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Loaded SEC backfields ready to run in 2017

Long before spread offenses and passer-friendly systems became the norm in college football, the SEC built a championship pedigree on the legs of some of the best ball carriers ever to lace up a pair of cleats.

Don’t look now, but the conference that produced the likes of Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Shaun Alexander and Darren McFadden (among others) could be on the cusp of another Golden Age of running backs.

Granted, a thousand-yard season on the ground ain’t what it used to be, due to the ever-expanding nature of modern schedules [more games equal more yards]. Still, it’s worth noting that ten different running backs in the SEC eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2016, the most in any single season over the past decade. Even more significant is the fact that nine of those ten backs are returning to the league in 2017 [only Kentucky’s Boom Williams has moved on]. Over the past ten years, no other season has seen more than four 1,000-yard rushers returning to the SEC.

This year’s list includes established workhorses like Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb (1,283 yards in 2016) and Georgia’s Nick Chubb (1,130 yards), each of whom has a chance with another season up to their usual standard to move into second place on the league’s all-time rushing list behind Walker; rising stars like Derrius Guice (1,387 yards) of LSU and Rawleigh Williams III (1,360 yards) of Arkansas, the league’s top two rushers (among running backs) last season; guys who share the backfield—and touches—with other capable runners but still manage to put up big numbers, like Alabama’s Damien Harris (1,037 yards) and Auburn’s Kamryn Pettwway (1,224 yards); and a trio of youngsters who burst onto the scene as freshmen last season in Kentucky’s Benny Snell, Jr. (1,091 yards), Missouri’s Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) and Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards).

That list doesn’t even include the likes of Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough (812 yards), who was the star of the College Football Playoff before breaking his leg in the second half of the championship game against Clemson; Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson (895 yards), who ran for 11 touchdowns despite playing second fiddle to Pettway most of the year; Florida’s Jordan Scarlett (889 yards), who handled 179 carries as a sophomore; Georgia’s Sony Michel (840 yards), who topped the 1,000-yard mark in 2015 after Chubb went down with a mid-season injury; or guys like Rico Dowdle (764 yards on 133 carries for South Carolina), Aeris Williams (720 yards on 137 carries for Mississippi State) and John Kelly (630 yards on 98 carries for Tennessee), who emerged as featured backs late last season and will return to that role in 2017.

Injuries are particularly prevalent at the running back position, but we could reasonably see as many as twelve to fifteen backs rush for 1,000 yards this season in the SEC. With that in mind, we endeavored to rank the top five best backfields (excluding quarterbacks) in the conference heading into 2017. Here goes nothing.

No. 1 – Alabama

Alabama returns the top four running backs from the No. 2 rushing offense in the league last season. Harris, now a junior, notched the fewest carries (146) of any of the SEC backs who went over 1,000 yards last year, averaging a team-best 7.1 yards a pop. Scarbrough, a physical specimen out of the Derrick Henry mold, erupted in the College Football Playoff with 273 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries in essentially a game-and-a-half; he averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the season and scored 11 touchdowns.

Sophomores and former top recruits Josh Jacobs (567 yards on 85 carries, 6.7 ypc) and B.J. Emmons (173 yards on 35 carries) also return, and you can add to that mix the No. 2 running back in the Class of 2017, Najee Harris, a consensus five-star freshman out of California. With this embarrassment of running back riches, it’s easy to see why the development of quarterback Jalen Hurts (who, oh by the way, rushed for 954 yards and 13 touchdowns himself last season) as a downfield passer only registers as a minor concern.

No. 2 – LSU

The Tigers don’t have Alabama’s multitude of weapons (who does?), but they may have the single best running back in the league (and perhaps the country) in the electrifying Guice. The 5’11, 212-pound junior might not be as big or as fast as Leonard Fournette, but the shifty Guice led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,387 yards on 183 carries. In the five games Fournette missed, Guice ran for 155, 163, 162, 285 and 138 yards. The 285 yards came on 37 carries against Texas A&M, and he also rushed for 252 yards on 21 attempts in a rout of Arkansas.

Guice’s average of 7.6 yards per carry led the SEC, and he was second with 15 rushing touchdowns. He led the league in 20-yard runs (19), 30-yard runs (11) and 40-yard runs (eight), demonstrating top-notch big-play ability. With Fournette now in the NFL, Guice is the centerpiece of a run-first offense and a preseason Heisman candidate Senior Darrell Williams (233 yards on 52 carries last season) should be the primary backup.

No. 3 – Auburn

The bruising Pettway and the versatile Johnson are back after combining to rush for 2,119 yards and 18 TD on 391 attempts last season. Pettway (6’0, 240) led the SEC with 122 yards per game on the ground last year and reeled off totals of 169, 192, 236 and 173 yards during one mid-season stretch. Johnson averaged an additional 74 yards per game and ran for 11 touchdowns. The explosive Kam Martin (5’10, 182) averaged 7.3 yards on 44 carries as a freshman, and Malik Miller (5’11, 235) is also in the mix.

Auburn led the SEC in rushing last year despite getting relatively little in the way of ground production from the quarterback spot. And, to think, there were serious questions about Auburn’s running back position last fall after Jovon Robinson was dismissed from the team. Pettway’s emergence more than alleviated those concerns.

No. 4 – Arkansas

Williams III returned from that serious neck injury suffered in 2015 against Auburn to finish second in the SEC in rushing attempts (245), third in rushing yards (1,360) and sixth in rushing touchdowns (12) last season. He’s a junior now and has a very capable sidekick in sophomore Devwah Whaley, who added 602 yards on 110 carries as a freshman last season.

Bret Bielema has coached some outstanding one-two punches at running back during his years at Wisconsin and Arkansas; he’s got another one in 2017.

No. 5 – Georgia

When Chubb and Michel broke in as true freshmen in 2014, the odds of them both still being in Athens as seniors were slim, but here we are. Chubb opened last season with a 200-yard game against UNC, but he ended up averaging only 5.0 yards per carry for the year—down from 8.1 as a sophomore in 2015 and 7.1 as a freshman in 2014. Not surprisingly, he wasn’t the same back we saw before the injury versus Tennessee in 2015. He still has a chance with another strong season, though, to pass Bo Jackson, Kevin Faulk and Darren McFadden and move into second place on the SEC’s all-time rushing list behind Walker. Chubb has rushed for 3,424 yards in his career; he needs 1,171 yards rushing this year to move into second place all-time in SEC history and 1,836 yards to surpass Walker.

Michel has nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage in his Georgia career; it will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Jim Chaney tries to involve him more in the passing game this season. There are no standouts at receiver, and Michel caught 22 passes last year.

Georgia’s depth in the backfield rivals that of Alabama, with sophomores Brian Herrien (363 yards on 63 carries) and Elijah Holyfield also in the mix and true freshman D’Andre Swift (the top-rated player in Pennsylvania) joining the fold this season.

We had to leave off Texas A&M, where the dynamic Williams (6.8 yards per carry last season, with six touchdown runs of at least 20 yards) is backed up by former Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford, and Vanderbilt, where Webb has started all 37 games in his career while rushing for a school-record 3,342 yards, but that’s how loaded SEC backfields are in 2017.

Get ready to run.

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