Since the days of Woody and Bo, the Big Ten has prided itself on power running. The conference and its fans love the smash-mouth style of old school football.
If this describes you, watch the Big Ten this year, as the conference will serve up its best set of running backs in decades.
The Big Ten has had little to brag about on the field in recent years, but that’s about to change—no other conference can compete this season when it comes to the running back position. The league returns four running backs and a quarterback that rushed for at least 1,000 yards in 2013 and another three backs that rushed for over 900 yards making it the premier rushing conference in the FBS.
Here is a breakdown of the top five rushers in the Big Ten this season:
Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (5’9”, 195 pounds) has a rare combination of speed and power. He’s an elusive runner on the outside and explosive between the tackles. He earned First Team All-Big Ten last season after finishing with 1,690 yards (ninth in FBS and first in the Big Ten) and nine touchdowns.
Abdullah also had 232 receiving yards with two touchdowns, making him a legitimate threat out of the backfield.
Most backs with his talent and production would have jumped early to the NFL, but Abdullah came back for his senior season to chase a couple of notable on-the-field goals this season. He needs 1,803 yards to pass Mike Rozier to become Nebraska’s all-time leading rusher. He’s also looking to lead the Cornhuskers to their first Big Ten title.
Both goals might be tough to accomplish considering the Cornhuskers return only one offensive lineman, and they play at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Abdullah seems ready for the challenge though, telling Michael Bruntz of Husker Illustrated last January, “I know we lost a lot of guys, but I have a feeling we can be physical. We have big boys filling in some spots right now, and they're hungry and ambitious.”
With the mounting injuries on the defensive side of the ball, Nebraska’s offense will have to share more of the load, giving Abdullah a strong chance at retaining his title as the Big Ten’s rushing leader.
Abdullah may be the reigning rushing leader, but Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, (6’1”, 213 pounds) could easily claim that he is the Big Ten’s best running back. He shared duties with James White last year and still managed to gain 1,609 yards (tenth in FBS, second in Big Ten) and 12 touchdowns averaging 7.8 yards per carry earning him Second Team All-Big Ten.
With four returning starters on the Badgers' massive offensive line, Gordon has a reasonable chance to hit the 2,000-yard mark as long as he stays healthy.
More importantly, with his starting quarterback unsettled and the defense reloading from graduation losses, head coach Gary Andersen needed a leader to ready the team to compete for the Big Ten West division title.
He told Mike Larsen of the Kenosha News at Wisconsin’s annual media day that Gordon has filled that void:
“To this point (I) couldn’t be more proud of the way he handles his team, his expectations of his team and I think that will be able to show as we continue to grow,”
Expect Andersen to lean heavily on Gordon in the season opening game against LSU in Houston on August 30. The Tigers always field one of the better run defenses in the FBS.
Gordon can firmly plant himself in the Heisman race if he plays well. If he carries the team to a win, the Badgers will be in the hunt for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Lost in Michigan State’s magical season last year was just how abysmal the offense was early in the season, until Jeremy Langford (6’1”, 208 pound) started to heat up in week six. In the first five games, he had just 311 yards with four touchdowns. In the last nine games, he rushed for 1,111 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Spartans’ defense may have been the engine that carried the team to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl win, but Langford provided much of the gas.
Achieving similar production this year will hinge on how well the Spartans’ newly built offensive line begins to gel. Gone are Blake Treadwell, Dan France and Fou Fonoti, who combined for 85 career starts.
While replacing them is a huge concern, senior guard Connor Kruse told Matt Hoeppner of isportsweb last week that he believes the cupboard is hardly bare.
A lot of people assume that (we won’t be as deep) because we lost three great players but I think we are going to have that seven or eight guys (rotation) again. Those (new) guys just need to step up and perform, and they can.
Langford will also reap the benefits of playing with seasoned quarterback Connor Cook and several capable backups. Fresher legs late in the season should help him succeed as the grind of the Big Ten season intensifies in November.
Similar to Gordon, it won’t take long for the nation to see if Langford can pick up where he left off last season. Michigan State plays at Oregon on September 6. The early top-10 matchup will give him an opportunity to highlight his skills against Heisman front-runner, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota.
If Langford plays well, and the Spartans pull the upset, he’ll move into the Heisman race.
Minnesota's David Cobb (5’11”, 220 pounds) is a prototypical Big Ten running back. He’s big, strong and loves to run between the tackles. Last season, he became the first Golden Gopher since 2006 to rush for more than a 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns.
Despite his production, Cobb is still flying under the radar compared to his Big Ten peers. For him, 2013 was just the beginning. He wants more for his team this season, telling reporters at the Big Ten media days in Chicago, "The goal is 12 wins," Cobb said, "but for myself 1,500 yards."
Cobb could become a household name in November. Minnesota’s last four games are at home against Iowa and Ohio State, then on the road at Nebraska and Wisconsin. They also play at TCU and Michigan early in the season.
The beefed up schedule could impact Cobb’s ability to exceed 1,000 yards again, but the return of four offensive linemen and head coach Jerry Kill’s run-centered offense gives him a good chance.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (6’2”, 215 pounds) is the only non-running back to make the list. The two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year finished with 1,068 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
Getting more carries out of him is hard to imagine or desirable, but the loss of Carlos Hyde might force him to keep the ball rather than hand it off.
Having his speed and running ability is an incredible asset for head coach Urban Meyer, but the beating Miller took last year left its mark. A knee injury kept him out of two games and he had offseason surgery to repair the shoulder injury sustained against Clemson. Missing last Saturday’s scrimmage certainly flamed the lingering doubts about Miller’s health, but if is concerned, he isn’t showing it.
I anticipated this. I've dealt with guys with arm issues before and we're being very cautious. He could have certainly practiced yesterday, but we're in it for the long haul. He's right on schedule.
To stay healthy, Miller will be relying on unproven talent on the offensive line to keep him upright. Replacing Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell won’t be easy, but line coach Ed Warinner is one of the best in the business.
Two years ago, he quickly turned those guys into one of the nation’s top units, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman is confident he’ll do the same with this group.
"I think when you take a step back and have some perspective and understand the talent that’s in that room and the guy that’s coaching them, you’re confident in the future," Herman told Patrick Maks from Eleven Warriors in July.
Who will win the Big Ten rushing title in 2014?
At the end of the day, Miller is a run-first playmaker. Meyer and Herman may talk about having a balanced attack, but the core of the Buckeyes’ offense is still running the ball. This year will be the same, and there is a solid chance that Miller exceeds 1,000 rushing yards again.
Beyond the leaders, the list of 1,000-yard rushers in the Big Ten should grow this year as several teams return quality running backs.
Penn State running back Zach Zwinak, (6’1”, 233 pounds) finished with 989 last year, but with one starter on the line back, the yards might be a little more difficult to get. New head coach James Franklin will feed him the ball often, and the schedule is manageable so Zwinak should have a solid season.
Iowa running back Mark Weisman (6’0”, 240 pounds) finished 2013 with 975 yards. Three starters return on the Hawkeye offensive line, and the schedule is soft so Weisman has a good chance to exceed 1,000 yards this year.
Indiana running back Tevin Coleman (6’1”, 210 pounds) finished with 978 yards last year. The Hoosiers offense has dramatically improved every season under head coach Kevin Wilson, and Coleman should benefit from having a seasoned team around him. The schedule is tough, but he should become the Hoosiers' first back since 2001 to gain 1,000 yards.
The Big Ten’s image has taken a pounding over the last decade, but this season the conference will reclaim some respect. The best running backs in the country are in the Big Ten, and they’ll help carry their teams to significant wins over top-10 teams.
Watching them do it will be entertaining.