Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Le'Veon Bell may have been the Big Ten's preeminent workhorse in 2012, but nobody left bigger shoes to fill for the future than departing Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball, who leaves with a career 5,140 yards and 83 total touchdowns as he prepares for the NFL.
That leaves rising senior James White, the Big Ten 2010 Offensive Freshman of the Year and sophomore-to-be Melvin Gordon to battle it out for the top spot in the backfield.
The temptation is to say "both guys will get lots of carries since that's the way Wisconsin has done it over the years." But remember that Bret Bielema is down in Arkansas, and incoming head coach Gary Andersen isn't quite as backup-friendly as Bielema was.
In Andersen's four years heading up Utah State, his second-most heavily used tailbacks averaged 71 rushes per year; by comparison, White got 125 rushes as the primary backup last year, and Gordon saw 62 carries as the third option.
So while Andersen may be more open to a platoon of sorts at RB at Wisconsin, he's still probably going to pick a clear starter, and White probably has the advantage. He averaged 6.4 yards per rush last year and maintains a 6.1-yard average for his career.
Gordon went a long way in proving he could be a feature tailback with a 30-rush effort in Wisconsin's 2012 spring game, but he was most effective for the Badger in an auxiliary role when the season started—just ask Nebraska fans about Gordon's fly sweeps in the Big Ten championship game, then sit back and watch the PTSD wash over their faces.
Post-spring Prediction: This will be the single-hottest RB race in the Big Ten, with both White and Gordon talented enough to push each other to high levels of productivity. White should win this battle, but both are almost assuredly top-five backs in the Big Ten on talent alone, and if Andersen is smart, he'll use both extensively once the 2013 season rolls around.