Believe it or not, but the SEC will boast some of college football’s top rushers in 2014.
Sure, Auburn running back Tre Mason’s decision to enter the NFL draft, via CBS Sports’ Derek Harper, will certainly add a dent to that list. However, there’s plenty of talent to go around.
In fact, out of last year’s top 15 leading rushers in the conference, only four won’t be returning next season:
|1. Tre Mason (Auburn)||317||1,816||23||129.7|
|2. Jeremy Hill (LSU)||203||1,401||16||116.8|
|3. T.J. Yeldon (Alabama)||207||1,235||14||102.9|
|4. Todd Gurley (Georgia)||165||989||10||98.9|
|5. Mike Davis (South Carolina)||203||1,183||11||98.6|
|6. Rajion Neal (Tennessee)||215||1,124||12||93.7|
|7. Alex Collins (Arkansas)||190||1,026||4||85.5|
|8. Henry Josey (Missouri)||174||1,166||16||83.3|
|9. Nick Marshall (Auburn)||172||1,068||12||82.2|
|10. Dak Prescott (Mississippi St.)||134||829||13||75.4|
|11. Jonathan Williams (Arkansas)||150||900||4||75.0|
|12. Kenyan Drake (Alabama)||92||694||8||63.1|
|13. Jerron Seymour (Vanderbilt)||164||716||14||59.7|
|14. Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)||144||759||9||58.4|
|15. Kelvin Taylor||111||508||4||56.4|
*Highlighted players won't be returning next season
But in a crowded field, who will emerge as the clear front-runner by season’s end?
Not Too Far Off
With Mason gone, LSU’s Jeremy Hill and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon will be favorites to inherit the SEC’s rushing crown.
However, in both cases, a crowded backfield could get in their way.
In Hill’s case, he still will be losing carries to running backs Terrence Magee (86 CAR, 626 YDS, 8 TD) and Kenny Hilliard (68 CAR, 310 YDS, 7 TD). Not to mention, 247Sports’ composite No. 1-overall prospect in the Class of 2014, Leonard Fournette, will be making his debut in Baton Rouge next season.
With a loaded skill set and a build that already looks NFL-ready, expect Fournette to make a splash in the Tigers’ backfield immediately.
Likewise, Yeldon spent 2013 sharing carries with running back Kenyan Drake. However, freshman running back Derrick Henry (36 CAR, 382 YDS, 3 TD) came on near the end of the season.
In fact, during the 2014 Sugar Bowl, Henry had somewhat of a coming out party, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries while catching one pass for 63 yards and another score. Meanwhile, Yeldon was decent—17 carries, 72 yards and a touchdown—and Drake didn’t play a single snap.
Furthermore, even incoming 5-star prospect Bo Scarbrough could get involved for the Tide.
Both backfields should only get more congested as the season goes on.
That’s not to say that these guys won’t be effective, because they surely will. Just don’t expect to find their names atop the SEC’s leading rushers.
Close, But No Cigar
The two running backs who will make a real good charge at capturing the SEC’s rushing title will both be coming off disappointing finishing stretches in 2013.
Those two are South Carolina’s Mike Davis and Arkansas’ Alex Collins.
Who will be the SEC's leading rusher in 2014?
In Davis’ case, the sophomore came racing out of the gates, topping the century mark in all but one of the Gamecocks’ first seven games and finding the end zone 10 times during that span. However, he only managed to accomplish the feat once in the team’s final five while scoring just one touchdown.
Still, Davis is expected to produce great numbers as a significant part of the offense next season, as South Carolina looks to replace quarterback Connor Shaw.
On the other hand, Collins will look to build on a season where he was crowned the SEC Freshman of the Year.
After coming on strong during the Razorbacks’ first five games—597 yards and three touchdowns—the freshman managed just 429 yards and a score the rest of the way. Not to mention, running back Jonathan Williams cut into his carries.
But as Arkansas looks to rebound from a disastrous 3-9 season, expect head coach Bret Bielema to feed Collins the ball frequently.
It may not be two of the most consistent seasons from running backs in the conference, but both Davis and Collins will prosper from carrying their respective teams on their backs.
The Obvious Choice
Who else but Georgia running back Todd Gurley?
Even while sharing the backfield spotlight with quarterback Aaron Murray, the sensational sophomore still put up numbers. Not to mention, he missed a couple games and played the second half of the season dealing with a nagging ankle injury.
Next season, Gurley will be without Murray and completely healthy.
That’s a scary thought for opposing defenders.
Back in Week 14, the Bulldogs got a taste of what 2014 would be like. With Murray sidelined with a torn ACL, Gurley took over the reins and carried the team to an impressive victory over Georgia Tech, 41-34, rushing for 122 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries.
He followed that up with another solid performance in Georgia’s Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska, 24-19, rushing for 86 yards on 21 carries in horrible playing conditions.
If Gurley can stay healthy—that’s the big question mark heading into the offseason—the Bulldogs will have the best running back in the country, let alone the SEC.
And as the focus of the team’s offensive attack, expect Gurley’s numbers to be through the roof.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of CFBstats.com.