Ranked SEC teams seek balance with rushing games and create opportunities for the passing game

Ranked SEC teams seek balance with rushing games and create opportunities for the passing game

Texas 46

AP Sports Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — There’s no denying that passing the football is exciting to watch if done right. That success depends on having a good running game, as most coaches will tell you.

Five of the Southeastern Conference’s seven ranked teams are doing their part toward establishing that balance with rushing attacks that rank in top 60 in the FBS. That group averages from 170 to 231 yards per game by rushing for at least 35% of their yardage, with No. 22 Tennessee handing the ball off to an assortment of runners that have helped generate nearly 50% of its 2,331 yards.

There’s no magic number, especially with game situations dictating the scenario. But whether by design or circumstance, having capable running backs and/or mobile quarterbacks executing a run/pass option provides nice flexibility.

“The game plan kind of dictates who we put in first,” said Volunteers running backs coach Jerry Mack, whose backfield rotation includes Jaylen Wright (435 yards), Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson.

And when ball carriers find holes and space, thrilling explosive plays can develop just like deep passes. Just ask Kentucky running back Ray Davis.

The Vanderbilt graduate transfer took the game’s first three snaps and gained 33 yards on his way to a career-high 280 on 26 carries that keyed the Wildcats’ 33-14 rout of then-No. 22 Florida last week. It marked a national season high and the third-best single-game performance in school history and vaulted Davis to No. 4 in FBS rushing with 594 yards and 118.8 per game. He leads the SEC with eight rushing touchdowns.

The No. 20 Wildcats (5-0, 2-0 SEC) rank 50th at 170.4 yards per outing and have rushed for 855 of their 1,984 yards (43%).

“For me, it was about just coming here and having that ability to just play my game,” said Davis, a 3,000-yard career runner who faces top-ranked Georgia (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday. “I’m a versatile running back. I can be in the passing game, too.”

Davis transferred to Kentucky this season after rushing for 1,042 yards in his second season with the Commodores. That isn’t shocking, considering the program has produced a stream of 1,000-yard rushers, most recently with Bennie Snell Jr. and Chris Rodriguez Jr.

For all the Wildcats’ passing success with mobile quarterback Will Levis and now transfer Devin Leary, offensive coordinator Liam Coen stresses that running the ball is key to the game plan.

“That’s always kind of been what we were,” said Coen, back for a second stint after spending last season with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.

“Two years ago, that was kind of our identity, running the football and being physical. It’s what we’ve stressed since we walked in the door here,” he said. “And in January, it was the number one thing that we were trying to get better at, being physical and dominating people in the run game. And that (Saturday) was nice to see.”

Rushing has led the way at Auburn, which ranks 20th at 202.0 yards per game for 56% of its offensive yards. Cody Schrader has rushed for 463 yards to help No. 21 Missouri start 5-0 with a SEC win.

No. 23 LSU has the SEC’s third-best attack (198.0 yards) behind power runner Logan Diggs, who has 354 yards rushing while QB Jayden Daniels has 292 with improvised runs and RPOs.

“It’s absolutely crucial for any really good offense – unless you’re in a specific kind of an ‘Air Raid’ type of offense – that it has the components of an intentional running game because it sets up so much of what you want to do in terms of taking shots down the field and controlling short yardage and down and distance and things of that nature,” coach Brian Kelly said.

Mississippi State has moved from the pass-heavy Air Raid scheme to a pro-style philosophy in search of balance. The Bulldogs have achieved nearly 40% of their 1,813 yards on the ground as a result, with running back Jo’Quavious Marks carrying the ball more after catching it out of the backfield in the Air Raid.

Marks became the school’s all-time receptions leader last month but right now has 420 yards rushing to rank fourth in the SEC. First-year coach Zach Arnett yearns for more from him and the other backs to create opportunities for record-setting QB Will Rogers. And points.

“It’s in our best interest to be effective and stay ahead of schedule with the run game,” he said.

Georgia has rushed for just 31% of its 2,406 yards, but it’s worth noting the Bulldogs also have a big-play receiving threat in All-American tight end Brock Bowers. Coach Kirby Smart points out that his team is just doing what it takes to win.

“You’d love to have this defined, that we’re going to bully you and run it through you,” Smart said. “Nobody really does that. I don’t know anybody that just does it. Now, Kentucky did it last week against Florida, but they haven’t done it every single game. Running the ball in the SEC is the hardest thing to do.”


AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Tennessee, Brett Martel in Louisiana, Charles Odum in Georgia contributed to this report.


AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football

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