In the SEC, the powers that be still care about the running game

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BATON ROUGE, La. — Now that spread offenses are rampant in the Southeastern Conference, you’d think running the game isn’t as important to league coaches as it once was.

Sure, the formations look different, the backs get fewer snaps, and the kind of smash-mouth football that some members of the SEC elite stubbornly clung to until a decade ago (see: LSU at Alabama in 2011) is rarely seen anymore.

But the most successful teams in the SEC this season are running the game –– and playing decent defense, too.

In the SEC, what’s old is new.

Just ask freshman LSU coach Brian Kelly, whose surprising Tigers (7-2, 5-1 SEC) climbed to No. 7 in the Top 25 AP (No. 7 CFP) and could very well meet top-ranked Georgia (No. 1 CFP) — aka Tailback U — in the SEC title game on Dec. 3.

“I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I know there are times when prolific offenses definitely get you a lot of wins, Kelly began, but added, “It’s about not winning; it’s about winning championships.

“I believe to win championships you always have to control the line of scrimmage at the end of the day – control the line of scrimmage and stop the run, run the game effectively, exercise your will,” Kelly said. “So there has to be a physicality to what you do. …Physics starts and ends with stop running and football running.

In LSU’s case, it’s not always about passing the ball. It’s having a quarterback who can run, either on purpose or by hustling. Jayden Daniels has been superb both this season.

He leads the Tigers with 619 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, most recently highlighted by his 25-yard overtime touchdown run from LSU wins 32-31 over Alabama. As a team, LSU is averaging 183.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the 14-team SEC.

Teams with the SEC’s top five records — Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Mississippi and Alabama — all rank in the conference’s top seven in rushing.

No. 11 Mississippi (8-1, 4-1, No. 11 CFP), is averaging an SEC-best rushing 267.4 yards per game. And that’s with a coach, Lane Kiffin, who is known for his offensive creativity.

“They do a really good job with the multiples of formation, movement, trying to fit the defense, and then they run,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose 10th-ranked Crimson Tide reported. visit to Ole Miss on Saturday. “They have great running plays, but they run those same plays on all these different multiples, trying to put different players in different positions so you make a mistake, you have an open gap and they hit a play on you. “

Even as No. 1 Georgia (9-0, 6-0, No. 1 CFP) increasingly embraced the move under offensive coordinator Todd Monken, the Bulldogs remained balanced. In a turn 27-13 win over No. 5 Tennessee (8-1, 4-1, No. 5 CFP) Last weekend, the Bulldogs edged the Volunteers 130 yards to 94 while passing for 257 yards.

Georgia has 29 rushing touchdowns this season. He allowed his nine opponents combined to score just three rushing touchdowns.

Tennessee, the SEC’s top passing team, saw its chances of playing for a conference title take a big hit with the loss to Georgia. But the Vols didn’t return to the SEC elite simply by passing well.

The Vols’ 187.9 rushing yards per game rank sixth in the SEC.

Florida (5-4, 2-4), seeking to reclaim its traditional status as an SEC powerhouse, hired coach Billy Napier, who won the 2021 Sun Belt Conference title at Louisiana-Lafayette with running and defense. Now he’s trying to make that formula work for the Gators.

Florida ranks third in the SEC and 20th in the nation in rushing, averaging 209 yards per game.

“It’s a strength of our team,” Napier said of the running game. “You’re starting to see a bit of this identity that we want to have. … We want to be a physical team. We want to win the line of scrimmage, play well on the edges.

The way South Carolina coach Shane Beamer sees it, even though scatter rosters have proliferated across the SEC, philosophies about the importance of running the ball and stopping the run haven’t change a lot.

“It’s always critical,” said Beamer, whose Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3) are ranked third in the SEC East. “When you head the ball, all the other things that we talk about open up and show up: explosive plays, staying on the pitch and not having long third downs and all these other situations.

“There are definitely different styles of offense since I started coaching in 2000 (as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech),” Beamer added. “But you have to run the ball effectively and stop the run effectively to get where you want to go.”

AP sportswriters Pete Iacobelli, Mark Long, Charles Odum, Teresa M. Walker and John Zenor contributed to this report.

More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25. Sign up for the PA College Football Newsletter: https://bit.ly/3pqZVaF

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