(Note: This is also Part IV in a series celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the 1998 National Champion Tennessee Volunteers)
Since the SEC went to its 12-team divisional format in 1992, there have been many great players who've shined on fall Saturdays and gone on to make NFL dollars on Sundays.
However, no matter how much football may seem to change and progress, the SEC has stayed true to the roots of successful football—a strong running game—while inventing new ways to gain yardage.
While there have been some individual standouts over the last fifteen years, like Shaun Alexander, the same idea that many NFL and collegiate teams are falling back on now has been alive and well in the SEC for years: It takes a village to run the football.
More often than not, it hasn't been just one superstar who's gained fame, but a stable of runners who've led their teams to championships in the SEC and on the national level.
That tradition has produced success even without name recognition (for instance, Alabama's attack of Tyler Watts, Ahmaad Galloway, and Santonio Beard produced almost 250 yards per game in 2001) and also bodes well for the present, as even Knowshon Moreno won't get 30 carries a game this season—he'll share the load like everyone else.
As we remember the 10th Anniversary of Tennessee's potent run game from their 1998 National Championship, and to continue to move along the final two months 'til football season, here's a look at the Volunteers and nine other successful running games in the modern era of SEC Football.
These rankings combine collegiate productivity, team success, the NFL Draft, and what the players have done on Sundays to enhance their Saturday legacies. These are the ten best SEC tandems, ground games, and rushing attacks since 1992.
TOP 10 SEC RUSHING OFFENSES (1992-2007)
10. '07 Florida - Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Kestahn Moore
Highlighting the "inventing new ways" idea, the Gators won the National Championship in 2006 with a version of it, and then unleashed the full spread option in all its glory last season. While Florida didn't make it back to the BCS or win the SEC East, they did pick up a ton of yards, score a ton of points, and help win Tim Tebow the Heisman Trophy.
What's most startling about this offense is that its two top rushers were the quarterback and the wide receiver, going for more than 1,600 yards between them. The idea would follow that if the Gators ever find and/or develop a star tailback to go with this offense—look out.
9. '03 LSU - Justin Vincent, Joseph Addai, Alley Broussard
While the '03 Tigers were primarily known for their defense, it was the play of Addai and freshman Justin Vincent that helped carry the Tigers to the title in 2003. Vincent cracked the 1,000-yard mark and added 117 and a touchdown against Oklahoma to win the National Championship.
Their fates have gone different ways since—Addai, who was really upstaged by Vincent as the season wore on, finished his career strong at LSU and went on to great success as Edgerrin James' replacement in Indianapolis, winning the Super Bowl in his rookie season.
Vincent and Broussard both saw injuries and more young talent derail their careers—Broussard would transfer and Vincent saw his numbers continually decline. But at least for this one season, these three combined with incredible defense to help carry the Tigers home.
8. '96 Florida - Fred Taylor, Terry Jackson, Elijah Williams
While most will forever remember the Gators' 96 National Championship team for Danny Wuerffel and the enormous talent at wide receiver, it was those strengths that allowed for plenty of running room for these guys.
Taylor and Jackson were especially good at both catching passes and turning out huge runs when least expected, including backbreaking gains in the Sugar Bowl against Florida State. Without their efforts, the Gator offense is nothing more than passing yards, and they never win all those games and championships.
Fred Taylor, who had greater individual success the following season in Gainesville, is still playing on Sundays down in Jacksonville. He cracked 10,000 career yards last season and could very easily make the Hall of Fame.
7. '02 Arkansas - Cedric Cobbs & Fred Talley
The precursor to McFadden and Jones, Cobbs and Talley had a rockier history but still produced an SEC West title for the Razorbacks in 2002.
Cobbs had more name recognition going into the '02 season, but some off the field troubles shifted the spotlight to Talley, who finished with 1,119 yards, including a midseason stretch where he dropped 241 on Auburn, 182 on Kentucky, and then 136 on Ole Miss.
While neither was really able to catch on in the NFL and may end up being much overshadowed by the '07 duo in Fayetteville, these guys left their mark on Arkansas football.
6. '96 LSU - Kevin Faulk & Rondell Mealey
Kevin Faulk was the face of LSU football almost his entire career and finished second on the SEC's all-time rushing list, behind only Herschel Walker. His all-purpose totals, just shy of 7,000 yards in four years, put him atop the SEC's all-time list.
Mealey was the other option who outgained Faulk on few occasions but provided a nice change of pace. Although LSU did upend No. 1 Florida the following year, Faulk was an All-American in '96, so we went with this year.
Both were drafted, and Faulk has enjoyed one of the longest tenures with the same team since draft day in recent memory, playing nine years with the New England Patriots as a solid all-purpose option and picking up three Super Bowl rings along the way.
The '03 group from LSU has the rings, but I'd be much more afraid of this duo in their prime.
5. '92 Georgia - Garrison Hearst & Terrell Davis
Though Hearst did most of the work here, Davis is worth mentioning for what he would later become. Hearst, on probably Georgia's best team of the '90s, was a Heisman Trophy candidate and scored a whopping 21 touchdowns in 1992 to lead the nation.
He cemented his name as the second-best running back in school history over his three-year tenure, which isn't bad considering Herschel Walker is first. In '92, he won the Doak Walker Award and was drafted third overall the following April.
Davis had a rocky collegiate career but outshined Hearst in the pros, playing for the Denver Broncos and winning two rings, notching a 2,000-yard season in 1998 and an MVP award. He may very well get into the Hall of Fame.
However, Hearst was no slouch, twice coming back from injury to produce plenty of great years in San Francisco.
4. '93 Tennessee - Heath Shuler, Charlie Garner, James Stewart, Aaron Hayden
Statistically speaking, this is still the most explosive offense in Tennessee football history. Behind Shuler's arm and legs, and the season that left him second in Heisman voting and the third pick on draft day, the Vols ran to a 9-1-1 record before losing to Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
No matter which tailback was in the game, he was productive—the Vols finished the season averaging six yards per carry, led by Garner's 1,161 yards.
All three tailbacks would go on to play in the NFL. Garner had success in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Oakland with a trip to the 2000 Pro Bowl, finishing his career with more than 7,000 yards.
Stewart was a starter for years in Jacksonville and then in Detroit, and Hayden saw significant action in his two seasons with San Diego.
3. '07 Arkansas - Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis
Time will tell with these guys, especially as McFadden and Jones progress in the NFL. Their jaw-dropping numbers from '07 didn't translate into as many wins as the year before.
Still, you can't deny the strength of this offense in McFadden (1,830 yards) and Jones (1,162 yards), who are the best duo in SEC history on paper. Along the way, they produced several highlight reel runs, and both contributed to knocking off LSU when they were No. 1 in the nation.
If McFadden and/or Jones can produce the types of NFL careers that others on this list have enjoyed, they could eventually be remembered as the best running attack in SEC history.
2. '98 Tennessee - Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Travis Stephens, Shawn Bryson
Unlike the other National Championship teams on the list to this point, the Vols relied more on rushing offense, especially early in the season when Martin was learning the ropes. Plus, they had to deal with injuries—Jamal Lewis ripped off nearly 500 yards in three games and the first quarter at Auburn before tearing his ACL and being sidelined for the season.
Right on cue, Henry and Stephens stepped in, completely untested, and went to work. Henry finished just shy of 1,000 yards despite playing only six games as the starter, while Stephens gave the Vols a quicker burst.
Shawn Bryson was an excellent change of pace at fullback, and both he and Martin produced season-saving runs—Martin's 55-yard scramble at Syracuse, Bryson's 63-yard TD against Florida—along the way.
Even without Bryson, you could argue the backfield was even stronger the following year, but Vol fans like to remember Jamal Lewis before the second half of 1999, when most agree that he stopped running as hard to protect himself from further injury.
But it's down the line where this group really shines—Travis Henry became the all-time leading rusher in Tennessee history in 2000, then Travis Stephens turned in the greatest single-season performance in school history in 2001.
None of these duos have produced the combined level of collegiate and professional excellence the way Lewis and Henry have.
Jamal Lewis has a Super Bowl ring from 2000, a 2,000-yard season and 295-yard game together with an Offensive Player of the Year award from 2003, and more than 9,000 yards in just seven seasons of play.
Travis Henry has compiled more than 6,000 yards in his career and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2002, and led the league in rushing before getting injured last season. No SEC tandem has produced that level of NFL success combined with such high collegiate success, both in yardage and in championships.
Without their combined efforts, and with no warning or experience for Henry (and Stephens), the Vols flounder instead of flourish in 1998.
1. '04 Auburn - Jason Campbell, Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown
(And let's not forget that if you go back in time, you can add Brandon Jacobs to this list.)
When I think of great running offenses in the SEC, my mind immediately goes here. McFadden and Jones may have better numbers, and Lewis and Henry have had more time in the NFL to produce success there.
But to me, there's been no better running attack than these guys.
Not only did Auburn have a great defense, and not only did Jason Campbell turn into a great quarterback seemingly overnight, but these guys simply punished you. Ronnie Brown ran straight at and then through you, while Caddy remains one of the few guys who actually lived up to all of his recruiting hype and dazzled the way everyone thought he would.
In 2004, they led Auburn to an undefeated season—Caddy going for 1,165 yards and Brown for 913.
Considering the numbers, the undefeated season, and their relative NFL success in only three seasons (both drafted in the top five, with Jason Campbell also taken in the first round), they are more deserving of the top spot than any other SEC ground game in the last fifteen years.
Among the SEC's eight National Champions and/or undefeated teams in the last 15 years, '92 Alabama and '03 LSU are known primarily for defense, '93 Auburn for being on probation, '96 Florida for passing offense, '98 Tennessee for defense with Peerless Price the lasting image, and '06 Florida and '07 LSU for defense and killing Ohio State.
But this '04 Auburn team immediately brings to mind these two guys...and for that, and all of these reasons, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown stand at the top.