Between the first and second teams, there were four All-Pac-12 running backs last year: Kenjon Barner, Ka'Deem Carey, Stepfan Taylor and Johnathan Franklin. Of that impressive quartet, only one, Carey, returns in 2013, prompting untrained eyes to assume that it will be a down year for running backs in the conference.
But that couldn't be farther from the truth.
Even with some replacements in store on the very top end, this could be a prolific year for Pac-12 running backs and, barring unforeseen circumstances, probably will be. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they'll dominate the conference in 2013.
Revered college football writer Phil Steele issued four preseason All-America teams, and among the eight running backs listed, three come from the Pac-12. That's the most of any conference in the nation, edging out the two from the SEC and Big 12.
Steele's teams, obviously, must be taken with a grain of salt, but they're a good jumping off point. The Pac-12 is loaded with potentially dominant rushing attacks, and the guys Steele listed are just the very surface.
Let's start—as we must when discussing Pac-12 rush offenses—in Eugene, where the Ducks welcome back De'Anthony Thomas. Byron Marshall might "technically" start each game, but Thomas is the name most defenses fear. In two years at Oregon, he's racked up 2,364 total yards on 238 touches—an average of 9.9 yards per tote.
Chip Kelly had the clout to use Thomas sparingly in 2012. He had the reputation of success, and the fallback option of Kenjon Barner. If the Ducks lost and Thomas didn't get enough touches, he didn't have to worry about whiny students clamoring his way—to them, he was already a God.
Mark Helfrich doesn't have that luxury, though, and in turn he's likely to ride De'Anthony Thomas as far as the little guy will take him. The Ducks new head coach can't afford to be stingy with his most explosive players' touches. And in turn, Thomas could put up Heisman-worthy numbers in 2013.
But Thomas isn't alone in that auspicious boat. The Pac-12's other top rushers should find increased opportunity this season too.
Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey led the nation in rushing last season with 1,929 yards. But he also had less carries than all of the other running backs in the top five. Quarterback Matt Scott was a major focal part of the offense, and so was receiver Austin Hill.
But this year, both of those names are gone—Scott to the NFL and Hill to the sideline with a torn ACL. Ka'Deem Carey will be counted on to shoulder an even bigger load in Rich Rodriguez's offense, potentially even seeing a Le'Veon Bell amount of touches.
There is literally no ceiling on his production.
At USC, the Trojans lost a talented receiver in Robert Woods and a blue-chip quarterback in Matthew Barkley. They still have Marqise Lee, the best pass-catcher in the nation, so it isn't like they'll abandon the pass altogether. But they're certainly not going to be as trigger-happy.
Which bodes well for Silas Redd, the Penn State transfer who rushed for 905 yards last year and is capable of so much more. In the wake of Paterno-gate, Redd had insufficient time to truly grasp the offense. But now, with a full offseason under his belt and four starters returning on the line, a 50 percent increase on that output is realistic.
The same might be said for Storm Woods, a redshirt sophomore who ran for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns at Oregon State last season. The Beavers lost slot receiver Markus Wheaton to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and with him went their go-to option on short-yardage plays. He caught 91 passes last year and was Cody Vaz's fallback option when Oregon State needed a sure-fire gain.
Now that role gets passed down to Woods.
There's an obvious contrarian case to be made: Running backs can't possibly rule the Pac-12 after losing Barner, Franklin and Taylor. There's no such thing as addition by subtraction when the parts being subtracted are so effective.
But that's overlooking the complexities of football—especially on the college level. Rapid turnover like this is part of the game; it's something teams prepare for years in advance. We've already gone over why Oregon will be fine without Kenjon Barner. UCLA and Stanford don't have a proven star like De'Anthony Thomas in the backfield, but they should be able to tide over their losses too.
There's nothing sexy about a tailback-by-committee, but at times they can be just as dominant. Just ask the 2003 LSU Tigers. With the nation's best offensive line paving holes in front of them, Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and—wait for it—Barry Sanders Jr. should be every bit as productive as Stepfan Taylor.
UCLA returns four starters on the line as well, so Jordon James and Paul Perkins—the dynamic duo of alliterative initials—should do just fine replacing Johnathan Franklin, even if they can't replicate his success.
And we haven't even talked about Washington's Bishop Sankey, who, come season's end, might actually be the best of the bunch. He averaged 155 yards per game over his last five as a sophomore, including a 205-yard bowl-game performance against vaunted Boise State.
In the Pac-12 this season, the list goes on and on. There's a reason they have the most running backs on Phil Steele's All-American teams, and the two tiers behind that could be just as talented.
The Pac-12 has played host to many great modern quarterbacks. Carson Palmer, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck all earned their stripes in this conference, while running backs have often been asked to take a back seat.
But that was then, and this is now. In 2013, tailbacks will run the Pacific Coast.