Line Play

Last year, I tinkered around with a formula to rate offensive lines.  You can check out the original column here, as I really don't want to go through the methodology again.  But the general concept is this: I rate lines on two skills, run blocking and pass blocking.  The teams are rated for their sacks allowed per 100 attempts and their adjusted rushing yards per attempts (removing sack numbers from the rushing yards). 

Let's face it, when people talk about how good offensive lines are, they are normally talking out of their collective asses.  This is an attempt to at least add some sort of objective measurement to the argument.  Run blocking and pass blocking are two entirely different skills, and one of the things I have enjoyed about running the numbers is finding teams that excel at one skill and, er, not excel at the other.  First, the less-glamorous pass blocking numbers.

 

Team

Sks

Mod Att

Sks/Att

PSCORE

KENTUCKY

13

428

3.133

1.765

GEORGIA

17

417

4.250

1.232

FLORIDA

16

345

4.863

0.940

LSU

22

413

5.627

0.577

OLE MISS

20

360

5.882

0.455

AUBURN

21

362

6.158

0.324

ALABAMA

25

359

7.485

-0.308

TENNESSEE

25

334

8.091

-0.596

VANDY

26

345

8.150

-0.625

SOUTH CAROLINA

39

491

8.628

-0.853

MISS ST

37

421

9.635

-1.332

ARKANSAS

45

488

10.158

-1.581

Average

25.500

396.917

6.838

0.000

Hey, look at Kentucky!  When we talk about the great lines of the SEC, it normally takes a little while before anyone dares suggest Kentucky.  Even Wildcat fans.  A lot of that is due to the fact they can't run block very well, and the reputation of a line is almost exclusively tied to its ability to run block. 

Run blocking is fun.  Lineman get to attack the defensive line, and they are the ones who hit the defense.  They get to fire off the line and find a man and blow him up.  Pass blocking has a lot more to do with technique, as the lineman drops back and has to block a defender rushing at him.  The lineman can easily be caught on his heels while back-pedaling.  And pass blocking is usually only noticed when it fails. 

It's also an unfair number.  Sacks are more of a function of the quarterback than anyone gives credit.  It's not just about a quarterback's mobility, but his ability to simply get rid of the football.  Just as the quarterback gets the blame for an interception on a route the receiver gave up on, the line gets the blame for a sack when the quarterback holds the ball for an extra second.  But life isn't fair, especially if you're a lineman. 

This is prelude to me complaining about Tim Tebow.  Tebow is such a freak of nature, it is almost impossible to separate how much of his line's numbers is a function of their ability or his greatness.  Tebow is almost impossible to sack and, as we will see, he runs for a ton of yards.

And, wow, did Arkansas' line suck at pass blocking.  The QB got sacked on nearly ten percent of all Arkansas pass plays.  That's terrible, though usually one team pulls the trick each year.  On to the rush blocking:

Team

Mod Rush

Mod Yds

Yds/Att

RSCORE

FLORIDA

529

3340

6.314

2.463

ALABAMA

543

2763

5.088

0.631

OLE MISS

500

2526

5.052

0.577

GEORGIA

409

2054

5.022

0.532

LSU

473

2353

4.975

0.461

ARKANSAS

333

1636

4.913

0.369

VANDY

445

1915

4.303

-0.542

TENNESSEE

384

1645

4.284

-0.571

MISS ST

361

1481

4.102

-0.842

KENTUCKY

431

1745

4.049

-0.923

AUBURN

448

1809

4.038

-0.939

SOUTH CAROLINA

378

1455

3.849

-1.221

Average

436.17

2060.17

4.666

0.000

Tebow again.  Florida completely skews the numbers, but I'm reluctant to tinker with the formula.  My ratings are based on standard deviation, so Florida being two and a half SD's from SEC average is off the charts. 

Kentucky is nearly as bad at run blocking as they are good at pass blocking.  Arkansas turns the opposite trick, as they were far better at run blocking than pass blocking, though I'm hesitant to call them great at run blocking. 

It's here I point out that Alabama had three lineman named all-SEC, two of them first team.  They were below average at protecting the quarterback, but since they were the most productive rate rushing team without Tebow, their offensive line gets showered with honors.  Run blocking is an offensive line's meal ticket.  If you can do that, no one cares about pass blocking unless you're as bad as Arkansas at it. 

South Carolina's line was pitiful.  Less than 4 yards per carry is inexcusable. 

So, let's look at the overall rankings, with comments on each team's three-year trend.  Yes, I kept track of this even before I had a blog.  My dorkiness is your gain.

Team

PSCORE

RSCORE

OLINE

FLORIDA

0.940

2.463

340.34

GEORGIA

1.232

0.532

176.45

LSU

0.577

0.461

103.82

OLE MISS

0.455

0.577

103.21

KENTUCKY

1.765

-0.923

84.18

ALABAMA

-0.308

0.631

32.33

AUBURN

0.324

-0.939

-61.52

VANDY

-0.625

-0.542

-116.70

TENNESSEE

-0.596

-0.571

-116.77

ARKANSAS

-1.581

0.369

-121.19

SOUTH CAROLINA

-0.853

-1.221

-207.34

MISS ST

-1.332

-0.842

-217.44

Florida
2008: 340.34 (1st)/ 2007: 233.34 (2nd)/ 2006: 100.24 (4th)

Really, how much of this is the line and how much is Tebow?  What sort of benefit do spread teams get, as it relies on the quick release of the quarterback?  That's a lot of passes without much risk of a sack.  Seriously, the Gators have done a lot of things right over the past few years, and one of the many has been their truly stellar line play. 

Georgia
2008: 176.45 (2nd)/ 2007: 92.17 (4th)/ 2006: 40.42 (6th)

Another consistently good line.  You know, for all of the talk of the talented "skill" players coming out of Athens the last few years, how about their line?  This year's line is supposed to be their best, and that is saying something.  Let me rant about the term "skill position" for a second... offensive line is most certainly a "skill position".  It takes more than bulk to play the line and its insulting to suggest the big guys lack skill.  QB/RB/WR are "glamour" positions.  Please update your nomenclature.  This goes for you too, Richard.  The guys who get to hold the ball have a hammer lock on headlines and awards, can we at least give the linemen credit that they have skill?

LSU
2008: 103.82 (3rd)/ 2007: 0.82 (5th)/ 2006: 132.83 (2nd)

The line is one of our "concerns" going into this season, but I don't see it, returning three starters from a terrific line.  If there is one area that Miles should have earned the benefit of the doubt, it is building an above average line.  LSU was uncharacteristically poor at pass blocking in 2007 (and try convincing someone that 2007 was LSU's worst line of the past three years - I've tried), but the Tigers usually trot out a very balanced line.  Normally a team excels at one facet, but LSU's strength is balance.   The Golden Era of LSU Football has been built in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. 

Ole Miss
2008: 103.21 (4th)/ 2007: -122.78 (8th)/ 2006: -215.43 (10th)

Like everything else for the Rebels, the offensive line improve dramatically last season.  Ole Miss' improvement was primarily in pass blocking, which goes back to the idea of a quarterback been a key component of preventing sacks.  Snead helped improve the performance, though Ole Miss also showed improvement in run blocking as well.  It's also stunning to see how closely the Rebels and the Tigers lines performed.  Both were extraordinarily close in performance, and both return three starters (though Ole Miss lost a first round left tackle).  Yet the line is generally considered an Ole Miss strength and an LSU weakness going into this season.  I repeat: I don't get it. 

Kentucky
2008: 84.18 (5th)/ 2007: -123.23 (9th)/ 2006: -229.48 (12th)

Kentucky went from one of the worst lines in the league to the top tier.  It's probably unsustainable, as the most radical improvement was going from having the worst pass blocking to the best in one year.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between, and the Wildcats run blocking has been consistently bad.

Alabama
2008: 32.33 (6th)/ 2007: -50.55 (6th)/ 2006: -96.87 (8th)

The league's most decorated line last season was statistically ordinary.  Bama had mediocre pass blocking but great run blocking, which is the carbon copy way to be an overrated line.  Maybe that explains the embarrassing Andre Smith videos.  Pass blocking has been this line's Achilles heel and Bama trots out another line full of elephants this season.  Expect more of the same. 

Auburn
2008: -61.52 (7th)/ 2007: -171.14 (11th)/ 2006: -227.39 (11th)

They have had some terrible lines in Auburn recently.  I'm going to quote CFN's preview to show that no one looks at how an offensive line actually performs:

"The line was supposed to be among the best in the SEC last season, and while it was fine, it wasn't the difference it should've been." 

Ummm... seriously?  There's two things wrong with that statement.  One, there was no reason to think Auburn would have a good line last year given their lousy performance the previous two years.  That was like expecting Mississippi St to suddenly have good quarterback play.  Two, the line actually improved.  It improved a lot.  And Auburn is being robbed of the credit of actually learning how to protect the quarterback.  The QB's stunk up the joint last year, but they couldn't blame the line for failing to protect them.  This is why we need to actually look at the numbers. 

Vanderbilt
2008: -116.70 (8th)/ 2007: -53.08 (7th)/ 2006: 107.37 (3rd)

Vandy used to be able to block.  First the run blocking collapsed.  Last year, the pass blocking collapsed.  Now, they just sort of stink.  But, they did get to go to a bowl game.  I mention this because I tend to believe that no team can win without quality line play.  Vandy is a counterpoint.  They finally went to a bowl game the year they got terrible line play.

Tennessee
2008: -116.77 (9th)/2007: 231.96 (3rd)/ 2006: 27.75 (7th)

Wow.  Tennesse went from near the top of my rankings to near the bottom.  What happened?  In 2007, the Vols had a freak season in which they only allowed four sacks all year.  Four.  Well, the expected happened and the Vols fell back to earth, allowing a more ordinary 25 sacks.  Throw in a running game that went from average to awful, well, that's how your rating can crater like this. 

Arkansas
2008: -121.19 (10th)/ 2007: 289.92 (1st)/ 2006: 354.72 (1st)

Speaking of cratering, Arkansas' line was cover your eyes awful last year after being the SEC's most dominant for two straight years.  Part of the collapse was the graduation of the most talented backfield on earth, but that doesn't explain it entirely.  This falls on Petrino's shoulders.  This team was built for run blocking.  They were recruited for a power running game and suddenly they are blocking for a high octane passing attack.  Well, not that high octane.  Petrino is supposed to be a good coach, but this is what bad coaches do: they try and make personnel adjust to their schemes instead of vice versa.  Round peg, square hole.

South Carolina
2008: -207.34 (11th)/ 2007: -195.81 (12th)/ 2006: 67.90 (5th)

I'll be honest, I barely follow USC football.  We're in the same conference, but they are like that guy who lives down the hall from you in your apartment complex.  Sure, you recognize the guy, but you don't know anything about him except his address and maybe his job if you see him in medical scrubs one day.  I can't explain their line's performance.   

Mississippi St
2008: -217.44 (12th)/ 2007: -131.65 (10th)/ 2006: -211.05 (9th)

Being the worst line in recent Bulldogs history takes some doing, but last year's unit was up to the task.  The line couldn't open up any holes for the running backs and they couldn't protect the quarterback.  They have some experience and some skill, so there's really no reason for the line to be this bad.  But wow, it really was bad.   

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