There has been a lot of talk this offseason about the Michigan offense incorporating more balance into its attack. While Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s quips about, “Some people choose to travel on the ground, some people by air” in recent memory have been fun, in order to win at the highest level, the Wolverines have to be able to do both.
Last season, the Michigan Wolverines averaged 69 offensive plays per game consisting of 26 passes and 43 runs. That play-calling disparity personifies “run the damn ball” physicality, but also left the Wolverines vulnerable when trailing TCU late in the season.
Michigan’s 62 percent run rate was the third-highest in the Power Five and was the highest of any team in the College Football Playoff.
Of the last five national champions, this would rank 5 percent higher than any team to claim the sport’s ultimate prize. However, running the ball remains the recipe for sustained success in college football, and Michigan has been building its offensive attack with that in mind.
Four of the last five national champions have statistically ran the ball more than they passed. The 2022 Georgia and 2020 Alabama teams both averaged 70 plays per game and ran the rock at a 53 percent rate. Clemson in 2018 also ran the ball 53 percent of the time and averaged two more plays per game.
Georgia in 2021 — the team built the most similar to Michigan’s current make-up — only averaged 63 plays per game and ran the ball a staggering 57 percent of the time.
LSU is the only national champion of the last five years to average more passes per game than runs. But even still, the Tigers led by quarterback Joe Burrow and that lethal passing attack incorporated a 47 percent run rate to maintain balance when necessary.
Harbaugh has stated explicitly he expects this team to be closer to 50-50 in terms of balancing the runs with the passes this season.
“When it’s all said and done at the end of the season, it’ll be pretty darn close to 50-50 with the amount of times we throw it and the amount of times we run it. I think it makes us more of a harder offense to stop when we’re really focused that all those (touches) will get dispersed. ‘Everybody eats,’ as the young people say, is the plan that we’re formulating.”
A perfect 50-50 split is ideal, but if recent history has taught us anything, Michigan still needs to rely on its bread and butter just a little more. Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore also understands the need the balance without play-calling the team into an identity crisis.
“Absolutely. Yeah, we want to be 50-50. I think there’s gonna be games where that might not happen. We might see that the defenses solely (focus) on taking one thing away, we might do the other. But we want to be as balanced as possible, with sets, with the formations, how we do things, making everything look the same.
Moore continued: “We have to be able to throw the ball at times, we have to be able to be balanced, to do those things to win the games that we want to win.”
So, what is a realistic split for the team this season?
The ideal balance seems to be around 70-72 plays per game consisting of 31-33 passes and 37-39 runs per game. A simple rule for Team 144 should be to get the passing total over 30 and to keep the rushing total slightly under 40.
This balance would give the Wolverines a more complete attack without sacrificing their team identity.
If the 2020 Crimson Tide can help wide receiver DeVonta Smith win the Heisman Trophy without going full air raid, the Wolverines can still support a Blake Corum or Donovan Edwards campaign with a few fewer attempts.
If the best passing offense in college football history still ran the ball 47 percent of the time, Michigan’s dominant rushing attack will only be aided by a similar, yet inverse split of play-calling.
Michigan’s play-calling approach should be rooted in efficiency regardless if it is a pass or a run. The fastest way to the top of college football is proven to be a combination of traveling by land and air.