KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There’s a reason guys like Auburn’s Cam Newton, Alabama’s Mark Ingram and LSU’s Stevan Ridley want to play in the SEC. It’s all about the league’s emphasis on the ground game.
They’re helping the Southeastern Conference live up to its reputation for being a tough running conference as they follow the dynamic runners who have helped the league win national titles.
“Look at the last three national championship teams from the SEC. They all had a physical running game,” Ridley said. “They all had one downhill runner. (LSU) had Jacob Hester, Florida had (quarterback Tim) Tebow, who was like a running back. There was Ingram at Alabama. Now, Auburn has Cam.”
The SEC has 13 players ranked among the top 100 runners in the FBS — more than any other conference — and the league’s teams are averaging 173.3 yards rushing per game, just behind the Big Ten (177.6) and Pac-10 (176.9).
“This a running league. Like, men play in this league,” said Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham, who’s faced six of those top 13 runners. “Big guys, 300-pound guys and when you come in the SEC you think run, you don’t think pass. You know you’ve got to stop the run week after week.”
Ingram won the 2009 Heisman Trophy after picking up 1,542 yards on 249 carries, a single-season record at Alabama. Though teams have doubled up efforts to shut him down this season, he is still averaging 90.7 yards per game and has eight touchdowns.
The sixth-ranked Crimson Tide has not just one, but two of the SEC’s top 10 rushers in Ingram and Trent Richardson, who’s averaging 75.8 yards per game.
Newton, who ranks sixth in the nation in rushing even though he’s a quarterback, has worked his way into Heisman contention thanks to his league-leading 122.6 yards rushing per game and 14 touchdowns. But he’s not the only one that helped third-ranked Auburn bolt to the top of the BCS standings. Michael Dyer and Mario Fannin have shared the load with 67.9 and 36.1 yards per game.
In a 24-17 win over previously unbeaten LSU, the SEC West-leading Tigers had 440 yards rushing — the most they’ve ever had against a conference opponent. The effort could be summed up in one play where the entire Auburn offense got behind Dyer to push him forward an extra 5 yards.
“I didn’t hear a whistle, so I guess the play kept going and we wanted to get the crowd involved and just move the chains,” Newton said. “If I don’t hear a whistle my mind is machine-like go until the whistle.”
No. 17 South Carolina’s surge to the top of the SEC East comes in no small part thanks to Lattimore, who’s averaging 89.7 yards rushing. The freshman’s two best games have come in the Gamecocks’ biggest wins this season — over Georgia and No. 1 Alabama.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has long leaned on short, drop back passes, but this year he’s stuffing the line a little bit more and sending Lattimore up the middle.
“We could never do that before here but having Marcus and maybe that little scheme of blocking we do now I think gives us a chance to do that,” Spurrier said.
The SEC attracts good tailbacks and running quarterbacks because of the running tradition, but coaches also know it’s imperative to have them because of another trademark quality of the SEC: fast and strong defenses.
“It’s a physical league with the defenses you play, you’d better be able to run the ball efficiently,” Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. “Auburn is doing it. These guys we’re about to play (Mississippi State), they’re running the ball. South Carolina has improved. Why? Because I think they’re running the ball more efficient than they have in the past.”
It goes back to the SEC’s big, fast defensive linemen, who resemble NFL defensive linemen more than those in any other conference, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. Those linemen get to quarterbacks quickly, so Dooley said it’s important to have a strong running game.
Dooley said defensive linemen in the SEC get better facing talented runners daily in practice.
“There’s a certain element of toughness that running the football creates in your football team because in practice you have to defend it and you have to do it — you have to do it every day. If you never run the ball in practice, how do you develop a good, tough, physical defense?”