The "SEC Speed" Myth Debunked

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I love college football. It's quite possibly my favorite sporting event. But there is one thing that irks me more than anything else - the fact that the phrase "SEC speed" is a phrase that still gets thrown around in a serious fashion. One would assume that all the other conferences may want to read up on the book shown above. Let me just say a few things about how ridiculous this myth is, then we will delve into some interesting specifics.
  1. Since when did a 40 yard dash time become an indicator of how great a team or conference is? Even if the SEC ran faster 40 yard dash times, how in the world does that make them a better conference. I know this isn't an argument that is made explicitly a lot, but the "SEC speed" myth is enhancing the aura around the SEC.
  2. Does anyone honestly believe that the SEC consistently recruits, and has a monopoly on, the fastest players in the country?
  3. Running a 40 yard dash is way different than playing in a football game. That's why football and track are two separate sports.

First Question: Is The SEC Actually Faster?

No. It's really not. But don't just take my word for it, because I'll give you plenty of stats and quotes to back up my opinion. I'll start with some information from a well written article by Jonathan Chait at slate.com back in 2002. First, the myth probably gets perpetuated because many people with a soapbox choose to do so. Lee Corso has referred to the South as the "speed states" (Chait article). Not to mention that the same people put an insanely high emphasis on 40 yard dash times. Why the 40 yard dash? It doesn't measure an athlete's ability to run routes with pads on, or a receiver's ability to get behind the coverage. But, for argument's sake, let's assume that the 40 yard dash is really important. Take it away Jonathan:

Casey Calder, an Internet college football analyst, compared the times of skill position players from Northern schools versus those who played in the South. He found that wide receivers from Northern schools actually outran their Southern counterparts: The Northerners, on average, ran the 40 in 4.502 seconds, while the Southerners ran it in 4.548. Southern and Northern cornerbacks finished in a virtual dead heat, 4.535 to 4.555, respectively.

The only way to objectively measure a 40 yard dash time is at the combine because schools and players will tend to exaggerate the stats to make themselves look better. The stats above use an NFL combine time. Let's take a look at some numbers from the most recent NFL combine.

Knowshon Moreno, RB from Georgia, is considered to be a speed back. He posted a 4.60 in the 40 yard dash at the NFL combine. Glen Coffee from Alabama ran a 4.58. That's amazing considering that it usually takes a time under 4.45 or 4.5 to start turning heads among NFL scouts.

But a better metric for speed, and for NFL success, among running backs is the speed score. The formula is (weight x 200) / (40 time to the 4th power). It basically accounts for a player's weight in the 40 time and adjusts it on a nice scale. NFL teams like to see a score above 100, and such scores are typical of successful NFL backs. Of the RB prospects at this year's combine, only 7 running backs had a speed score above 100. None - I repeat none - were from the SEC. 2 were from the ACC, 2 were from the Big Ten, 1 was from the Big East, 1 was from the WAC, and the last from Tennessee State.

The fastest 40 time at the combine this year was posted by Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland (ACC) who ran a 4.30. In fact, the top time posted at any of the skill positions (WR, RB, CB, S) was not from anyone in the SEC. But none of that should matter anyways, because the 40 time is irrelevant when it comes to competing on the football field.

More after the jump...

Question Two: Why is the 40 Yard Dash Irrelevant?

Besides the obvious answer, which is that players run a lot differently when there is contact involved (i.e. bump and run coverage), weather conditions involved, and they have pads on, a small difference in the 40 yard dash doesn't translate to the football field.

Let's do some math. Consider an approximate 20 yard sprint, and let's assume that the 40 yard dash is actually important. Let's take an offensive player with a supposedly good 40 time of 4.4 seconds and a defensive player with a supposedly plodding 4.6 second 40 time.

We figure that for about 20 yards, they'll be running for about 2.5 seconds. In that time span, the offensive player would be able to run 22.73 yards. The defensive player would be able to run 21.74 yards in the same timeframe. Without considering bump-and-run, and how the player runs in pads, over a typical route a WR with an extra 0.2 seconds on their 40 might be able to run an additional yard downfield.

While it is a relatively good metric of approximately how fast a player is, it does not necessarily indicate a decided advantage. Obviously a WR could outrun most LB but the difference in speed between WR and DB is relatively small, something that wouldn't necessarily give an advantage to either player.

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It's OK Knowshon, that 40 time doesn't matter as much as you think it does. And you'll be making the big bucks anyways.

What gives a player an advantage is a combination of straight-line sprint speed, agility, and angles. A defensive player that takes proper angles and plays smart will look a lot faster than they appear. Let's do some more math.

A player who runs 30 yards to where they need to be with a 40 time of 4.4 seconds would get there in 3.3 seconds. Let's say they take the wrong angle initially for 15 yards, and are off by only an angle of 20 degrees. They would run that distance in 1.65 seconds. That means the player would have to run an additional 16.71 yards to get to their target, or an extra 1.71 yards. That distance would take them 1.838 seconds, and that doesn't count the extra time to change direction. The time it took the player total to get from their starting spot to the target with the bad angle is 3.488 seconds - equivalent to a 40 time of 4.65.

What does that little exercise mean? It means that someone who is perceived as slow (4.65 40 time) could get to a spot on the field just as fast as a player who is perceived as fast (4.40 40 time), if the fast player made only a slight error in the angle that they took.

Taking good angles is all about good coaching and player instincts.

Question Three: Is The SEC Really That Much Better?

Year after year you hear and read all about how the SEC is the greatest college football conference ever. It has the best competition. It has the best fans. It has the best top to bottom teams. It has the best teams in the nation. The list of phrases and praise goes on and on.

Let's take a look at the historical record. Against non-BCS conferences, their winning percentage is undoubtedly high. That is to be expected. However, against BCS conference teams, the playing field is decidedly more even. SEC teams have a winning percentage of 60% over BCS conference teams. It is important to note that that is inflated by the fact that 1 out of every 2 games against a BCS conference opponent was against an ACC team - the ACC being a historically weaker conference with less powerhouse teams than say the Big 10, Pac 10 or Big 12. Subtract out the ACC games and the SEC only has a winning percentage of 54%.

But of course people want to take a snapshot of the recent past. How about the last 2008 college football season? Suite101.com compiled a list of the records of BCS conference teams plus Mountain West Conference Teams against each of those conferences. Which conference came out on top? The Mountain West! The ACC was 2nd, and then in order SEC, Big 12, Big East, Pac 10 and Big 10. Ask Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide if their SEC speed helped against the feisty Utes from Utah (MWC). Chances are they wouldn't be too happy.

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A Utah Ute not being caught from behind by SEC Speed

The only conference to get the best of the Mountain West was the Big 12, who went 3-1 against the MWC. Subtract that out, and Mountain West teams were 9-2 against BCS conference teams. Meanwhile, the topic of this article - the SEC - was a very average 11-11 against "top caliber opponents".

Let's take it a step further. The Abstract Statistician had a nice breakdown of all of these conference vs. conference records for the 2008 season. The SEC in their schedule had a combined winning percentage of 56.6%. That may seem stellar, but consider that the Big 12 and Big East both had slightly better, but comparable winning percentages in their schedules around 57%. The ACC and Mountain West were not far behind either (several percentage points).

Consider also that the SEC was a combined 31-1 against Conference USA, Independents, the MAC, the Sun Belt, the WAC and FCS teams. The SEC was 10-13 against everyone else in non-conference play. Not remarkable at all.

What Have We Learned?

The 40 yard dash is really irrelevant in terms of "team speed". Team speed is a combination of sprint speed, agility, and angles/football smarts. A team with all three of those assets will be really fast, but a lack of sprint speed can be easily compensated for by taking proper angles and being able to shed blocks - two very coachable things.

If you DO decide to use the 40 yard dash to gauge speed of conferences, the SEC is not necessarily the best. In fact, many other conferences have put up better showings, including the often maligned Big 10.

Finally, even if all of my math and statistics are wrong, we can still look at empirical data - the records of the non-conference games. And in non-conference games the SEC consistently beats up on lesser competition, but is very average against BCS conference teams and the Mountain West conference. Statistics and 40 times can lie, but game results don't.

So next time you hear the "SEC speed" myth, I sincerely hope that you throw some of these stats out. Then, maybe we can finally put this one to bed...

Note: I have nothing against the SEC conference. I admire a lot of teams from the SEC conference. I just can't stand when everyone suggests that SEC teams are so much faster than everyone else. Like I said in this article, I think a lot of it has to do with coaching, and other talents besides speed. And there are quite a few great coaches in the SEC.

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