Our tour of the position groups brings us to the running backs this week, capping off the offensive units. We'll turn to defense next week. This makes us all pretty happy, as we get to put LSU near, or at, the top of our rankings.
There are three elite running back units in the SEC, not to mention two of the best backs of the country both coming off stellar freshman campaigns. On the other hand, a few teams have been destroyed by graduation and will run out huge question marks in the backfield. This leads to some of our most disparate rankings, as we are all over the place when it comes to ranking the potential around the conference.
1 Arkansas: Production matters here as much as anywhere, and nobody beats Arkansas' 1,000-yard tandem. I don't know that I'd put Jonathan Franklin or Alex Collins ahead of Leonard Fournette or Nick Chubb, but together? In the same backfield? Sheesh.
2 Georgia: Chubb isn't alone back there. Sony Michel is an outstanding counterbalance as a speed/outside guy, and Keith Marshall, star-crossed as his career has been, has shown a lot of ability at times himself.
3 LSU: #notsuspect. Seriously though, Fournette is a superstar, and he's backed up by a bevy of big-time recruits. Freshman Derrius Guice may come in and steal the backup carries.
4 Missouri: There are five returning 1,000-yard rushers in the conference, and the Other Other Tigers have one in Russell Hansborough.
5 Tennessee: Jalen Hurd ran for nearly 900 yards last season behind a young offensive line and caught another 35 passes as well. And now he has help in top JUCO recruit Alvin Kamara.
6 Alabama: I'm guessing I'm one of the only pundits around that doesn't worship at the altar of Derrick Henry. Sure, he's a big, fast back, but his mythos has largely been built on some big runs against beaten opponents. I'm curious if he can handle the load for Bama now with T.J. Yeldon no longer around. Yeldon was always the go-to back at big moments, particularly in short-yardage. And the depth behind him is the thinnest Alabama's had in some time, dependent on newcomers.
7 Auburn: Jovon Robinson is unproven, but fits the Auburn style well. And Roc Thomas fits in as the speed counterpart just as Onterio McCalebb did for so many years.
8 Florida: The Gators are going to lean on Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane hard this season,
9 South Carolina: Yes, Brandon Wilds is somehow still there, and he's always been a pretty solid counterpunch for the Gamecocks. Just a question of whether David Williams can replace Mike Davis.
10 Kentucky: Stanley Williams is a hell of an explosive runner, but he's just not very consistent. No one else here stands out.
11 Ole Miss: There are a couple of very highly touted recruits here that have never really been able to do much. Jaylon Walton is still around, and he can get to the outside, but that's about it.
12 Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb actually rushed for 900 yards last season, although it might be the least-impactful 900 yards in history.
13 Texas A&M: Tra Carson was average, and he's about it for this group.
14 Mississippi State: Starting from scratch here without Josh Robinson. But will the threat Dak Prescott presents on the zone-read be enough to create some room?
1 Arkansas: The Hogs return not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers. Jonathan Williams is 100 yards two seasons ago from Arkansas having back-to-back dual 1,000-yard rushers returning. I think they'll manage.
2 Georgia: The injury to Gurley was a bit of a blessing in disguise, as the Dawgs had to press Chubb into duty as well as discover some depth in Michel and Douglas. LSU might be more talented, but experienced production gives UGa the edge.
3 LSU: Leonard Fournette is going to destroy people this year. He just started to blossom late last year, and he should be the best back in the SEC. Williams emerged as a good running fullback, and if Guice is the real deal, this unit will be the best in the country. The freshmen need to step up, though.
4 Tennessee: The big drop off. The top three are miles ahead, as we enter into the solid yet not elite units. The Vols forgot Jalen Hurd was on their team at certain times last year, but in any other conference, people would have been raving about his freshman year.
5 Alabama: I'm with Billy in that I don't think Henry is on Chubb or Buga's level. He's still very good, but he's not TJ Yeldon. The bigger deal is the depth behind him. Tyren Jones was pedestrian, racking up most of his yards against the dregs of the schedule, and Drake was unimpressive before breaking his leg. I think Damien Harris is the starter by the time they play LSU.
6 Mizzou: Yes, Russell Hansbrough rushed for 1000 yards, but Mizzou loses its 900-yard back, and it's #2 returning back in yardage had 101 yards on 27 carries. There is no depth here, and I don't think Hansbrough is the workhorse type.
7 Auburn: This is the ultimate "benefit of the doubt" ranking. Auburn returns only one running back with triple digit yards, and Roc Thomas went 43-214 and likely won't start. They bring in JUCO stud Jovon Robinson to carry the load, but... Gus. You know it will work.
8 Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb was the lone bright spot in a dismal year in Nashville. He's like a man completely alone out there, depressing his numbers. Expect more of the same. Webb will be better than his final line, but that's what happens when you are the best player on an awful team.
9 Kentucky: Boom Williams had a huge YPC in limited work as a freshman, and could be ready to emerge. They return the entire stable of backs, including Jojo Kemp, so at least there is depth here.
10 Florida: Kelvin Taylor returns as the lead back, and Adam Lane had decent rate stats as a frosh. Neither is terrible, neither is great. This unit just screams mediocre, but at least they will be able to keep the lights on for the Gator offense.
11 Ole Miss: At least they return a bunch of guys. The problem is, none of them were particularly effective last year. I'm surprised I'Tavius Mathers has never amounted to much and they do have some touted recruits, but none have produced. Jordan Wikins has some breakout potential but at this point, these guys are what their numbers say they are.
12 Texas A&M: Speaking of highly touted guys who haven't amounted to jack. Trey Williams finished the season on an impressive run on limited carries, so maybe he will turn into a star now that he will get the bulk of the carries. A&M better hope so.
13 South Carolina: Brandon Wilds was fine as Mike Davis' understudy, but he'll likely reprise his backup role. When your best returning back is penciled in as a backup, let that be your guide.
14 Mississippi St: Josh Robinson was f'n awesome and should've been a Heisman finalist. State fans will spend a lot of time this year fondly remembering how great Robinson was.
The top three are hard to argue against, but I'm just the asshole to do it.
1 LSU: I think Fournette is the 2nd best back in the entire conference but what I truly love here is the stable. RB is an easy spot to contribute early. Fournette and Williams will shoulder the load but you'll get doses of Guice, Ducre and Brossette, which is enough to nudge this group to the best in the conference, if not the nation.
2 Georgia: For all the hype of Fournette, freshman Nick Chubb performed a lot like we expected to see from Fournette. I'll give Fournette the benefit of the doubt for playing in a far inferior offense, but Chubb was 2nd all-time in SEC freshman rushing yards. Throw in Sony Michel and that's a helluva one two punch.
3 Auburn: Gus Malzahn is 2 for 2 in SEC leading rushers since arriving back on the Plains. Mason was a really good player, and Artis-Payne was a productive back that Malzahn maximized. I think his cast at hand is more talented this season and we'll see yet another back rise to the top of the SEC, whether that be Roc Thomas, JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson or freshman Kerryon Johnson.
4 Arkansas: I like the top two backs here, though I don't think their talent tops the the units at LSU and Georgia nor the scheme at Auburn. Still, Arkansas will rack up some yardage and will probably finish with he best team rushing numbers in the conference.
5 Alabama: Next to Chubb and Fournette, Bama returns the only back with 150+ carries and over 5.5 ypc. They almost always run the ball well and I could see Henry breaking out in his junior campaign.
6 Tennessee: Jalen Hurd had a solid Freshman campaign and now former Alabama back Alvin Kamara is in town. There were other, more productive backs, but I like Hurd's talent and playing with a potentially dynamic QB in Joshua Dobbs.
7 Missouri: Hansbrough had a nice season and is a good back, but with Mizzou's previously documented middling OL, lack of WR support and lackluster QB play, how much can one guy do?
8 Kentucky: Okay, so all the logic I used on the previous team I will throw out the window because I'm a big believer in Stanley "Boom" Williams, who I think has a little Randall Cobb to him. Boom could be one of the top backs in the SEC this year with more consistency.
9 Florida: I'm still a Kelvin Taylor fan despite the many, many issues on this offense. Hell, McElwain got production from Bama cast off Dee Hart. That's good for something... right?
10 Vanderbilt: Vandy can't complete a pass to save their lives, but Ralph Webb racked up 900+ yards as a freshman in an offense worse than any LSU has fielded in the past decade and that should count for something.
11 Texas A&M: I'm a fan of the backs here, but don't trust Sumlin to actually turn to the run game enough for them to matter. Which is unfortunate, because there are some guys who could break out in the right situation.
12 Ole Miss: Jaylen Walton is back, but Ole Miss had such an uninspired run game last season it's hard to get excited about anything here.
13 Mississippi State: Josh Robinson was a one man show at the position last season, but I still think they'll find production here next to Prescott, even with piece mealing an OL.
14 South Carolina: Don't like the line, don't like the QB and they have one great WR. As for what they return, I'm not Wilds about it. ;)
A lot of ties in the cumulative voting, so let's get into my incredibly non-scientific method for breaking ties. I give the edge to the team that has the most consistent voting record, and push the team with a huge outlier vote in either direction down the poll. So at the top of our rankings, we have Georgia and Arkansas tied at 6 points in voting, but I give the nudge to Georgia because, despite the lack of a #1 vote, it has the consensus that it is the top tier team. I'm trying to make a cumulative ballot that best represents all of our opinions, and Arkansas gets severely punished by Paul's negative vote.
On the flip side, his deep and abiding love affair with Auburn fails to break the tie with Mizzou in its favor. Mizzou doesn't have much consensus, but more than Auburn, which has one huge outlier vote in the top four which of course belongs to our resident member of the Gus Malzahn Fan Club. His Auburn pom-poms are in the mail.
The final vote:
11 Ole Miss
12 Texas A&M
13 South Carolina
14 Mississippi St.