College Football: Which Wins Championships, Running or Passing?

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2010

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 16:  Quarterback Greg McElroy #12 of the Alabama Crimson Tide hands the ball off to Mark Ingram #22 against the Ole Miss Rebels at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 16, 2010 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While it is probably true that “defense wins championships” what of the debate regarding whether a run oriented offense or alternatively a pass focused “O” is ultimately more fruitful?

Indeed, does a team that runs the ball effectively win more games and gather more titles than one that magnificently throws the ball for a zillion yards?

Now, a healthy balance on offense surely is on the road map to victory, but with perfect equilibrium virtually impossible which means of moving the ball breeds true success?

A Brief Glance at Historical Passing

The debate over which offensive scheme is more productive has raged on in college football since the forward pass was first introduced in the greatest game.

First referred to as the “projectile pass” the first legal toss dates back to 1906 at Saint Louis University when Bradbury Robinson hurled the ball downfield unsuccessfully resulting in an incompletion.

After this less than glorious beginning, Robinson (on the subsequent St. Louis offensive possession) hooked up with Jack Schneider for a 20 yard completion which so shocked the opposing Carroll College defense that it resulted in an easy score.

The St. Louis University Billikens won the contest 22-0.

And so the debate began . . . run or pass?

Back to the Present

The current state of college football seems to be pass dominated.  Gunslingers and speedy, massive receivers out dazzle meaty halfbacks following a game clock guzzling offensive line.

The Big Ten conference has long been known for grinding out the game on the ground, snorting and grunting as huge Midwestern people move the line of scrimmage slowly to and fro.  But even in the most traditional of conferences passing (or running passers) seems to be taking center stage with the entrance of athlete quarterbacks such as Denard Robinson and Terrelle Pryor.     

Younger associations such as the Big 12 conference are more recognized for glamorously passing the ball for insane numbers.  Forget about grinding it out or even defense, if you can simply outscore your opponent you can win games; a bunch of them.

Many college football enthusiasts claim that the entire country (including those old guard programs that have always relied on offensively conservative game plans) are converting to a more pass minded offense.

Has the entire football nation gone offensively liberal?

And if so, does this passing frenzy result in wins that matter? 

Indeed, are there more than a massive amount of points at the end of the yardage rich rainbow?  Do Championship Trophies sit in the passing Pot of Gold?

Well, though the debate could rage on and opinions on both sides could be validated let’s look at actual statistical evidence from the last seven seasons and try to draw a decisive answer to the 100 year old question: pass vs. run?

The Numbers

Taking the Top 10 programs (statistically speaking) in passing and rushing yards for each of the 2003 – 2009 seasons (netting 70 passing teams and 70 rushing teams) we find the following definitive combined results:

Top Ten Passing Yardage Programs (2003 – 2009)

Total Wins/Losses:          587/310

Total Winning Percentage:           65 percent

Non BCS Bowl Appearances:       45

Non BCS Bowl Wins/Losses:        27/18

Non BCS Bowl Winning Percentage:    60 percent

BCS Bowl Appearances:        8

BCS Bowl Wins/Losses:                  1/7

BCS Bowl Winning Percentage:     13 percent

Division Championships:               16

Conference Championships:       13

BCS National Titles:         0


Top Ten Rushing Yardage Programs (2003 – 2009)

Total Wins/Losses:          596/294

Total Winning Percentage:           67 percent

Non BCS Bowl Appearances:       37

Non BCS Bowl Wins/Losses:        17/20

Non BCS Bowl Winning Percentage:        46 percent

BCS Bowl Appearances:            15

BCS Bowl Wins/Losses:        9/6

BCS Bowl Winning Percentage:     60 percent

Division Championships:               10

Conference Championships:       16

BCS National Titles:         3

The statistics are fairly telling. 

The difference in overall winning percentage is nominal with the rushing leaders enjoying a mere two percentage point advantage over their throwing brethren.

The passing leaders are more successful at reaching non BCS bowl games (45 vs. 37 appearances) and then again more successful at winning the actual games (60 percent vs. 46 percent).

The rushing leaders far and away are more effective at both reaching the heights of the BCS ring of honor (15 vs. 8 appearances) and then winning BCS games (60 percent vs.  a dismal 13 percent by the passers).

Passing leaders have the nod in capturing division titles (16 vs. 10) while the rushing leaders have an edge in securing conference championships (16 vs. 13).

Notably, the rushing yardage leaders of the past seven seasons have earned three BCS national titles while the passing leaders have not thrown the ball successfully enough for even one.

Of further interest, of the 70 Top Ten rushing teams from the past seven seasons only 16 have not enjoyed at minimum a trip to a bowl game while of the 70 passing leaders 17 have not earned their way into at least a bowl bid.

Also worth mentioning are the teams who most frequently graced the Top Ten list in passing and rushing for the past seven seasons.  In terms of passing yards, Texas Tech made the top 10 all seven years, Hawaii was there for six and Bowling Green and BYU wrapped up third place with three appearances each.

Featured prominently on the rushing Top Ten lists over the past seven years are Navy and Air Force both making the list every single year followed by West Virginia with four appearances and Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma State all making the list three times.  

The Bottom Line

Clearly the teams that have led the nation in passing yards over the past seven years have been successful, but their accomplishments have somewhat metered. 

The dominant passers have enjoyed more appearances and successes in non BCS bowl games, have  captured more division crowns but have been substantially less effective achieving the bigger aims of conference titles, BCS post season admission and ultimately winning the whole enchilada.

Programs that have run the ball successfully have truly enjoyed (with measurable frequency) the bigger prizes (both financially and purely prestigious) of conference titles and BCS success.

A final definitive answer to our question comes by looking back to the past seven BCS nation title winners.  These seven programs combined have averaged to rank No. 36 in passing yards and No. 15 in rushing yards.

Additionally, the past two BCS Champions have both been ranked in the Top Ten in rushing yards.  2008 champion Florida ranked No. 9 while the reigning champion Crimson Tide ranked a lofty No. 8.  These two teams ranked No. 47 and No. 66 in passing yards respectively. 

Maybe most shockingly is the fact that not one of the past seven BCS Champions has ranked among the Top Ten teams in passing yardage.  The BCS title team ranking the highest in passing over the past seven years?  USC ranked No. 12 overall in passing in its 2004 championship season.

Additionally, with all the talk of the Big 12 conference being a passing dominant league it is interesting to note that the only Big 12 national champion since 2003 (the Texas Longhorns) ranked No. 2 in rushing yards and only No. 30 in passing in their 2005 title run.

Kicking it old school, grinding it out on the ground, moving the ball systematically downfield in a slow and deliberate fashion is clearly preferable to racking up obscene passing yards when winning championships is the goal.

Defense is certainly an indispensable element, as is to a lesser degree offensive balance but plainly the ground game is still the king of college football.

 Based on the evidence in the case of rush vs. pass who wins it all in 2010? 

Well, Auburn, Oregon and TCU are all in the top ten in rushing thus far in 2010.

Take your pick.


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