10 Questions for 2011 #4 - How important is the run game?

At Tennessee, we're used to the answer to this question being, "very".  Even the most famous Vol offenses featuring the most famous Vol quarterbacks leaned heavily on the run game:  you could argue that Heath Shuler's arm was really the least important part of the '93 offense that set the school record with 42.8 points per game, thanks to the triple threat of Charlie Garner, James Stewart, and Aaron Hayden (plus Shuler's legs).  Even with Peyton Manning under center, Tennessee needed to run the football; Jay Graham had the single season rushing record playing with Manning, until Travis Stephens broke it playing with Casey Clausen and three NFL receiving targets.

So to assume that Tyler Bray is going to sling it every down would be to deny UT's history.  Derek Dooley no doubt understands the importance of the run game in the SEC.  However, the wild card here is Jim Chaney - it's his offense, and while we saw a balanced attack when Matt Simms was running it in September and October, once Tyler Bray took over it more closely resembled the pass-heavy attacks that made Chaney famous at Purdue.

"Pass-heavy" is understating it.  For thousands of reasons, we shouldn't compare Tyler Bray to Drew Brees (...yet).  In fact, I'm not sure you can compare anyone to Brees in terms of number of pass attempts by a quarterback from a BCS conference.  For instance, Brees holds the NCAA record for single game pass attempts with this little beauty from 1998:  55 of 83 (!), 494 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT.  Even better, he did it against Wisconsin and the clock-chewing Ron Dayne; the Badgers won 31-24.

Brees averaged 45 pass attempts per game during his final three years at Purdue.  Chaney's offense was a little more sane when Kyle Orton took over, averaging just over 30 pass attempts per game.  But Bray was in the middle in his five starts last year, averaging 35.4 pass attempts per game.  That number, had he kept it over the course the full season last year, would've made him 19th nationally in pass attempts per game, 10th among players from BCS conferences, and first among SEC passers (and is still less than Erik Ainge's 37.1 attempts per game from 2007).

But in the SEC, can you really win throwing the ball that much?

Here are the QBs from the last five SEC Championship Games, and their conference rank in pass attempts per game:

(* - Ryan Perrilloux actually played in the 2007 SEC Championship Game, but Flynn got them there)

You could go back even farther and find more of the same trend; only Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning have averaged more than 30 passes per game and walked out of Atlanta victorious.  Trust us, we'll make this point plenty the week of the Florida game no matter how many yards Bray throws for against Montana and Cincinnati:  you have to run the ball to win in this conference.

Into this conversation steps senior Tauren Poole, who ran for 1,034 yards last year but somehow doesn't seem to have the respect that usually goes with that number; Poole is fifth among returning rushers in the SEC but didn't find his name on any of the six RB spots on the coaches' preseason All-SEC team.

Poole got his yards as the primary option in the Vol offense with Simms in the game, and as a change of pace with Bray in command.  He averaged 5.81 yards per carry in the first quarter thanks to long runs against Oregon and Alabama.  But he was also very strong in the fourth quarter at 5.74 yards per carry, taking advantage of tired defenses that had grown accustomed to Bray's arm.  He averaged the same 16 carries per game with both Simms and Bray starting, but those numbers are a bit skewed by his minor injury that limited him to just ten carries against Florida and six against UAB.  The only time he cracked 20 carries with Bray was against Vanderbilt, with the passing game struggling to find its rhythm.  And in the Music City Bowl, Bray threw 45 passes while Poole got only 11 carries.

And that's the real question, to me:  will the Vols continue to use Poole and the running game as only a change of pace, hoping to catch defenses sleeping or wear them down late?  Or will Jim Chaney implement the run game as a significant part of the offense, dialing back some of Bray's attempts in favor of a greater commitment to the ground game?

These are also questions for Rajion Neal, and could become so for freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith.  But if a balanced attack is the best way to win in the SEC, perhaps we can take comfort in the way Poole ran against Oregon and LSU:  the Vols, even with their young offensive line, showed they were capable of moving the ball on the ground until good defenses made them prove they could beat them with the pass.  With Bray, UT is going to be much more likely to beat a team with the pass, and that should create opportunities to beat a team with the run.  Will the Vols look to take advantage of those opportunities from the start, or again place their bets with Bray and only use the run as a secondary option?

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