Saquon Barkley vs. Derrius Guice: Which back will be college football's best in 2017?
Go look at a preseason All-America team.
Go ahead. I’ll give you a few minutes. Check them all. Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sporting News, that guy who came up with one on his YouTube channel with 16 followers. They’re all in agreement.
The best two running backs in America are Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice.
Both are Heisman Trophy candidates, both are workout freaks, both are projected as first-round picks in the 2018 NFL Draft and both are expected produce highlight reel after highlight reel in 2017. If you’re watching college football on Saturday in 2017, you’re finding LSU and Penn State so that you can watch Guice and Barkley go to work.
I know I am.
In a way, this almost feels like the Leonard Fournette/Christian McCaffrey discussion that surfaced before last year. Both dominated the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation and both were top-10 picks in the NFL Draft.
Both fan bases would like to see Guice and Barkley healthier than Fournette and McCaffrey were down the stretch last year. Shoot, all of college football should want that.
As Guice and Barkley build their Heisman Trophy campaigns, the question will surface: Who’s the better running back? For now, there’s no wrong answer. But who has the better chance to shine in 2017?
Maybe we can take an educated guess at that.
Who has the better track record?
We cannot know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. Or something like that.
It’s tough to evaluate backs who play against different competition. It’s also tough to compare Guice’s history to Barkley’s considering one shared a backfield with Fournette the past two years and one didn’t. Cumulatively speaking, Barkley has the advantage in all of those categories (30 total TDs, 2,572 rushing yards, 502 touches from scrimmage).
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From an efficiency standpoint, however, Guice has the nod:
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As one can see, Guice has been the more efficient back, albeit in a limited sample size. That’s why a projection of 2,000 yards doesn’t seem so crazy. In the eight games in which Guice got double digit carries last year, he racked up 161.9 yards per game. Obviously that won’t be easy to sustain.
Barkley, on the other hand, got double digit carries in 20 of the last 21 games he played in. We don’t have to project what his numbers will look like with a full workload. We know what a full workload looks like.
Speaking of that …
Who gets more work?
Let’s be clear. Health permitting, both guys are capable of getting 25-plus touches per contest.
On one hand, it’d be easy to assume that Guice will get more touches than Barkley. After all, Trace McSorley is a much better quarterback than Danny Etling. The Lions have more outside weapons than LSU, as well. Barkley shouldn’t need to do as much heavy lifting as Guice.
Not so fast.
This could come down to the style of each offensive coordinator. As we know, big things are expected of Matt Canada in his first year in Baton Rouge. If he can get anywhere near the offensive production that Joe Moorhead generated in his first season at Penn State, LSU fans will be thrilled.
But from a usage standpoint, history suggests that Moorhead will get Barkley more touches than Canada will get Guice. Here’s a look at how Moorhead and Canada used their feature backs the past five years they ran offenses:
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Moorhead has never had a feature back fail to reach 250 carries in a season. Canada, on the other hand, only had one feature back reach that mark in the past five years. It was a guy by the name of “Montee Ball.” You know, that guy who racked up a whopping 356 carries on his way to setting FBS career rushing records.
In other words, Canada has no problem feeding a back if he’s capable of handling the work, as Guice appears to be.
But by looking at those numbers, it’d be surprising if Barkley didn’t finish with a significant advantage in receptions. That’s an element to his game that for now, he has the clear edge vs. Guice.
That leads us to our final question.
Who’s in the better position to exceed expectations?
Therein lies the ultimate preseason debate. After all, Heisman Trophy winners are never guys who simply meet expectations. The guys who exceed them earn trips to New York.
Believe it or not, we still haven’t seen Barkley healthy for an entire season. People might forget that he had ankle issues in the start of conference play that resurfaced at the end of last season. In Barkley’s four games before the Rose Bowl, he rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry and failed to eclipse 100 yards in any of those contests. If those ankle issues are behind him, there’s reason to believe he could threaten for 2,000 yards himself.
I already referenced why many believe Guice’s production is a lock to spike. Like Barkley, there doesn’t appear to be much holding him back from a monster season if healthy.
Well, maybe there’s one cause for concern.
LSU’s offensive line is a bit of a mystery. After losing five offensive linemen via transfer, injury issues plagued the Tigers during fall camp. As a result, the Tigers will start a true freshman on the offensive line in the season opener for the first time in recent memory. By recent memory, I mean all the way back to World War II.
That’s not a good sign for a unit that’s being asked to block for who many feel is the best back in college football. There are more depth and experience issues up front for LSU than there are for Penn State. The Lions have five guys with starting experience back for a group that has its most stability in the post-Joe Paterno era.
When we’re comparing Barkley and Guice at season’s end, don’t be surprised if that’s the difference.
After all, we know the viral runs will be there. Oh, wait. Did I just write 1,000 words about Barkley and Guice without sharing a single video? For shame.
There will likely be more long touchdown runs like that from Guice and Barkley. Both can turn any play into six points. Both say and do all the right things. Both would make any coach pop out of bed on a fall Saturday morning and know that it’s going to be a good day.
As college football consumers, we’re fortunate enough to have two high-profile backs who are worth watching every week. We could be comparing and contrasting both for the duration of the 2017 season. It’s a fun discussion that shouldn’t disappear anytime soon.
It beats the heck out of watching those two guys put us all to shame in the weight room.