College football is an ever-modernizing sport, but at the end of the day, there's just no substitute for a good, old-fashioned three yards and a cloud of dust. Except maybe four yards. Or five. Six or more is usually just fine, too.
And with that, the Big Ten's long, rich tradition of shoving the ball down opposing defenses' throats stands to continue once again with a strong group of ball-carriers, many of whom have a good chance to lead the Big Ten.
Here are the best candidates to stand atop the Big Ten in rushing yardage when it's all said and done. They're arranged alphabetically by last name, so if you're wondering why Braxton Miller is in the middle of the pack, fear not, intrepid Buckeye fan—it's not because we hate you. It's because the alphabet hates him. Blame the alphabet.
Why he'll lead the Big Ten: Nebraska may have been counting on Rex Burkhead to be the backfield's anchor, but a series of knee injuries robbed Burkhead of most of his senior season, limiting him to just 98 carries. In stepped Abdullah, who started for most of 2012 and racked up a team-high 1,137 yards on 226 carries.
Abdullah will likely be the starter every week in 2013 for the Huskers, having said goodbye to Burkhead and key backup Braylon Heard, who has decided to transfer. As such, he could easily jump up to 300 rushes on the year. If he does that and keeps up his average of five yards a pop—plausible given his breakaway speed and Nebraska's strong offensive line—he could easily threaten the 1,500-yard mark.
Why he'll come up short: Abdullah looked strong in 30-rush efforts against Arkansas State and Penn State, but whether he'll be able to shoulder workloads like that week after week is hardly a given. He's got major fumbling issues as well, and Bo Pelini may decide Imani Cross' durability makes him a more attractive option for getting carries as the season goes on.
Why he'll lead the Big Ten: If anyone in the Big Ten is capable of ripping off an 80-yard run at a moment's notice, it's Mark, the return specialist-turned-1,366-yard rusher who leads all returning Big Ten backs in total rushing yardage. Mark averaged a gaudy 6.04 yards per rush last season, and with his big-play tendencies, don't be surprised to see him close to that rate again in his senior season.
Why he'll come up short: Mark is an even bigger home run threat than Abdullah, and as such, an elite rushing defense can hold him more or less in check. Penn State held him to 72 yards on 13 rushes, and Mississippi State only allowed 56 yards. He also left a game at Michigan State to injury in the first half after only nine yards, but he didn't miss any time after that, so we're going to hold off on any "injury prone?" talk.
Still, to lead the Big Ten, Mark's going to have to ramp up his carries from 226 on the year—less than 20 per game. Doing that and keeping up his productivity, especially behind a retooling offensive line, could be very difficult, and Pat Fitzgerald may not feel like subjecting his most explosive player to a heavy workload like that if he wants him to stay at top speed through November.
Why he'll lead the Big Ten: Braxton Miller is the single-most electric rusher in the Big Ten. And now that Denard Robinson is off to the NFL, it's not even close. He can turn any rush into a touchdown, even when it looks like nothing's there, and now he's got a full season in the Urban Meyer offense under his belt. Giddy up.
Additionally, Mark may lead in rushing yards for returning Big Ten players, but Miller leads all returning players in rushing yards per game; it's just that Ohio State couldn't go to a bowl game or the Big Ten Championship Game. That will not be an issue in 2013.
Why he'll come up short: If there's anyone who can hold Miller under 1,500 yards on the season, it's Urban Meyer, who's undoubtedly going to be judicious in how many carries he gives his wunderkind QB. That Michigan game is a long way away from the start of the season, after all, and Miller's frequent "Oh God, please get up" moments in 2012 lead one to believe he doesn't have it in him to be rushing 15 times or more per game.
Why he'll lead the Big Ten: Nobody saw it coming, but for a brief stretch of the 2012 season, Mark Weisman had something really good going. He rushed for over 155 yards per game in a four-week stretch before lingering leg injuries derailed his bruising assault on the rushing leaderboard. He's healthy now, as is his favorite blocker, LT Brandon Scherff. Together, the two are deadly on zone-left rushes.
If Weisman can keep up a pace of about 25 rushes per game and his 5.14 yards per rush from 2012, he's got the potential to not only be one of the most productive rushers in the Big Ten but in the nation.
Why he'll come up short: We've never seen Weisman come anywhere near shouldering a rushing load for an entire season, and while his powerful, contact-friendly rushing style suits his skills perfectly and puts him in the best position to succeed on any given rush, it also carries with it a lot of potential for minor injuries—the things that can derail a season, like in 2012. Nobody wants to see a guy like him dancing in the backfield or anything, but just be aware that a 12-start season from a guy taking that many shots per week might be asking for way too much.
Why he'll lead the Big Ten: If there's one thing Wisconsin does well, it's beat its opponents mercilessly with a ground game until they submit, then beat them some more because, why not, there's still football to be played. Montee Ball was the primary benefactor of this "smash first, ask questions after the game" approach to football, but he's gone now, and first in line for his carries is James White.
White has been very productive when Wisconsin has actually given him the ball; he averages over six yards per carry for his career, and his 2,571 rushing yards and 32 rushing TDs both lead all returning Big Ten rushers. He's never had a season as "the man" in Wisconsin's offense; assuming he's healthy, that will change in 2013.
Why he'll come up short: White does still have to share carries with big-play threat Melvin Gordon, and while Wisconsin has never had any trouble getting multiple running backs involved in its rushing game, it could easily end up stymieing an effort by White to lead the Big Ten.
Moreover, Gary Andersen's probably got some changes in store for the Wisconsin offense, though it remains to be seen how noticeable they'll be. We're not guaranteeing a diminished role for the rushing game by any stretch, but it's going to be an uncertainty for a while, and there's no way around that. Also, Wisconsin loses three starting offensive linemen. That matters.
We've got questions about whether most of these rushers will see the ball enough to have one of those gigantic 1,500-yard seasons, but the player we've got the most confidence in on that front is James White. We've seen him succeed, and he's been patiently awaiting his turn as the top back in the offense. That time appears to be now.
And let's be clear: Any of these five guys could end up leading the Big Ten, and there are loads of other candidates out there (Bill Belton, Derrick Green, Stephen Houston, Carlos Hyde, Donnell Kirkwood, we see you) who could emerge as more consistent outlets for their respective offenses and work their way into this discussion as well once the season begins.
But at this point in the offseason, White is the most likely back to lead the way in total production we've got out there. Agree? Disagree? Comment section's right there, folks. Let's hear it.