The Southeastern Conference’s legacy of great running backs is long and illustrious. Some of college football’s all-time premiere rushers called the conference home, like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson.
Emmitt Smith in Florida, the unbeaten Auburn tandem of Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, Arkansas’ three-headed monster of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis, Mark Ingram-to-Trent Richardson in Alabama; it reads like a Who’s Who of top tier ball carriers.
In 2013, the SEC boasts a talented and deep class of running backs. There are Heisman Trophy candidates, impact freshmen and veterans ready to break out.
1. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
Nick Saban produces elite running backs like the Keebler elves produce cookies. Yeldon is the latest, moving into the featured role Eddie Lacy vacates. As the No. 2 option in his true freshman campaign, Yeldon registered 1108 yards on 175 carries (6.3 yard average) and scored 11 touchdowns. Following in the footsteps of past Heisman finalists Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, Yeldon is ready to break out as one of the nation’s stars playing behind a talented offensive line and setting the table for the Tide passing attack.
2. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Breakout star of the Georgia offense last season, Gurley went for 1385 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman. He gained better than 6.2 yards per carry to give the Bulldogs a varied look. Defenses were kept off-balance, and Georgia rolled off 38.8 points per game. Gurley is a preseason Heisman contender, and could very well be the conference’s premiere back.
3. Jeremy Hill, LSU*
Hill’s inclusion comes with the asterisk, because his availability is very much in question. He was suspended indefinitely after an arrest last week. Should he return to the lineup, he showed his ability in a 755-yard, 12-touchdown freshman campaign.
4. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State
Perkins broke out to surpass the 1000-yard mark in his third season contributing to the Bulldog offense. He rushed for 988 yards in his first two seasons. He was limited somewhat in his spring duties, but should factor into Dan Mullen’s attack as the focal point as one of just 11 Bulldog seniors.
5. Ben Malena, Texas A&M
With NFL draftee Christine Michael and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the same backfield, Malena’s touches were limited a season ago. Michael and Manziel combined for 33 rushing touchdowns; Malena had eight. But with Michael gone, Malena should get to finish on some more opportunities than his 808 yards yielded a season ago.
6. Jeff Scott, Ole Miss
Ole Miss Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze installed his uptempo, spread offense in Oxford last season with immediate results. The Rebels improved from 16.1 points per game in 2011, to 31.5 last season. Scott was a key contributor at 846 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
7. Alfred Blue, LSU
Before a knee injury sidelined him early in conference play, Blue was the headliner of LSU’s multifaceted backfield. He had a pair of 100-yard games in the Tigers’ first two outings, and was emerging as a dangerous receiving threat with seven catches in three games.
8. Rajion Neal, Tennessee
Neal emerged behind the stout Vol offensive line as UT’s No. 1 rushing option last season with 708 yards and five touchdowns, but a midseason injury slowed his production. Teammate Marlin Lane’s disciplinary issues leave Neal as a front runner to take over the No. 1 role in new head coach Butch Jones’ rush-friendly offense.
9. Keith Marshall, Georgia
Marshall was overshadowed by fellow freshman star Todd Gurley, but was outstanding in his own right. His ranking isn’t indicative of his abilities, but on an offense returning Gurley and Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Aaron Murray, finding touches could be a challenge. Nevertheless, Marshall still accrued 759 yards and eight touchdowns as Georgia’s third offensive option. His 6.5 yards per carry actually bested Gurley.
10. Tre Mason, Auburn
Auburn suffered through a lost season in 2012, but a shining bright spot was the emergence of Mason as the Tigers’ featured back with the departure of Michael Dyer. He surpassed 1000 yards and scored eight touchdowns despite turmoil in the offense. With Gus Malzahn bringing some stability, Mason’s ceiling is high.