How important is the running back?
The top teams in the Pac-12 had the strongest rushing offenses. Oregon didn't win the Pac-12, but the 13-1 Ducks did get a BCS bowl berth and beat Kansas State in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in January. The Ducks averaged over 315 rushing yards per game, and that stat is a huge reason for their successes over the years.
If you can run the ball, you will keep defenses honest, win the war in the trenches, keep your opponent's offense off the field and maintain control of the clock.
This year the league loses some terrific running backs, but also returns some fantastic veterans.
So which teams have question marks at the running back position, and which teams are at status quo?
We've got some answers as we take a peek at the Pac-12 teams.
There are no issues at the running back spot here, but the real problem for the Buffaloes' rushing game is losing tackle David Bakhtiari to the NFL a year earlier than expected—it's a huge loss.
Still, running back Christian Powell was the team's leading rusher with 691 yards and seven touchdowns. That number has to improve if Colorado wants to go bowling in December (or January).
New head coach Mike MacIntyre will probably declare the running back position up for grabs. While Powell will be in the thick of the competition, Tony Jones had a better yards per carry average (5.08) than Powell (4.37).
The Utes lose 1,000-plus-yards rusher John White, so the search for his replacement will start this spring. Utah used White almost exclusively last season, so the other backs had minimal game-day experience last year.
Kelvin York was the team's second-leading rusher (273 yards, 3 touchdowns) and should be the leader in the clubhouse, but Jarrell Oliver and Lucky Radley will be challenging York for the No. 1 spot.
Ka'Deem Carey was not only the Pac-12's leading rusher for the 2012 season, he was the nation's leading rusher—Carey averaged just a hair under 150 yards per game.
Unfortunately, Carey has had some problems off the field (click here, here and here) and the consensus All American may have problems returning to the practice field unless all of this stuff gets cleared up.
ESPN's Ted Miller doesn't think Carey will face a season-long suspension, but even if a multi-game suspension is in order, the spring practices could see Daniel Jenkins taking on a more dominant role.
The Sun Devils used a running-back-by-committee approach last season with three backs rushing for 1,750 yards. Marion Grice and D.J. Foster return this season and look like the favorites to see most of the action on the field.
Running backs coach Larry Porter has left for Texas, and Chris Thomsen, former running backs coach at Arizona State, has been hired to take Porter's place.
The Bruins lose Johnathan Franklin, and he's a big loss—Franklin was the nation's third-leading rusher (1,734 yards, 13 touchdowns).
Jordan James will see a lot of reps in spring practice, but Steven Manfro could also throw a wrench into the competition if he hangs on to the ball. Manfro has mostly seen action as a punt returner and all-purpose back.
Damien Thigpen will also compete for the starting spot if he's 100 percent after rehabbing an ACL. If he is healthy, he will probably get the starting spot because of his experience.
Silas Redd returns to the Trojans backfield, so there is some experience coming back. Redd had some ball security issues last season, so there's no doubt the senior will be working on his ball-handling skills in spring practice.
But who else is in the mix to increase the Trojans' rushing productivity? Curtis McNeal, USC's second-leading rusher, is gone.
D.J. Morgan and Buck Allen should make things interesting. I was impressed with Allen last spring, because he's a between-the-tackles runner, and that's something that has been missing from USC's rushing game—pounding it up the middle.
Keep your eyes on early enrollee and 4-star running back Justin Davis.
Redd will probably start, but the battle for backup will be very intriguing.
Teondray Caldwell was the Cougars' leading rusher in 2012 with 269 yards. Mike Leach isn't known for fearsome rushing attacks, but if he wants to improve Washington State's offense, there's a huge potential in the running game to keep defenses a little more honest.
Maybe it won't matter. Most of Washington State's running backs are used as slot receivers. Rickey Galvin is a running back but only carried the ball once—he caught nine passes for 68 yards.
Is there going to be a battle for running back? Technically yes, but the guy with the best receiving skills is probably more important in the long run.
Bishop Sankey returns after a very good 2012 season—1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Four of Sankey's last five games produced 139 yards or more including two games of 189 and 205 yards. Sankey is clearly the top dawg for 2013.
The biggest battle will be for backup to Sankey. Erich Wilson II had some carries last year as well as Dezden Petty, and while there is tremendous depth at running back, there isn't a lot of experience.
Oregon State returns a very good back who should have no problems hanging on to the starting spot; Storm Woods rushed for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.
Terron Ward and Malcolm Agnew were Woods' back-ups—Ward rushed for 415 yards and six touchdowns, while Agnew rushed for 269 yards and one touchdown.
Mike Riley may keep things lively by announcing the running back position is up for grabs. I doubt that happens—Storm Woods looks like he's going to be the starter again this year, and the real battle will be for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Cal may have one of the best spring battles for running back. Seniors C.J. Anderson and Isi Sofele were the Bears' leading rushers, and neither will return.
This gives new head coach Sonny Dykes a chance to open things up for everyone.
Brendan Bigelow (431 yards) was the team's third-leading rusher in 2012. The only other backs with any experience are Daniel Lasco and Dasarte Yarnway, so obviously the competition at running back will be quite fierce.
Spring practice in Berkeley could be one of the most spectacular Bears fans have seen in quite awhile, because I really think Yarnway could cause some chaos. He's a Top 25 running back and was ranked 4-stars by all the major recruiting sites but was moved to fullback last season.
So Stepfan Taylor is gone, and now Cardinal fans should panic a little, right? Wrong. Tyler Gaffney has returned to Palo Alto after spending a year with Pittsburgh's minor league baseball team, according to a CBS Sports report. More from head coach David Shaw:
"I'm very proud of Tyler Gaffney making the decision to come back and finish his degree, while also rejoining the football team," Shaw said. "Tyler's first three years at Stanford, he contributed to a lot of big games and a lot of big wins. He will join a talented and diverse group of running backs, which as a unit we believe is as good as any in the nation."
Translation: Before you all just hand Gaffney the keys to the starting spot, we'll have everyone compete for it. Then we'll hand him the keys.
I don't think anyone will be challenging De'Anthony Thomas for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. With that being said, his back-up is very important, because Thomas never had more than 17 carries per game last year, mainly because Kenjon Barner got most of the carries.
Thomas will need to be relieved in the Ducks' hurry-up offense, so the real battle is for the No. 2 back.