LSU running back Derrius Guice led the SEC in rushing last season with 1,387 yards, and he was only the starter for half the year.
Second on the depth chart to Heisman Trophy hopeful Leonard Fournette when the 2016 campaign began, Guice got no more than five carries in four games for the Tigers. However, when given the chance to start, he was incredible.
Five times he went north of 150 yards, including twice over 250. In the regular-season finale, Guice set a Bayou Bengals record with 285 at Texas A&M. Despite the fact that Fournette was a first-round pick and maybe the most talented ball carrier to ever lace up a pair of spikes in Baton Rouge, Guice might be even better.
Now with the job all to himself, Guice is the odds-on favorite to win the conference rushing title in back-to-back fashion.
That being said, history suggests that Guice won’t be standing atop the podium at season’s end. Dating all the way back to 1956, only three times has a player been able to lead this league in rushing two straight years.
The last to do it was Darren McFadden of Arkansas in 2006-07, when he ran for 1,647 and 1,830 yards, respectively. Georgia’s Herschel Walker managed to do it three seasons in a row from 1980-82 with 1,616, 1,891 and 1,752. Johnny Musso of Alabama was the first to pull it off with 1,137 in ’70 and 1,088 in ’71.
Three others have led the SEC in rushing on two separate occasions, although they couldn’t do it consecutively.
While Florida’s Errict Rhett set the pace in 1991 and again in 1993, Georgia’s Garrison Hearst topped the list in 1992. Another Gator, Emmitt Smith, was No. 1 in ’87 and ’89 but looked up at another Bulldog, Tim Worley, in ’88.
Bo Jackson (above) of Auburn took the conference by storm in 1983, when he ran away from the competition with 1,213 yards — he averaged 7.7 yards per carry, too. But in ’84, that average fell to 5.5 and he finished with just 475 yards. He came back in ’85 with a league-leading 1,786 yards and captured the Heisman.
There’s no reason to question Guice’s ability, of course. He’s going to have some stiff competition for the crown, though.
The SEC had 11 players rush for 1,000 yards in 2016 — including Guice, naturally — and nine of them return for this coming season. If not for Rawleigh Williams III of Arkansas being forced into early retirement, it would be 10.
Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Kentucky’s Benny Snell, Missouri’s Damarea Crockett, Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Alabama’s Damien Harris are all capable of outrushing Guice. Each has a track record of success in the best conference in America, as well.
Only Kentucky’s Stanley “Boom” Williams is no longer around, which possibly means more carries for Snell in Lexington.
Not to mention the fact that Guice will be working with a new offensive coordinator in 2017. Out is Cam Cameron. In is Matt Canada, whose job is to modernize LSU’s system. Exactly what kind of effect that has on the ground game remains to be seen.
Needless to say, Canada would be a fool to stray too far away from the scheme that saw Guice average 8.6 yards per carry as a freshman and then 7.6 as a sophomore. Still, seemingly the rest of the country — even traditional ground-and-pound rival Alabama — has gone to some sort of spread-option attack this decade.
But Canada’s task is to help the Tigers score more points and win more games, not put Guice in position for a Heisman run.
This past season as the OC at Pittsburgh, Canada got 1,092 yards rushing from James Conner (below). He only averaged 16.6 carries per game and 5.1 yards per attempt, though. Guice will be looking for 20-plus and hopes to maintain his gaudy average.
To be fair, Conner’s story was far from conventional. He ran for 1,765 yards as a sophomore — Canada was still at N.C. State at the time — before a torn knee coupled with a cancer diagnosis turned his life upside down as a junior. The fact that he did what he did last year as a senior was nothing short of remarkable.
One of the feel-good moments of the NFL Draft last month, Conner was taken in Round 3 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Clearly, from a pure talent perspective, Guice is more along the lines of Fournette, who went No. 4 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s expected to be a first-rounder once he decides to make himself available for the draft.
Few players in Bayou Bengals lore were more celebrated than Fournette, both for his skills as a player and his personality off the field, but don’t forget that he never led the SEC in rushing. When he put up an incredible 1,953 yards in 2015, Alabama’s Derrick Henry set a conference record with an eye-popping 2,215.
And then this past season, Fournette battled an ankle injury for three months before sitting out the bowl game to protect his draft stock.
More often that not, the SEC’s rushing leader isn’t in position to defend his title. He’s either out of eligibility or went to the pros a year early. Henry, for example, took his standard-setting total straight to Sunday.
Nevertheless, 25 times the league’s top rusher did indeed return for another season — in some cases two — of Saturday football. Only McFadden, Walker and Musso repeated. Even Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Alabama’s Mark Ingram, who were coming off a Heisman, couldn’t lead the conference on the ground.
Nobody anticipated Guice winning the SEC’s rushing title a year ago, so expecting him to do it again is a tall order historically.