Yes, the SEC is trying to force a cross-division Arkansas-Missouri rivalry on fans with the creation of the Battle Line trophy.
However, that doesn’t mean the two schools haven’t started building the foundation of a lasting rivalry. Mizzou is 2-1 against the Razorbacks in the three years since the teams have become yearly cross-division foes.
Heading into the 2017 season, the two squads have several similarities, but perhaps none is more evident than at the running back position.
Both had stables of talented and exciting running backs to hand the ball to, and both used those backs to their full potential.
Though Rawleigh Williams, who finished with the third-most rushing yards in the SEC in 2016, recently decided to give up football following a second serious neck injury, the Razorbacks still have several talented backs, most notably rising sophomore Devwah Whaley.
When you compare Mizzou’s top three running backs last year (Damarea Crockett, Ish Witter and Nate Strong) with Arkansas’ top trio (Williams, Whaley and Kody Walker), the numbers are actually quite similar:
But 2016 is long gone. This fall kicks off a new season, so let’s take a look at how the two running back groups stack up heading into the 2017 campaign.
The Tigers bring back all three of their top backs, led by Crockett (below), while the Razorbacks will have to replace Williams and Walker in 2017, so it’s clear who gets the edge in terms of returning production.
Since Mizzou has all three backs available for the 2017 season, they have the decided advantage in this category, as the Hogs will have to find a way to replace not only Williams’ production, but his leadership as well.
Whaley is ready to step in and be the feature back, but behind him, the Razorbacks will rely on two true freshmen: Maleek Williams, an early-enrollee who was impressive this spring, and 3-star recruit Chase Hayden, the No. 4-ranked all-purpose back in the country.
Crockett was one of the biggest surprises in the SEC in 2016, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns on 153 carries — good for an average of 6.9 yards per carry.
If Williams had returned, he would have been the biggest star of the group of Arkansas and Mizzou running backs. His 1,360 rushing yards were the third-most in the SEC last year and his 245 carries were second only to Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb.
Without him in the mix, though, Crockett is the biggest name between the two backfields, though Whaley certainly is a name to know and watch.
The Hogs are confident Whaley will be ready to take on a bigger role as a sophomore.
“During my career, as you lose one, even though it’s tough to swallow or tough to take, there’s usually one to step up,” Bret Bielema told Arkansas Online after Williams announced his retirement. “Rawleigh said, ‘Everybody was concerned when we lost J-Will (Jonathan Williams) and Alex (Collins), but I was able to step into that role. I know everybody’s concerned because I’m leaving that role.’
“But he’s very confident in the guys we’ve got coming back.”
That starts with Whaley (below), whom Bielema said last year was as good as any running back he has recruited. Behind him, however, there are nothing but question marks in the Arkansas backfield in the wake of Williams’ unfortunate injury and subsequent retirement.
Meanwhile, though the Tigers aren’t losing anyone from last year’s top three, former walkon Dawson Downing had a big spring game and showed that he might be ready for a bigger role this fall.
Crockett burst onto the scene as a true freshman and immediately became one of the SEC’s best running backs.
However, due to splitting carries with Witter and getting suspended for the season-ending game against (who else?) Arkansas, Tigers fans still haven’t quite seen Crockett’s full potential.
If he stays healthy and receives 245 carries like Williams got last year, the sky’s the limit for the talented sophomore.
If Crockett is able to maintain anywhere close to last year’s 6.9 yards per carry while handling an increased workload, opposing defenses aren’t going to have a chance against him.
However, with Whaley entering his first year as the feature back, and with Maleek Williams having the potential to be the next Crockett, it’s too early to tell which backfield has the most upside.