Running backs served an unheralded but vital role in the SEC's return to offensive prominence in 2013.
Known for its physical defenses, the Southeastern Conference had a coming of age of sorts this season, with experienced quarterbacks combining with breakout stars at other positions to give us games like the 49-42 slugfest between Alabama and Texas A&M.
Though returning Aggie quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel dominated headlines, his production ebbed slightly from a year ago. An unheralded athlete by the name of Tre Mason finished as a 2013 Heisman finalist for upstart Auburn.
Let's not rush our way (see what I did there?) through ranking the conference's best tailbacks this season.
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Weighing in at 190 pounds and standing just 5'7", Seymour was often called upon in short-yardage situations. Though his overall yardage and yards per carry suffered, he was a reliable first down.
The rising redshirt junior is making his mark for the Commodores.
The Hialeah, Fla., native rushed for 716 yards in 2013, and much of it was done in the style of a bowling ball. A tough, physical back with great balance, Seymour hit the end zone 14 times, which is tied for fourth in the conference. That's an impressive 11.7 attempt-to-touchdown ratio, one of the best in the SEC.
The third-leading receiver for the 'Dores with 19 catches for 126 yards, the former 3-star high school prospect is poised for a massive breakout season in 2014.
Simply a workhorse, graduating senior Rajion Neal was a solid, reliable option for an average offense in 2013.
There's something to be said for consistency, and Neal brought some amount of stability to the position. After struggling against Oregon and Florida, Neal pealed off big performances against South Alabama and Georgia, accruing 1,124 yards on the ground, along with 12 touchdowns.
We'll not mention the eight-yard performance at Mizzou, though the tall, athletic back had a moderately successful career in Knoxville. The ninth-ranked running back, with four stars out of high school, Neal is an excellent example of just how difficult it is to succeed in the loaded SEC.
Despite the Razorbacks' rebuilding efforts, 4-star Alex Collins was plucked out of Florida by new head coach Bret Bielema to play in Fayetteville. Collins turned down offers from Florida, Miami and Wisconsin and became the go-to guy from day one for Arkansas.
The 13th-ranked running back didn't disappoint in his freshman campaign.
Startling the nation, he became the first SEC athlete to ever begin his collegiate career with three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. He was named SEC Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American after rushing for 1,026 yards on 190 carries.
The knock his naysayers would offer is his lack of production in the red zone. His inability to shed tackles held him to just four touchdowns and a relatively average 5.4 yards per carry. That, though, could be attributed more to the talent that surrounded him than his own faults.
Regardless, Collins will shape defensive game plans for years to come, and he has the ability to help lift Arkansas out of the rut its been in for the past few years.
Playing behind fellow sophomore T.J. Yeldon, Drake got far fewer chances to make his impact known. A 4-star out of high-school, make an impact he did, though.
Drake is fast. Really, really fast. So fast, in fact, that he's one of the most difficult running backs in the conference to tackle. His SEC-leading 7.5 yards per carry shows it.
Despite just 92 rushing attempts, the Powder Springs, Ga., native recorded 694 yards on the ground to go with eight touchdowns. His 11.5 rush-per-touchdown ratio is also best in the conference.
Drake was touched for 135 yards through the air, averaging 11.2 yards per catch and reaching the end zone once.
Though he may spend most of his career playing behind Yeldon, one can only imagine how scary the rising junior would be as a starter.
Though Kenyan Drake's talent is undeniable, so too is that of T.J. Yeldon. Ranked 12th nationally out of high school among all recruits and second among running backs, Yeldon has the speed, explosiveness and elusiveness to be an elite SEC tailback.
Yeldon chose 'Bama over offers from 12 other schools—five of them from the SEC—and has produced in the limelight.
He racked up 1,235 yards as the Crimson Tide's workhorse on 207 touches and crossed the goal line 12 times. He was also used a good deal as a receiver, mostly through screens, catching 20 passes for 183 yards.
The area of focus for Yeldon has to be his effort under pressure. The Daphne, Ala., native fumbled the ball several times at critically inopportune moments, which played a major role in the Tide's poor performance late in the season.
If Yeldon can work on his ball-security issues, the one-two punch of Yeldon and Drake will easily be the nation's best at the running back slot.
Must be tough to be Alabama head coach Nick Saban, huh?
After rushing for 1,166 yards on 174 carries, Mizzou's pressure valve for talented quarterback James Franklin will try his luck in the NFL.
For an offense that ranked second in rushing in the SEC, Josey averaged an impressive 6.7 yards per carry despite how much he was relied on in the run game. Most noticeable was Josey's game vision; he was perhaps able to see his blocks and follow seams better than any other in the conference.
Just a 3-star recruit out of high school, Josey now looks to make a good deal of money pursuing his dream professionally.
This former 4-star recruit returns as a junior in 2014. He's one of the most talented and capable running backs in the Southeastern Conference.
Turning down a crazy 18 other offers, including ones from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Penn State, Davis has evolved into a powerhouse for the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C.
Davis complemented a solid USC passing game with a potent run game that saw the Lithonia, Ga., native stand as the only SEC player to rush for two plays of at least 70 yards in 2013. His physical style and 200-pound body make him great between the tackles, and he caught 34 passes for 352 yards.
After his 1,183-yard, 11-touchdown performance this year, look for Davis to have a tremendous 2014 campaign.
There is perhaps no better athlete, no running back more complete, in college football than Todd Gurley. When he's healthy, that is.
His speed, vision and ability to shed tackles makes him clearly one of the most elite student athletes, not only in the SEC, but in the nation. After an ankle injury sidelined him for about four games in 2013, Gurley was forced to sit and watch losses pile up for the Bulldogs as the plague of injuries swept through Athens.
Still, Gurley managed 989 yards on 165 attempts, good for six yards per carry. Reaching the end zone 10 times, the rising junior proved his 4-star ranking out of high school might have been a bit low.
If he can stay healthy, look for Gurley to dominate UGA's offense in 2014 and help Georgia recover from the graduation of quarterback Aaron Murray.
The gap between the first- and second-best running backs in the SEC this season wasn't as large as some would have you believe.
Jeremy Hill put up 1,401 yards on 203 carries, which is about 400 fewer yards but more than 100 fewer attempts than Tre Mason. Averaging 6.9 yards per carry—second-best in the conference—on more than 200 touches is no easy task. Hill is balanced and powerful at 220 pounds with tremendous potential in the NFL as a north-south tailback.
The former 4-star recruit has had a great career at LSU, capped by this season's finale, which was helped by the emergence of quarterback Zach Mettenberger. After notching 16 touchdowns and adding 181 yards on 18 catches, Hill is leaving school early for the NFL.
All told, it isn't easy being great in the SEC. The wealth of talent at every position makes numbers like those of Tre Mason rare.
Rare indeed is his 1,816 yards rushing this season. No SEC player has managed that total since Arkansas' Darren McFadden's 2007 season. More impressive still is just how heavily run-focused Auburn's offense was, making the game plan for opposing defenses relatively simple: Stop Mason.
Leading the nation in rushing, Auburn's trip from three wins to national runner-up relied heavily on the former 4-star recruit. Hailing from Lake Worth, Fla., Mason averaged a first down every two attempts despite his 317 attempts.
For his efforts, Mason finished atop the list of several records. Auburn's single-season all-purpose yardage and rushing records once belonged to none other than Heisman-winner Bo Jackson until this year. The tailback also tied another Heisman winner in Tim Tebow for the SEC rushing touchdowns with his 23 trips to the endzone.
Simply said, Mason was simply incredible this season. He enters the NFL draft as perhaps the top running back and leaves some pretty significantly sized shoes to fill for the Tigers.
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