The running back spot was once again a strength in the SEC last season. But the 2024 campaign looks like a transitional one.

Cody Schrader, the leading rusher in the league last season and one of the best stories in all of college football, has moved on. Quinshon Judkins transferred out of the conference after consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Ray Davis and Jaylen Wright went to the NFL. Several guys who were right on the cusp of 1,000-yarders changed zip codes but stayed in the league.

So with each of the league’s top 5 rushers no longer causing headaches for SEC defensive coordinators, who will take the rushing crown in 2024?

In no particular order, here are 5 candidates:

Trevor Etienne, Georgia

We obviously have to talk about the former Gator, who admittedly left behind the No. 2 job on a losing team to be a No. 1 back on a title-contending team. Etienne spared no feelings on his way out of Gainesville, which sets some significant expectations for his first season in Athens.

Georgia loves to pound the rock, and with departures from both Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton, there are 286 carries up for grabs. Etienne split the backfield workload last season for Florida and still managed 753 yards and 8 touchdowns. He probably doesn’t transfer to a school where he finds himself in another timeshare.

That being said, the Bulldogs have an outstanding room, with Branson Robinson coming back from injury and Roderick Robinson II looking to make his mark in Year 2. The question will be whether Georgia completely turns the reins over to Etienne. Todd Gurley was the last Bulldog to lead all SEC running backs in rushing (2012). A Georgia rusher hasn’t cleared 200 attempts since 2017 and each of the last 4 SEC rushing leaders were north of 200.

In terms of pure talent, there may not be a better back in the conference.

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Jarquez Hunter, Auburn

The top 5 rushers last year have all left the conference. The leading returning rusher resides in Auburn. Hunter had 909 yards and 7 scores on 159 carries. That was a year after rushing for 675 on 104 carries. No one in this running back room should seriously threaten his snaps, and with Derrick Nix taking over the offense, Hunter could become one of the SEC’s featured stars.

The 5-foot-10, 209-pound senior is a load for defenses.  Hunter forced 39 missed tackles last year — the most among returning SEC backs. He was only moderately explosive (13.8% explosive run rate) but reliably consistent. Hunter’s 5.7 yards-per-carry clip was top-10 among all SEC players.

Only Cody Schrader had more rushing attempts last season than Quinshon Judkins, and no SEC team averaged more rushing attempts a game than Ole Miss. How much of that approach will Nix carry over? It’s clear he has a star to build around in the backfield. Hunter is my pick.

Rocket Sanders, South Carolina

Sanders piled up more than 2,200 rushing yards in 3 years at Arkansas. He was dynamic in 2022 but injuries dampened the 2023 campaign. With South Carolina, he reunites with former Arkansas assistant and current Gamecock offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains.

The fit was obvious for other reasons, too. South Carolina’s ground game stunk in 2023. Behind a porous offensive line and with little depth, the Gamecocks ran for just 85 yards a game and 2.8 yards a carry — both marks that ranked last in the SEC.

Sanders had 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2022, finishing second in rushing behind only Judkins. His 6.5 yards-per-carry clip was tied for the best among SEC players with at least 100 carries.

If that’s the Sanders that South Carolina is getting, the transition from Spencer Rattler will be a little bit smoother. But Sanders tore his labrum during the Razorbacks’ final game last fall and had surgery in December. He told reporters in April he expects to be ready for fall camp, which would be a major win for South Carolina.

Will they give him a workload big enough to challenge for the rushing crown? That might depend on his health and fitness level. If it takes 4 games for Sanders to fire off, it might be tough to top the league. But this is also a back who had 5 different 150-yard games in 2022, including a 24-carry, 232-yard performance.

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Montrell Johnson Jr., Florida

If the two-headed backfield was holding Trevor Etienne back in Florida, it also stands to reason it was holding Johnson back, too. You know, considering Johnson was the RB1 for the Gators. With Etienne gone, Johnson should be able to clear the century mark on the ground with a fully healthy season.

Florida didn’t take a transfer running back. The program signed a pair of 4-stars from the high school ranks, but neither should be unseating the senior before the season begins. Cam Carroll, a Tulane transfer ahead of the 2023 season, should be available but after his first year with the program was derailed by a knee injury, UF should be easing him back into things.

Above all else, Johnson is just a stud. He ran for 817 yards at 5.4 a carry on 152 attempts last season. The year prior, he had 841 yards and 10 scores on 155 carries. Put him over 200 attempts and his 5.4 per-carry clip takes him over 1,000. The last 3 rushing leaders have all cleared 1,500 yards. Does Johnson get there? Florida’s schedule also needs to be considered. He’s certainly talented enough to challenge for it.

Marcus Carroll, Missouri

Hear me out. Is the former Georgia State rusher Schrader? Probably not; Schrader was unique and special. But Missouri also gave him 276 carries last season, the most by any SEC back in a season since 2018. And the Tigers have to replace those. They won’t just lean further into the Brady Cook-Luther Burden connection. The juice last season came from an offense that could do both.

Mizzou also signed Nate Noel from App State, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2021. But he feels like more of a change-of-pace option to complement Carroll.

A 5-foot-10, 210-pound senior, Carroll had 1,350 yards and 13 scores on 274 attempts last season. He had 7 100-yard games, including a 28-carry, 208-yard day. He forced 44 missed tackles, totaled 757 yards after contact, and produced the third-most explosive runs of any FBS player.