Winning With No Run Game, A Historical Review

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Introduction

At some point in the 2019 season, it became obvious that Florida’s offensive line was never truly going to figure out the run-blocking aspect of their jobs. Some of the biggest run plays on the year came due to bad officiating (missed false start and holding against South Carolina on the same play) or bad tackling by the defense (Perines run against Auburn). Combine an extremely poor running game (107th in yards per game) with Trask and the context around the last time he started (we’ve heard this story 2783 times by now) and the coaching job Mullen did in 2019 was fantastic. Somehow, that’s not evident to many outsiders who will still argue Mullen is not a top 10 coach.

This is an analytical piece focusing on the running game, specifically in that I wanted to look into how rare it is for a team to win 10 or more games with a running game finishing worse than 100th in yards per game, and I specifically wanted to focus on Power 5 programs for the obvious reason that Florida didn’t have the benefit of playing UCFs schedule in order to pull off the feat of going to an NY6 bowl and winning it.

The Process

How I went about this is pretty straight forward. I used base statistics that I found using cfbstats.com, I also used Football Outsiders metrics (SP+ to be exact) to get an opponent-adjusted look into the numbers. I wanted to create two categories for this piece, one was taking the record of all Power Five teams who finished worse than 100th and then taking the record of all Power Five teams who finished in the top 25 in rushing. In 2019 I did not include Florida in the win-loss records as I didn’t want them to play a role in the averages, I’m not a math guy so maybe that was a mistake, I ran with it regardless (adding Florida doesn’t significantly change the averages for 2019). I really wanted to focus on the wins and losses and averaging those numbers out so we had context as to what Mullen did in terms of winning 10 games with this level of a run game.

Take note when looking at the Football Outsiders SP+ numbers that I have nothing to go off of in 2019. ESPN hired Bill C away from Football Outsiders and decided not to give him anywhere on ESPN to chart his information as he had at footballoutsiders.com, so I have no rushing metrics to go off of in 2019 except for Florida, which I got by asking Bill for their rushing SP+ directly.

The Numbers

First, let’s take a look at the numbers. I went back to 2013 here just to give a large enough sample size in terms of teams and wins so that I didn’t run into any issues with people criticizing me for not using a large enough sample size.

The first numbers you see not in parenthesis are the overall wins and losses by all teams who fit the category of either being a Power Five team that finished in the top 25 in rushing or being a Power Five team that finished worse than 100th in rushing. The “basic” label is me using cfbstats.com traditional numbers, F.O. is Football Outsiders SP+ metric.

The numbers in the parenthesis are the average win/loss record to provide further context as to what a standard record would look like with those teams finishing in their perspective ranges.

Basic Bottom Basic Top 25 F.O. Bottom F.O. Top 25
2019 93-98 (6.2-6.5) 138-73 (8.6-4.5)
2018 87-89 (6.2-6.3) 107-64 (8.2-4.9) 65-66 (5.9-6.0) 141-83 (8.2-4.8)
2017 71-102 (5.0-7.2) 135-52 (9.6-3.7) 48-88 (4.3-8.0) 165-72 (9.1-4)
2016 68-105 (4.8 -7.5) 117-64 (8.3-4.5) 78-86 (6.0-6.6)  135-73 (8.4-4.5)
2015 78-86 (6.0-6.6) 120-50 (9.2-3.8) 64-74 (5.8-6.7) 161-74 (8.9-4.3)
2014 66-96 (5.0-7.3) 122-52 (9.3-4) 53-71 (4.0-7.1) 171-68 (9.5-3.7)
2013 55-83 (5.0-7.5) 145-54 (9.6-3.6) 35-86 (3.5-8.6) 154-57 (9.6-3.5)
Overall  518-659 (5.5-7.0)
884-409 (9.0-4.1)
 343-471 (5.2-7.2)
 927-427 (8.9-4.1)

Deeper Dive

From 2013-2019 there were a total of 94 Power Five teams that finished the season ranked worse than 100th in basic rushing yards per game, the number drops down to 65 total teams when going by Football Outsiders SP+ metric. The average win-loss record for those teams was 5.5-7.0 (standard stats) and 5.2-7.2 (SP+). Florida finished at 11-2 in 2019, easily outdoing what the average team finished with over a 7 year period by 5.8 wins.

In the same time span of 2013-2019, there were a total of 98 Power Five teams that finished in the top 25 in standard rushing, those teams finished with an average win-loss record of 9.0-4.1, there was a slight increase in the number of teams that finished in the top 25 in SP+  with 104 teams, they finished 8.9-4.1 on average.

From a standard metric point of view, that means that teams that have a top 25 rushing game are good for 3.5 additional wins over those that finish the season ranked worse than 100th. If you go by SP+ the average wins increase is nearly the same at 3.7 additional wins. So regardless of whether you use SP+ or standard metrics, the numbers are similar. The importance of having a strong offensive line that can create running lanes in Power Five conferences is evident in the numbers and it doesn’t matter if you go by advanced numbers or the standard ones.

History of 10+ Win Teams

Despite me only using 2013-2019 as my time frame for grabbing all of these numbers, I went back further to 2006 (when SP+ was created) to see if I could find additional teams who have won 10 or more games. Below is a list of all of the teams who won 10 or more games going back to 2006 that finished worse than 100th in rushing in either one of the metrics.

Standard Metric Only:

2019: Florida (11-2)
2018: Washington State (11-2)
2015: Florida (10-4), Oklahoma State (10-3)
2007: Boston College (11-3)

Football Outsiders S&P+ Metric

2015: Oklahoma State (10-3), Wisconsin (10-3), Northwestern (10-3)
2014: Clemson (10-3)

SP+ only agrees with the standard metrics on Oklahoma State in 2015, every other team that finished worse than 100th in standard rushing yards per game finished better than 99th in SP+. For instance, in 2019 Florida finished 107th in yards per game on the ground per standard numbers but 76th in SP+. It’s pretty standard for Power Five teams to rank higher than 99th per SP+, as shown above with a drop from 94 teams to 65 when using SP+, this is generally because of the strength of schedule which standard metrics don’t take into consideration.

Therefore, going back to 2006 using standard metrics only, 5 out of 162 (3.08%) teams ended up winning 10 or more games with a poor running game. If you switch over to SP+, only 4 out of 119 (3.36%) teams broke 10 wins.

Summary

This isn’t breaking news for Florida fans that what Mullen did in 2019 was impressive. Some may argue otherwise because Florida hit 10 wins in year one under Mullen, so increasing the win total to 11 or more was a common thought prior to the 2019 season, especially with the assumption that Franks would take a positive step forward under Mullen (which he did, prior to injury). I’m big on taking context into consideration and changing my expectations as the season progresses. Many fans fail to do this.

For instance, Florida was losing to Kentucky when Franks went down for the season, at this point, you will only find the most optimistic of Florida fans that expected Florida to come back and beat Kentucky on the road with a QB in Trask who hadn’t last started a game since high school. The position Mullen was put in with Trask was made worse because there was no running game to speak of when Trask started his first game against Tennessee. Historically speaking when a coach is put into this kind of position you’re going to take as much pressure off of him as you can by leaning on the run game, and Mullen tried, Florida ran the ball three more times than Trask threw the ball, but only averaged 3.46 yards against Tennessee, which is bad. This is the case in every game but the NY6 bowl against Virginia. Florida averaged 3.65 on the road in a close lose to LSU, ran for 21 yards on 19 carries against Georgia in a game a reliable running game would have been big and didn’t break 100 yards against Missouri or Florida State despite both of those games being wins.

For Mullen to take the offense with this offensive line, that somehow was further ahead as a pass protection unit than in run blocking, and win 11 games with a QB who was, if I recall properly, unranked when Florida offered him (with his three other offers coming from Houston Baptist, Lamar and McNeese State) and win 11 games like this? It’s impressive. It was this coaching job that solidified Mullen as a top 10 coach and a guy that’s one playoff appearance away from being in the top 5 without debate. To be only one of five Power Five teams (out of 162 total teams) going back to 2006 that finished worse than 100th and win 10 or more games? That is a special feat that is clearly very rare to accomplish. Maybe it’s time rival fans and the rare doubter inside the Florida fan base put proper respect on Mullens name.

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