One of the keys to winning a championship is having a productive and reliable running game. The last two national champions were SEC teams that employed diverse rushing attacks, featuring not only running backs, but quarterbacks and other playmakers as ball carriers, too.
Florida used freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin and senior running back Deshawn Wynn to keep teams off balance and capture the 2006 BCS title. LSU won the 2007 title behind several running backs and some spot running by backup QB Ryan Perriloux.
What SEC team will feature the best running attack in 2008? The answer has to be the Florida Gators.
In 2007, the Florida Gators averaged 200 yards rushing per game. That was good enough for third in the SEC behind Arkansas and LSU. Georgia, who many view as a great running team, was a distant fourth in the SEC, averaging 33 yards less per game on the ground than third-place Florida.
I've taken a close look at all four of these teams. Based on the returning and incoming talent on each team, I've concluded that Florida is poised to dominate the league on the ground.
First in the SEC last season, Arkansas averaged a ridiculous 286 yards per game in 2007, but they lost two running backs to the NFL and their run-happy coach to Ole Miss. Bobby Petrino will not use a run-heavy offense, nor will he have the running back talent to duplicate the Hogs' 2007 rushing success.
LSU returns a quality backfield from a team that finished second in the SEC in rushing with 214 yards per game. LSU will have a strong rushing attack this season, but their rushing stats will likely drop as defenses load up on the line and dare their inexperienced QBs to throw.
Georgia returns a Heisman candidate running back, Knowshon Moreno, and a great, but currently injured, fullback Brannan Sutherland to a team that finished fourth in the SEC with 177 yards per game on the ground. Georgia lost 779 yards and 10 TDs with the departure of its second leading rusher Thomas Brown, but they add talented redshirt freshman Caleb King to the mix in 2008.
Georgia has enough talent in the backfield to be one of the top three rushing teams in the SEC.
Florida returns its four leading rushers from a 2007 team that averaged 200 yards per game. Tim Tebow led the team in rushing yards (895) and proved to be an unstoppable goal line force with his SEC record 23 rushing touchdowns. Tebow's rushing attempts will likely drop in 2008, but don't expect him to stop running for first downs and touchdowns.
Wide receiver Percy Harvin was second on the team with 764 yards on just 83 carries (9.2 average), and Meyer has promised to keep using him in the backfield in 2008.
Starting running back Kestahn Moore had only 580 yards but averaged more yards per carry than the heralded Bulldog, Knowshon Moreno. Return specialist/running back Brandon James was fourth on the team with 133 yards on limited carries, but Meyer has said that James will have a more prominent role in 2008.
To this already talented and diverse backfield, Florida adds four excellent running backs. Southern California transfer and former Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, Emmanuel Moody, will definitely see some playing time and could capture the starting running back role.
Along with Moody, the Gators add freshman speedster Jeffrey Demps and both Mon Williams and Chris Rainey will return from injury. Jeff Demps is a football player who just happens to have track speed. He is the fastest American teenager ever, after running a 10.02 second 100 meter dash this summer.
Mon Williams was a 4 star recruit who may have started ahead of Moore in 2007 if he did not suffer a season ending injury. Williams has great size and speed.
Of all the running backs, Chris Rainey may see the most time. It is no secret that Urban Meyer has speed greed. Jeff Demps is a blazer, but Rainey is even faster and he has a year of college conditioning, weight-training and playbook-studying under his belt.
Rainey has been highly praised by Meyer and has become somewhat of a legend on campus after he beat Demps in an impromptu 40 yard dash. He also reportedly beat WVU running back Noel Devine in a 40-yard dash when both were still playing for their Florida high schools.
If you take a team that managed to average 200 yards per game without a feature running back and add in four quality running backs, you've got a very dangerous running game. Florida will use their deep and diversely talented backfield to lead the SEC in rushing in 2007.
With a little help from their defensive counterparts, Florida's diverse backfield could lead the team to an SEC championship and a BCS title birth.
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