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10 Questions for 2012 #2 - The Run/Pass Ratio

It's our favorite argument here at RTT: does Tennessee need to run the football and have some sense of offensive balance, or should these Vols say screw it and just throw it 50+ times per game?

This isn't a once-for-all question. It's a Tyler Bray question, specific to this quarterback and these wide receivers. We saw a glimpse of it last year, when after two games even the strongest "you have to run to win in this league!" screamers - including two of your trusty authors on this fine website - got seduced by the Cincinnati win and had visions of Bray putting up 500 yards against the Gators. The Cincinnati game was so powerful, we forgot that it's never more important to run the football than when you're playing Florida...and then Justin Hunter got hurt, and the questions changed.

One year later, the argument hasn't died. Tennessee's 116th best run game in the nation did nothing to stop it, nor did the signing of Cordarrelle Patterson and the best WR class in the country back in February. But it still remains to be seen if the voice of four verts is siren or muse.

Jim Chaney is still most famous for being the guy at Purdue with Drew Brees, adding fuel to the fire of passing on every down. But the most important question remains, "What gives Tennessee the best chance to win?"

Let your voice be heard in our poll and in the comments; after the jump, we take a look at UT's run/pass ratios during Bray's reign of terror...

Here's a look at the run/pass ratios during each of Tyler Bray's 12 starts at UT. The ratios do not include drives at the end of blowouts where the Vols were running the clock out. Sacks count in team rushing statistics, but obviously they are pass plays so they count there in the ratios.

  • at Memphis (50-14 W): 38 pass/30 rush - Bray 19 of 33 for 325 yds, 5 TD - Team Rushing 32 carries for 130 yards (4.1 per).
  • vs Ole Miss (52-14 W): 39 pass/21 rush - Bray 18 of 34 for 323 yds, 3 TD - Team Rushing 28 carries for 118 yards (4.2 per)
  • at Vanderbilt (24-10 W): 29 pass/32 rush - Bray 16 of 27 for 232 yds, 2 TD/2 INT - Team Rushing 34 carries for 128 yards (3.8 per)
  • vs Kentucky (24-14 W): 40 pass/24 rush - Bray 20 of 38 for 354 yds, 2 TD/2 INT - Team Rushing 26 carries for 76 yards (2.9 per)
  • vs North Carolina (30-27 OT L): 50 pass/24 rush - Bray 27 of 45 for 312 yds, 4 TD/3 INT - Team Rushing 29 carries for 27 yards (0.9 per)
  • vs Montana (42-16 W): 31 pass/39 rush - Bray 17 of 24 for 293 yds, 3 TD - Team Rushing 46 carries for 128 yards (2.8 per)
  • vs Cincinnati (45-23 W): 41 pass/35 rush - Bray 34 of 41 for 405 yds, 4 TD - Team Rushing 35 carries for 126 yards (3.6 per)
  • at Florida (33-23 L): 54 pass/15 rush - Bray 26 of 48 for 288 yds, 3 TD/2 INT - Team Rushing 21 carries for -9 yards (-0.4 per)
  • vs Buffalo (41-10 W): 35 pass/35 rush - Bray 21 of 30 for 342 yds, 4 TD - Team Rushing 44 carries for 199 yards (4.4 per)
  • vs Georgia (20-12 L): 43 pass/20 rush - Bray 18 of 33 for 251 yds - Team Rushing 23 carries for -20 yards (-0.9 per)
  • vs Vanderbilt (27-21 OT W): 35 pass/28 rush - Bray 16 of 33 for 189 yds, 2 TD/2 INT - Team Rushing 30 carries for 101 yards (3.4 per)
  • at Kentucky (10-7 L): 41 pass/21 rush - Bray 15 of 38 for 215 yds, 1 TD/2 INT - Team Rushing 24 carries for 61 yards (2.5 per)
What does it all mean, Basil?

Obviously Tennessee is pass-first with Bray and Chaney. The Vols average 40 passes and 27 runs per game in Bray's 12 starts, meaning the Vols throw it around 60% of the time. And even this number is probably a little imbalanced toward the run game, because the Vols were clearly trying to find an answer on the ground against Montana and Buffalo last season and ran a lot in the third quarter even with Bray still in the game. Same goes for the very end of the Cincinnati game, where the Vols were basically only throwing on third down. That's the privilege and pleasure of a team that's capable of jumping out to a big lead early, then can bleed you dry and hammer your exhausted defense on the ground in the second half. Tauren Poole had some big runs late in games in 2010 this way.

But after the 2010 Vanderbilt game, where Bray was still figuring it out and the Vols ran to protect him and the lead, look at the ratios in the games that were competitive throughout (Kentucky, UNC, Florida, Georgia, Vandy, Kentucky): in those six games, the Vols averaged 44 passes and 22 rushes. Throwing twice as much as we run is probably a more accurate picture of what the UT offense has looked like with Bray in command.

And remember, this is what the Vols have already done. Conversations about "we should throw it more!" start from a foundation of a team that already throws two-to-one in competitive games.

The argument was valid last year for a reason we hope won't be an issue this year: when you're averaging less than a yard per carry (as was the case in the Music City Bowl, at Florida, and vs Georgia), "Why not pass it every down?!" makes sense. No matter how often we throw it this year, we all hope the run game isn't putting up negative numbers against any opponent, or this is all a waste of time anyway.

This isn't necessarily a one-to-one relationship anyway, because the very best passing teams in college football? They usually have a decent ground game too. Here are the best passing teams in the nation last year, along with their rush totals (and national ranking):

  • Houston: 450.1 ypg pass, 149.0 ypg rush (68th)
  • Oklahoma State: 387.2 ypg pass, 162.6 ypg rush (51st)
  • Arizona: 370.3 ypg pass, 94.5 ypg rush (114th)
  • Baylor: 351.5 ypg pass, 235.6 ypg rush (10th) (!!!!)
  • Oklahoma: 349.4 ypg pass, 162.9 ypg rush (50th)
We're not going to be Baylor, but if the Vols have an incredibly good passing game? Odds are they'll have something better than the 116th best ground game.

And yet, in this league, pass-heavy teams almost never find long-term success. Consider that last year, only four SEC teams even averaged more than 200 yards per game passing. Here are the few, the proud pass-heavy teams that had successful seasons in the SEC in the last few years:

  • 2011 Arkansas (11-2): 300.7 ypg pass, 137.3 ypg rush (9th)
  • 2007 Kentucky (8-5, a great season for them): 287.9 ypg pass, 155.4 ypg rush (6th)
  • 2007 Tennessee (10-4): 262.5 ypg pass, 139.9 ypg rush (9th)
...and that's about it. It's just not done much around this league. This gives greatest fuel to the fire that to win in the SEC, you have to be able to run the football.

The bottom line for Tennessee: you can't ignore the question of "Can Tennessee run the football?", because even if it's less than a third of the time, the Vols will need to pick up some yards on the ground at times. The realistic best case scenario is finding a running game (which will probably involve finding a running back) that can simply be respected. I'm not sure there's anyone on our roster that's going to be feared, especially this year. But if the Vols can line up with three WRs and have somebody in the backfield that commands even a little bit of attention, someone who makes play action a viable option? That's this 2012 team at its most dangerous. Is it Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal, a freshman? All of the above? I have no idea. Is it none of the above? Don't know that either.

I don't think it's an exaggeration that if Cordarrelle Patterson is the real deal, there's not a team in this league - including Alabama - that can shut down UT's passing game. But life is going to be so much more difficult if the Vols have a non-existent ground game. That's the thing: we're not asking for a 1,000 yard rusher. We're just asking for a viable option.

In this run/pass conversation, it's unfair to compare this passing attack to the best in school history, because Peyton Manning played with Jay Graham and Jamal Lewis. The best statistical offense in UT history was the most balanced: the '93 Vols had Heath Shuler, the Fleming/Faulkner duo, and three NFL running backs. That's not going to be an option here either.

So truly, we could see something unique in Knoxville this fall. The school record most likely to fall this season is pass attempts, 519 in 14 games from Erik Ainge in 2007. That's a shade over 37 per game. If Bray is healthy, that's going down. But by how much?

Will the 2012 Vols abandon the run game for the sake of one a once-in-a-generation passing attack? Or will the Vols fight for balance and try to walk the path that almost every good SEC team has followed?