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2014 SEC Preseason Football Position Rankings: Running Backs

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In a measure designed to help us all avoid the doldrums that are summer life without football, we – those that make up the SEC blogosphere here at SB Nation – will be voting once a week until football season, ranking the position groups for SEC football as we count down to the first weekend of the season. Our sixth position group ranking focuses on the guys who power the offense often times in a run-heavy league -- the running backs.

Joe Robbins

We're in the final weeks of our summer series ranking the position groups in the SEC, but the final few that we have remaining are some of the most important to their team's success in 2014.   This week we're talking a look at the running back position: One that the SEC has been known for for years now.  How will the teams shake out this week 1-14?  Let's find out as we take a look at running backs rankings from SB Nation's SEC bloggers.

Ballot Posts: And the Valley Shook, Garnet and Black Attack, Red Cup Rebellion, Rocky Top Talk

1. Alabama (Five First Place Votes, 1.17 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry
Our Thoughts:

-- Just an embarrassment of riches. TJ Yeldon returns with 2,343 career rushing yards along with Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and Jalston Fowler for short yardage situations. (A Sea of Blue)

-- It's pretty unfair that one team has TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry on it... and yet that team continues to sign great running backs who want to play immediately. :-( (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- TJ Yeldon is the SEC's leading returning rusher. He's got a lot of miles on him (2,2343 yards to be precise), but there is a deep and talented stable behind him. Derrick Henry was in the top ten of running backs in rushing last season as well. They are loaded. (And the Valley Shook)

-- T.J. Yeldon is the best back in the SEC not named "healthy Todd Gurley." Derrick Henry's right behind him. (Dawg Sports)

-- Would you believe that Heisman-contender T.J. Yeldon isn't Alabama's best back? That's what many in Tuscaloosa think, as they expect Derrick Henry will eat up a lot of Yeldon's carries. (Garnet and Black Attack)

--This isn't even fair. I'm really high on Derrick Henry. Like, if I were any higher on Derrick Henry, I'd be Derrick Henry's hairline. I mean, the man blitzkrieg'd through Oklahoma like the second coming of General George Custer. It was one of those moments when you knew you were watching somebody special. That what you were witnessing on the television in front of you was greatness. Greatness doesn't take a "wait and see" approach. You can see it in a single play, and Henry gave us more than a handful.

...AND HENRY WON'T EVEN BE GETTING THE BULK OF THE CARRIES THIS YEAR!

That honor goes to junior T.J. Yeldon, who ran over, around, and through Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o in the 2012 National Championship game in one of the biggest mismatches since Bo Jackson embarrassed the Boz. For an encore, Yeldon knocked up Te'o's fake girlfriend and then took Te'o's mother Dorothy Te'o out for a nice seafood dinner and never called her again.

The only good news is that there's still just one ball. (Rocky Top Talk)

2. Georgia (Two First Place Votes, 1.83 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall
Our Thoughts:

-- There are several good running backs in the SEC this season, and Todd Gurley is arguably the best if healthy. If Keith Marshall is also healthy look out. True freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were outstanding in high school and will probably get reps this season. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Until Todd Gurley got injured, he was absolutely amazing. He's probably the best back in the conference. If Keith Marshall can recover from the injury that cost him last year, they could be better than Alabama's backs. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Georgia is the best and for my money, no one else is even breathing their same air. Todd Gurley is probably the best back in the conference. He'd likely have finished higher in total yards and TDs had he not suffered injury. But this doesn't start and end with Gurley. Keith Marshall is a talented back in his own right, also derailed by injury last season. Guys like J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas both filled in admirably. Green is now a safety, while Douglas is the primary back-up. But the thing that really throws this unit over the top are two top 100 RB recruits in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Either of these two are good enough to be freshman starters that doesn't feature a stud like Gurley atop the depth chart. LOW-DEAD. (And the Valley Shook)

-- If healthy Georgia has the best group of running backs in the country. But Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall each have to prove their health before I'm willing to move them to the top. Even if Gurley and Marshall aren't in the shop like a pair of temperamental Ferraris, freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will still see the field. (Dawg Sports)

-- Georgia's Todd Gurley is probably the best back in the SEC. However, after Gurley, there are some question marks. Keith Marshall is talented and has shown flashes, but how well will he come back from a gruesome knee injury? The Dawgs have a couple of excellent true freshman in the wings if Marshall isn't ready.

-- I don't normally like to say nice things about Georgia, but here's the thing: Todd Gurley (see above text message convo) is arguably the best back in the league, and Georgia recruited two elite backs in the 2014 class, so the Dawgs should be fine even if Keith Marshall returns a step slow from injury (which should be expected; knee injuries are no joke). (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- About those two freshmen running backs: Sony Michel played for a powerhouse American Heritage squad that won a state championship despite being one of the most poorly coached teams I've ever seen. Seriously, it's just a bunch of talented athletes who have no idea how to play football running around like headless chickens. Gus Malzahn must masturbate furiously while thinking about how many points he could have scored with this lineup: Torrance Gibson (ATH), Michel (RB), Dredrick Snelson (WR), Tarvarus McFadden (CB), Brandon Johnson (WR), and Isaiah McKenzie (WR/CB, also a Georgia commit), all of whom are four or five star recruits. Malzahn probably could have hung a hundred on the regular with that squad at the high school level.

Anyway, back to the original point: Michel might be a bit of a tweener and overrated as a prospect, but Nick Chubb was one of my favorite running back recruits in the nation, mainly due to his style being uncannily reminiscent of high school Travis Henry. Basically, Chubb runs like a gazelle... a short, stocky, bowling ball shaped gazelle. He's going to be really good in Athens. (Rocky Top Talk)

3. South Carolina (3.67 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds
Our Thoughts:

-- Mike Davis is the truth and along with Yeldon and Gurley the best running back in the SEC. Brandon Wilds is a damn good back-up in his own right, and Shon Carson also returns. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Mike Davis is a fantastic runner and can do work catching the ball out of the backfield as well. If he were to get hurt though, I'm not sure how well South Carolina could recover. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Ho hum. Yet another team with a Heisman contender at running back. The Gamecocks don't quite have the depth as the top two, but really, who does? (And the Valley Shook)

-- Mike Davis is my pick to lead the SEC in rushing because a) he's a really, really great tailback, and b) unlike the backs at Georgia and Alabama he doesn't have 4 compatriots with whom to share carries. (Dawg Sports)

-- The Gamecocks feature a deep group of backs. Mike Davis is the leader, but Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson provide reliable backups, and RS freshman David Williams could be Davis's heir apparent. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- I wanted to rank South Carolina higher on the basis of Mike Davis, and the fact that he's really good at the game of football. Hunter argued that they lack depth, and that running backs get injured like crazy, and so you gotta have depth at that position, and so we gotta factor depth into the rankings, and yadda yadda this and that.

And, listen, what my co-author is saying isn't entirely untrue as a general matter. But methinks head coach Steve Spurrier is setting a fine example for his charges on the strength and conditioning front, and that South Carolina's running backs -- and the team in general -- will be nigh uninjurable as a result. (Rocky Top Talk)

4. Arkansas (4.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Alex Collins Jonathan Williams
Our Thoughts:

-- Dual 1,000 yard rushers Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams return. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are going to be solid for several years. If the BERT experiment is to work, it rests almost solely on the backs of those two running backs. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Their top two backs combined for nearly 2000 yards last season, and their workloads were frighteningly similar. The best 1-2 attack of any backfield in the conference, maybe in the country. And I just ranked them fourth. That's how awesome the SEC is at RB this season. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The rest of the Hogs' offense wasn't much to speak about, but Arkansas has an excellent runningback tandem in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Can the rest of the offense do its part to put these guys in position to shine? (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Coach Bert actually has two decent runners coming back from last year in Alex Collins, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, and Jonathan Williams, who finished with 900 rushing yards and a substantially satisfactory 6 per carry. So they have good talent, and they have good depth, and, most importantly, they have Coach Bert. And you can't go wrong with that guy. (Rocky Top Talk)

5. LSU (5.33 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Terrance Magee, Leonard Fournette
Our Thoughts:

-This is mostly a projection of Leonard Fournette. If he is in truth the next Adrian Peterson then LSU will finish much higher. Terrence Magee will be a very very good back-up. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Terrence McGee did pretty well in limited action last season. But yay! Jeremy Hill and the way that he would "assault" defenses is gone! Yay! (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- The big drop off. Magee ranks 8th among projected starters in total yards from last season, but with a far better yard/carry (and he's only 90 yards out of 5th). Fournette doesn't need to be a star right away for this unit to be good, but he does in order for it to be among the conference's elite. (And the Valley Shook)

-- I was recently told by several LSU fans that Leonard Fournette's left pinky finger is the best football player in the SEC. I didn't argue because they were killing nutria with their bare hands and I didn't want to interfere with family time. (Dawg Sports)

-- Although Jeremy Hill is gone, don't expect a huge dropoff from this group. LSU always has a deep stable of backs, and this year should be no different. Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are expected to get most of the carries right now, but watch out for big-time recruit Leonard Fournette to make his presence known quickly. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Jeremy Hill was really really good and, in his role as certifiable featured back, represented a departure from LSU's usual nameless, faceless, four-headed running back monster. But, again, that's because he was really good. And LSU, with Magee and Hilliard returning, might be expected to revert back to a RB-by-committee approach this year, but then again Leonard Fournette might just be really really good. I mean, have you seen clips of that kid? Nasty. Filthy. Straight up disgusting... (Rocky Top Talk)

Mike Davis

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

6. Auburn (5.83 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant
Our Thoughts:

-- Replacing Tre Mason won't be easy but Auburn gets to do it with two seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. (A Sea of Blue)

-- I was ready to move Auburn way down the list with the loss of Tre Mason, but unfortunately Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant averaged 6.7 and 9.8 yards per carry respectively last season. Could Gus Malzahn have walked into a program who hadn't recruited at an elite level for the past five years? (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Auburn narrowly edges South Carolina for me exclusively due to depth. Auburn doesn't have a single stand out like Mike Davis in their core, but the Gus offense pumps out highly productive runners. Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne are solid, if unproven in the ability to shoulder a heavy workload. However, I'm a huge fan of incoming freshman Roc Thomas, who I think will be their lead back by season's end. Kamryn Pettway, another true freshman, is also a big, fast kid that could see some carries. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Where have you gone, Tre Mason? Auburn raises its duffle bags to you. Woo, woo, woo. (Dawg Sports)

-- Tre Mason is gone, but there are plenty of backs here, led by Cameron Artis-Payne, to excel in Gus Malzahn's system. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Malzahn is an offensive wizard -- though there's no evidence indicating attendance at Hogwarts -- and his smorgasbord of spells, potions, incantations, and the like can nicely Spanx up attributes in a running back that might be otherwise undesirably exposed. BUT...Tre Mason was still Tre Mason, and neither Cameron Artis-Payne nor Corey Grant are Tre Mason. Now this isn't to say that Auburn won't finish the season with the most rushing yards in the league. Smart money says that they will. But we're ranking the means to the end here, and not the end itself. Don't get 'em twisted, Tiger. (Rocky Top Talk)

7. Florida (8.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Kelvin Taylor, Matt Jones
Our Thoughts:

-- I look for this to be the break-out season for Kelvin Taylor. His back-ups Matt Jones and Mack Brown should provide key depth. I think freshman Brandon Powell sees action as well under Kurt Roper's offensive attack. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Kelvin Taylor was pretty good as a freshman, but I'm not sure I understand the hype that has some people putting Florida in the top 5-6. They just don't really have anything proven. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- I'm a big believer in Kelvin Taylor and have been since his days as a recruit. He didn't blow up last year, but he was respectable enough on a terrible offense. Mack Brown and Matt Jones are back, giving them a very solid trio of backs in a new look offense. Hunter Joyer is also maybe the best FB in the conference, so that always helps. (And the Valley Shook)

-- This unit lacks star power but has several players who look like they could be primed for breakout years. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Dear Kelvin Taylor:

Yeah, your pops was good. So was Gerald Riggs Jr.'s. Show us more than 4.2 ypc and we'll talk. Good talk. (Rocky Top Talk)

8. Texas A&M (8.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Trey Williams, Tra Carson
Our Thoughts:

-- Johnny Manziel was the team's leading rusher last season and they graduated Ben Malena the second leading rusher. Juniors Trey Williams, Brandon Williams and Tra Carson return. They roughly split carries last season so I assume it'll be a running back by committee this year too. (A Sea of Blue)

-- I guess Trey Williams and Tra Carson will be splitting carries. Both looked good in limited action last season, but the jury is still out on Texas A&M post-Manziel. Their running game could take a huge hit if people aren't afraid of getting totally demolished by the quarterback. Maybe they will still be terrified. I just have no idea. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Honestly wanted to rank them lower, because I find Sumlin's handling of their backs to be baffling. Talent wise, this core is probably top 5 in the conference... yet they hardly tote the rock. Perhaps that will change this year as they usher in a new, inexperienced QB. Tra Carson looks to be the lead guy, but Trey Williams and Brandon Williams are both super talented, average 7.02 and 6.11 YPC respectively. Do they emphasize the ground game more in 2014? (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Aggies have a deep group of reliable backs in place to help weather the loss of Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Tra Carson is good. Attitude problems. Mack Brown something something. Oh, and the other Trey is pretty solid as well. Which brings up an interesting point. And when I say "interesting point", I mean "allow me to step on this soapbox for a minute". Do you really name a child anything that sounds like "Trey" unless he has the same name as his dad and also his granddad? Come on, man. "Trey" is something you call a kid instead of "Herbert John Hancock III", or the like. You don't *name* a kid Trey, which means you also don't name a kid Tra. (Rocky Top Talk)

9. Ole Miss (9.8 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: I'Tavius Mathers, Jaylen Walton
Our Thoughts:

-- I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton both rushed for about 550 yards last season. Dr. Bo will need them this season, and both could improve upon their numbers if the OL stays healthy. The aerial attack should be there to provide balance. (A Sea of Blue)

-- I'm pretty high on I'Tavius Mathers this season. I think he's going to break apart from the pack at Ole Miss and make a name for himself. Jaylen Walton is a good change of pace, and the Rebels will turn to either Akeem Judd or Jordan Wilkins as a power back. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- I'Tavius Mathers is certainly a talented back, though he only carried the ball 96 times last year. Jaylen Walton is an okay number two back, but they don't have much else. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Ole Miss has a solid group of backs who can work in Hugh Freeze's system, but they don't have any star power. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Bill Connelly, in one of his 128 excellent team previews, wrote about how the Rebels' offense last year not only performed drastically better in passing downs than running downs, but frequently found themselves in "passing down" situations because the run game simply wasn't that effective. What can reasonable minds intuit about the quality of the running backs at Ole Miss in view of the previous sentence and further in view of the fact that the top two backs in 2014 are the same two guys who were the top two backs in 2013? "But this is the year that I'Tavius Mathers breaks out!" says no one who has actually watched tape on the guy. (Rocky Top Talk)

10. Tennessee (10.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Marlin Lane, Jalen Hurd
Our Thoughts:

-- The loss of Rajion Neal and his 1100 yards rushing hurts. Seniors Marlin Lane and Deanthonie Summerhill look to take the reins, but I foresee star freshman Jalen Hurt getting a lot of carries by the middle of the season. (A Sea of Blue)

-- I think that Marlon Lane is good, but he's certainly no Raijon Neal. He'll be running behind a terrible offensive line as well, and while I probably shouldn't factor that into my ranking here, I'm going to do it anyway, so suck it. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Marlin Lane is the returning starter. That's the good news. He rushed for 534 yards as the feature back last year. That's the bad news. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Rajion Neal was obscenely underrated. Freshman Jalen Hurd won't have that curse, but he won't have the NFL-ready offensive line that Neal ran behind in 2013. Also Marlin Lane is the best tailback in the country whose name sounds like a street in Panama City. (Dawg Sports)

-- Marlin Lane returns for his senior season, and the Vols bring in a good class of freshman backs, led by five-star recruit Jalen Hurd. The question is whether the offensive line can open any holes for these guys. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- For some reason (poor reading comprehension, laziness, brains rotted by scurvy), our fellow SEC bloggers have placed a ton of emphasis on the loss of Rajion Neal, who had great measurables but was never better than adequate come game time. Predictably, Neal is again impressing at the Green Bay training camp, which means he'll be using his speed to overrun holes and run into the back of his own linemen for seasons to come. Back in Knoxville, newly juvenated senior Marlin Lane will more than competently replace Neal, assuming he can hold off incoming freshmen Jalen Hurd and Derrell Scott. No position on the Tennessee football team has received more of a makeover than running back, and the Vols will surprise people with the increase in speed and athleticism this year. (Rocky Top Talk)

11. Missouri (10.16 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Russel Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy
Our Thoughts:

-- Russel Hansbrough looks to fill Henry Josey's shoes. Speaking of Hansbrough, there might be more Hansbrough's in Missouri than O'Malley's in Boston. Marcus Murphy will also get carries. (A Sea of Blue)

-- As a sophomore last season, Russell Hansbrough ran for six yards per carry in significant action. He returns, but Henry Josey is gone. Missouri is going to have a little trouble this year unless they can replace a lot of talented, departed skill players. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Hansbrough rushed for 6.01 yards/carry and 685 total yards in a support role last year. If he can maintain that average over twice the carries, Mizzou's offense won't miss much of a beat. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Tigers' running game will be led by Russell Hansborough and Marcus Murphy and looks to be a good one. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Henry Josey was the main guy last year for Mizzou and was quite productive in gaining 1166 yards and 6.7 per carry with 16 touchdowns. Josey left for the NFL, but was not drafted. Which is weird because the OOTs are a veritable assembly line for the NFL. Errbody knows that. Oh, and they rock out on APR ratings. Which is at least arguably footnoteworthy if not noteworthy. What is worth noting is that neither Russell Hansborough nor Marcus Murphy were rated highly by any talent rating entity outside their respective high school yearbook committees. No matter. Coach up dem diamonds in the rough, Gary. Do what you do. (Rocky Top Talk)

12. MSU (11.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Josh Robinson, Ashton Shumpert
Our Thoughts:

-- Leading rushers last season were QB Dak Prescott and graduated LaDarius Perkins. Josh Robinson ran for a respectable 450 yards on 78 carries as a sophomore and is poised for a breakout season. Sophomore Ashton Shumpert should provide depth. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Josh Robinson is a pretty legit running back threat, and he caught some balls last season as well. Past him, I just don't know what they're going to do.(Red Cup Rebellion)

-- If you go back and watch Terrence Magee's HS highlights, where he played QB, you'll see him sometimes handing off to a similarly built RB named Josh Robinson. Robinson is a little pinball that should be able to eat up chunks off Dak Prescott in the read option game. For whatever reason, he played behind Ladarius Perkins last year, despite averaging nearly 2 YPC more than him. Robinson could be in for a nice season. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Josh Robinson and Nick Griffin form the core of a solid Miss. St. backfield. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- The running game for The Fighting Cowbells last year was fairly pedestrian. Dak Prescott was the leading rusher with 829 yards, and was followed by Ladarius Perkins, who had 542 yards on 137 carries, but who is now gone. And so the team with the worst gimmick in college football (grown men bringing cowbells to a game and making incessant noise with said cowbells during said game gets the lameness silver medal only because Virginia Tech's best "tradition" involves a mediocre 1991 Metallica song, and that's something that's just too pathetic to even adequately articulate with the written word) will look to Josh Robinson, Nick Griffin, and Ashton Shumpert for carries. Josh Robinson actually had solid YPC numbers last season (with 5.9 on 76 carries), and so without any further knowledge on the subject, I'd venture to intuit that he'll get the lion's share of the rushing workload this season. (Rocky Top Talk)

13. Kentucky (12.0 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: JoJo Kemp, Braylon Heard
Our Thoughts:

-- This unit is flying under-the-radar. Transfer Braylon Heard average good numbers at Nebraska, and Jojo Kemp had a strong freshman season while playing with bone spurs in his ankle. Also, finally healthy is Josh Clemons who seemed poised for a great career prior to getting hurt the last two seasons. Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams are freshmen that could see time. (A Sea of Blue)

-- The wildcats return their leading rusher, but is that much to brag about when he had just 482 yards? We'll see what Stoops' recruiting has done to help the team. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- There's really not much to like here, but don't be surprised if Stanley "Boom" Williams makes an impact early. Boom Williams featured offers from all over the country but opted to go to UK for whatever reason. He's easily the most talented back on their roster and could be a fun player to watch. (And the Valley Shook)

-- The Wildcats return leading rusher JoJo Kemp. That's kinda good. He only gained 482 yards on the ground in 2013. That's, um, sort of bad. (Dawg Sports)

-- Leading rusher Jojo Kemp is back, and the 'Cats also have a transfer from Nebraska, Braylon Heard, who may be able to help. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- JoJo Kemp is pretty decent, and that's more than I can say for the next team on this list. Also, JoJo Kemp is not the same guy who was in the Hummer commercial with Da Coach O. This is a bummer. I was really hoping they were the same guy. (Rocky Top Talk)

14. Vanderbilt (13.5 Average)

Returning Starters/Contributors: Jerron Seymour, Brian Kimbrow
Our Thoughts:

-- Returns leading rusher Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. The depth below them is what holds them back from being rated higher. (A Sea of Blue)

-- Oh Vanderbilt. I'm so sorry. (Red Cup Rebellion)

-- Jerron Seymour rushed for 716 yards last year, making him the 5th most productive projected starter in the SEC. Unfortunately, it took him 164 carries to reach that benchmark, nearly double than most of the guys behind him. (And the Valley Shook)

-- Vandy has a solid group of backs left over from the recruiting successes of James Franklin. (Garnet and Black Attack)

-- Jerron Seymour was voted "fifth most athletic" by his high school yearbook committee. To be fair, Hialeah High School is like 5A or something. (Rocky Top Talk)

Derrick Henry

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports