football successfully is infectious and that it affects the entire team.

But those teams that run the ball well also make a commitment to doing so.

“It brings a toughness and a want to man up and be physical,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think it’s a positive piece and need of offensive football. I think it makes the defense that goes against you all week tougher. It’s a way you can manage the game with the ball in your hands.

“Running the football is a fundamental that must happen on the offensive side.”

Muschamp calls it a “total program deal” that breeds toughness in every phase of the game.

“It’s a matter of being a good football team,” Muschamp said. “The ones I’ve been around that were good ... we ran the ball well.”

Sure enough, you look at the four unbeaten teams in the SEC right now, and three of them are ranked in the top four in the league in rushing offense and all three are averaging more than 214 rushing yards per game.

Alabama is right behind Florida at 230.8 yards per game. South Carolina is fourth and averaging 214.5 yards per game.

LSU is seventh this week but averaging 171 yards per game. The Tigers have attempted 171 runs, more than everybody else in the league but Mississippi State (179) and Florida (174), and have already scored 11 rushing touchdowns.

“There are going to be times in every football game where you must run the football,” Miles said.

Every coach talks about the need to be balanced on offense, but the first thing any defense tries to take away from a team is the run.

Granted, the game is continually changing, and the advent of the spread offense has expanded the quarterback’s role in the running game.

But even when Steve Spurrier was pitching it around the ballpark with his Fun 'n' Gun attack at Florida in the 1990s, his offenses could always run the football.

The Gators won four straight SEC championships from 1993 to '96 and never averaged fewer than 137 rushing yards per game. In fact, they were fourth in the SEC in rushing in both 1995 and 1996, averaging 170 yards or more on the ground both seasons.

What’s been so impressive about Florida’s running game this season, other than the game-breaking speed that both Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps possess, is how the Gators have been able to mix it up.

Neither Rainey or Demps weighs 200 pounds, but the Gators still have had success between the tackles.

“The perimeter run game has been really good, but we’ve also run the ball well inside, and that’s something we’re committed to doing regardless of the size of our backs,” Muschamp said. “If you do one thing too much, the defenses watch film, too.

“So we still run the inside zone, still run the power off-tackle, and utilize a lot of the same run game with Jeff and Chris both in there.”

The ultimate test comes Saturday against an Alabama defense that’s been a brick wall against the run. The Crimson Tide are ranked No. 3 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 45.8 yards per game. Opponents are averaging just 1.8 yards per rushing attempt against Alabama, and the Tide have given up just one rushing touchdown this season.

Over its past 51 games, Alabama has allowed just one 100-yard rusher (Tennessee’s Tauren Poole last season), and during that stretch, only two teams (LSU in 2008 and 2010) have rushed for 200 yards against the Crimson Tide.

Obviously, the Gators have their work cut out, but they’re not going to be hard-headed, either.

“Being a defensive coordinator, when you’re one-dimensional, you make it easy on the defense,” Muschamp said. “They prepare for one thing and get into a certain mindset of how they’re going to play. But when you’re multiple and balanced in what you do, now you get them uncomfortable, and generally when defenses are uncomfortable or unsure, that’s when they don’t play very well, even if it’s good players.”