There's not a lot of positive drama going on in the Big Ten these days, but there is one very interesting race shaping up in the conference: who's going to rush for the most yards in the Big Ten this season?
It's a crowded field. Fully six of the nation's top 25 rushers in yards per game are members of the Big Ten, and that doesn't even count preseason All-Big Ten tailback Rex Burkhead, who has been slowed by injury and only has 392 yards on the ground to his name. He's unlikely to make serious headway in this race, especially with so many other running backs in Nebraska's stable this year.
Past Burkhead, though, there is a slew of top runners. Le'Veon Bell is tops among all Big Ten rushers with 918 yards—he also has eight touchdowns. Braxton Miller is scarcely behind with 912 yards and he's got nine touchdowns to his name. Montee Ball is coming on strong after two of his strongest performances of the season; he's sitting at 816 yards and a conference-leading 11 touchdowns.
Who will lead the Big Ten in rushing this year?
Then there's Denard Robinson, who's technically fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yardage at 804 but has racked up that yardage in just six games, so he actually leads the conference in yards per game at 134 yards per game. Meanwhile, speaking of yards per game, Mark Weisman is pretty far back at 631 yards on the year, but he's only been a featured back in four of Iowa's six games thus far, so his pace is rock solid.
And don't forget about Northwestern's Venric Mark, who's a major home run threat not only as a tailback but as a return specialist too; he's got 797 yards and eight touchdowns in his seven games, and he should make a charge at 1,500 yards on the year—no small feat for a guy who's in his first year of full-time running back duties.
So let's take a look at each of these six guys and whether he's going to be the one to lead a loaded conference of rushers at the end of the year.
PROS: Certainly one of the two most electric rushers in the conference and quite possibly the most productive to boot. Capable of breaking off a touchdown on any play, whether it's a designed rush or pass. He has handled his heavy workload admirably thus far, and there hasn't yet been a hit he didn't get right back up from—the worst damage he's seen has been from awkward plants and running into the scenery.
CONS: Though he hasn't missed any significant playing time since tweaking his ankle at Nebraska as a true freshman, there's a lingering worry that his workload is ultimately unsustainable. He doesn't look built for 20 carries a game. Miller's also hampered by a 12-game maximum, and there's nothing Ohio State can do about that.
VERDICT: Miller is as strong a contender for the rushing crown as anyone in the Big Ten through the regular season, and if he gets it, he'll be an even stronger Heisman candidate. He needs to hold up for 12 games, but then again so does everyone else. The lack of a conference championship or bowl game hurts his overall chances by the time January 1 rolls around, though. Bummer, really.
PROS: Certainly the other of the two most electric rushers in the conference and well on the way to being the most productive in college football history for his career. Like Miller, Robinson can break a big play out of nowhere, and his eight rushes of 30-plus yards so far this year are already a season best—not to mention the best in the nation. He's currently on pace to top his 1,702-yard season if Michigan even gets to 13 games.
CONS: Like Miller, Robinson has a history of small injuries. But unlike Miller, Robinson's are usually the result of direct contact, which gives rise to worries about his durability. Plenty of tough rushing defenses still await on Robinson's schedule.
VERDICT: Robinson is only 447 yards and at least six (perhaps eight) games away from Pat White's record for the most rushing yards by a quarterback in FBS history. He'll get there. He may not keep the pace he's set over the first half of the regular season, which is a bit worrisome for his Big Ten rushing-title prospects; Bell is only about three yards per game back, and Miller's four back. Still, he's the leader right now, and that matters.
PROS: Bell is a pure workhorse, and one with remarkable leaping skills to boot. As he goes, the Michigan State offense goes, and one shudders to think where the Spartans would be without the nation's sixth-best rusher in its backfield. He's got the most unimpeachable durability of anyone on the list at 6'2" and 244 pounds, and nobody finishes games running stronger.
CONS: Bell won't beat a decent defense to the corner, and if a team is truly committed to slowing down the Spartan rushing game it can be done. He's only getting about 4.6 yards a pop thus far and Michigan State's schedule is murderous down the stretch.
VERDICT: Bell will get his yards, if only because there's really no alternative to a strong rushing game in Michigan State's system. Even if he has to get 37 rushes for 121 yards (see: Indiana), that ground game is getting established. The Nebraska home game is probably Bell's last opportunity to approach 200 yards on the ground; in the others, he should struggle to hit 150. That still might get him the conference crown.
PROS: Nobody's got a track record of success like Ball, who has 17 games of over 100 yards rushing against BCS conference opponents and in bowl games. Bell and the Wisconsin offensive line got off to a dreadful start this year, but they collectively demoralized Purdue to the tune of 247 yards and three touchdowns in last week's 38-14 walloping. If that rushing game is "back," Ball could shoot to the top of the conference in a hurry. He's definitely got the talent.
CONS: One big game is just one big game, and Purdue was rapidly imploding even before the Badgers came to town. We still need to see Ball against a big-time defense like Michigan State. We almost don't want to mention it, but there's also the lingering concern of his brain health; Ball has suffered two concussions since the start of August, and one more errant shot to the head should put him on the bench for the year.
VERDICT: We don't make predictions assuming injuries will happen in the future around here, though, so Ball's all right. He's probably not going to hit the 1,923 mark he had last year unless he goes for 150 a game from here through the bowls, but don't be shocked by 1,700 yards. Also—though this is only somewhat related—he's only seven touchdowns away from Travis Prentice's FBS rushing touchdown record. That one's toast.
PROS: The three-year return specialist has expanded his big-play ability to the Northwestern backfield, and in an unconventional offense designed to maximize stress on linebackers, Northwestern is often able to spring Mark for a big gain before defenders even realize what's going on. He's like a very, very poor man's De'Anthony Thomas, and that is still a very, very good thing to have.
CONS: It's unlikely that Mark will be able to seriously challenge for the Big Ten rushing title at just 19 rushes per game, which is what he's averaging thus far. He should stay around the six yards per carry he's at right now thanks to his propensity for big plays, but it's unlikely that he'll become a bigger part of the Northwestern offense; he's just not built for that.
VERDICT: Unless Mark busts off even more big plays than usual down the stretch, he's probably at his ceiling of productivity. That's fine, because at his current pace he's approaching 1,500 yards, but that's very unlikely to win a conference rushing crown with this many other big-time contenders.
PROS: Iowa has a perfect fit for its straight-ahead rushing style, as the former walk-on and backup fullback is emerging as the focal point of an otherwise dismal offense. He has 623 yards in his four games of serious action, including two Big Ten wins. Defensive backs routinely bounce off the big man, whose short stride gives him remarkable balance without costing him the speed to outrun linebackers.
CONS: The Iowa running back is where dreams go to die, and the Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God may have claimed another casualty as Weisman is not on the depth chart after suffering an injury late in Iowa's 19-16 win at Michigan State last week. He hasn't been ruled out of the game, but he was seen in a walking boot afterwards. Any more missed starts and Weisman just won't have the opportunity to outrush the rest of the conference.
VERDICT: If Weisman can tough it out against Penn State, he's probably good for 100-plus just like he's been all year. But between the two games to start the year where he barely played and the uncertainty surrounding his leg injury, it's unlikely Weisman will be able to stay in this race until the end. As long as he's got three more starts in him, though, a 1,000-yard season should be in the cards.
The list drops off precipitously after these six—unless you think Ameer Abdullah or Rex Burkhead each has about 1,200 yards left in him, nobody else is anywhere near to challenging for the Big Ten rushing title. So who do you think is the Big Ten's best? Let us know in the comments.