Preseason SEC running back rankings: Can anyone top Derrius Guice?
Sometimes when you put a list together, it feels like nearly every player on it deserved to be ranked higher.
Ranking the top 14 SEC running backs was just like that.
Many guys will make cases to be the conference’s top back in 2017. There’s an obvious preseason No. 1, but that doesn’t mean it’s an open and shut case for the rest of the year.
For now, though, these are the top 14 running backs in the SEC:
14. Rico Dowdle, South Carolina
A guy many are high on is the sophomore tailback from South Carolina. Not only did Dowdle emerge in the second half of 2016, he also became the first Gamecocks freshman to lead the team in rushing since Marcus Lattimore in 2010. Dowdle might not have Lattimore’s talent, but he can certainly make people miss. He’s going to get more than 28 percent of the team’s carries in 2017, and if the offensive line can answer some major questions, Dowdle is an obvious 1,000-yard candidate.
13. John Kelly, Tennessee
Kelly could finish the season with more touches than any SEC running back. Really. With how inexperienced the rest of Tennessee’s backfield is combined with Kelly’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield, it’s not crazy to project 25-30 touches per contest. The question is whether he’ll be able to maximize said touches. He has a questionable offensive line, a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. But if he can consistently make plays like this, it won’t matter what kind of pieces are around Kelly.
John Kelly or Odell? pic.twitter.com/OBkt4NFw6d
— @GrantRamey (@GrantRamey) August 18, 2017
12. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Everybody believes they have the best running back tandem in college football. With Kamryn Pettway and Johnson, Auburn has a legitimate argument. As a sophomore, Johnson put up 895 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns despite the fact that he battled a midseason ankle injury and he shared the backfield with Pettway.
Johnson’s ankle should be back to 100 percent, which could mean that two Auburn running backs hit 1,000 yards for the first time since 1979. (Twice in the past seven years, a quarterback and running back topped 1,000 in the same season.)
11. Jordan Scarlett, Florida
While Florida’s offseason headlines were dominated by the quarterback battle and Antonio Callaway, the forgotten man in the offense is Scarlett.
Part of that was also because he didn’t finish 2016 the way he started it. His last touchdown came in October, which helps explain the Gators’ 2-3 close to the regular season. But Scarlett is capable of hitting the hole and he does a nice job of keeping his legs moving. If Florida’s passing game improves as many expect it to, Scarlett won’t see quite as many loaded boxes and his production will rise. Either way, he has a fan in ESPN’s Holly Rowe.
What I DO know about @GatorsFB is that Jordan Scarlett is an under appreciated beast. Can't wait to see how year unfolds for him.
— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) August 21, 2017
10. Sony Michel, Georgia
Michel and Nick Chubb elected to return to school for one more year because they both felt they could produce more than they did in 2016. That’s saying a lot. While Michel’s 20-carry games could be few and far between, he still looks like the second-best weapon in Georgia’s offense. His role as a receiver is supposed to increase significantly. That seems like a pretty good idea:
— dawgpost (@DawgPost_) August 16, 2017
If he can become a consistent target in the slot, Michel should at least prevent some of those eight-man fronts for Chubb. The work will still be there for Michel in the backfield, but he should become an even more versatile weapon before he heads off to the NFL.
9. Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M
There was a lot to like out of Williams in his freshman season. He showed he already had the ability to make people miss, especially once he got to the second level. In his first four SEC games, Williams rushed for an insane 9.6 yards per carry. That pace was unsustainable. The problem was that number was cut in half during the final seven games.
Keith Ford’s presence had something to do with that, as did losing Trevor Knight. With an unproven quarterback situation, the Aggies will rely more on their running back tandem than they did last year. That’s good news for those who like watching Williams go to work.
8. Damien Harris, Alabama
Oh, to be a running back at Alabama. Harris might not be given the majority of the carries if Bo Scarbrough is healthy, but he’ll have plenty of opportunities behind that dominant offensive line. His shiftiness adds a different element to the Alabama offense. And Scarbrough might be considered the bulldozer of the Tide backfield, but arm tackles don’t work on Harris, either.
Keep in mind that Harris racked up 1,000 yards as a sophomore. He might not be generating the hype of Scarbrough or even true freshman super recruit Najee Harris, but Damien Harris is still in position to do serious damage in 2017.
7. Damarea Crockett, Missouri
It was only one season, but Crockett did all that he could given the circumstances. Despite the fact that the Tigers trailed in most SEC games, Crockett hit the 1,000-yard mark and racked up double digit scores. His 6.9 yards per carry mark wasn’t too shabby, either.
YPC RBs 2016:
1.Derrius Guice 7.6
2.Damien Harris 7.2
3.Damarea Crockett 6.9
4.Trayveon Williams 6.8
5.Bo Scarborough 6.5
6.John Kelly 6.4
— Fall Rivals (@FallRivals) July 29, 2017
He showed impressive patience to set up his blocks on inside runs instead of trying to bounce everything to the outside. He and Drew Lock have the ability to be one of the SEC’s top quarterback-running back tandems. If Mizzou can stop the run on the other side of the ball, that should open up more opportunities for Crockett to build on his fantastic freshman season.
6. Benny Snell, Jr., Kentucky
There were a lot of SEC freshman playmakers who emerged sooner than expected in 2016. Count Snell in that group. The True-Freshman All-American broke 1,000 yards — the first Kentucky freshman to accomplish that feat — despite only playing in 11 games and sharing the backfield with Stanley Williams. Now that Williams is in the NFL, all eyes are on the outspoken sophomore to double down on his breakout freshman campaign.
5. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
In terms of straight production, few in college football compare to Webb. Unlike some guys listed ahead of him on this list, he has a starting streak of 37 games and he eclipsed 200 carries in three consecutive seasons. Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher (3,342 yards) might not have the breakaway speed or the power that other elite SEC backs have, but his vision is second to none.
He’s Vanderbilt’s best offensive player by far, which is why he’s expected to see some snaps at wide receiver this year. I won’t complain about seeing Webb get the ball in space.
4. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Scarbrough could easily end up at No. 1 on this list by season’s end. There’s no denying the physical tools. All of those are there and then some. The question is whether he can put a full season together. After all, he’s never even had 20 carries in a game.
But Scarbrough earned plenty of offseason attention for the way he finished last year. He looked like Derrick Henry 2.0 in Alabama’s final four games, and many believe the Tide would’ve rolled in the national championship had he not gotten injured. He’s in a crowded backfield, but Scarbrough should have another chance to shine on the big stage.
3. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
There are a whole lot of people who are high on the Auburn offense in 2017, and it isn’t just because of Jarrett Stidham’s presence. Pettway was banged up last year, and he still managed to rack up 136 yards per contest. His four-game stretch in the middle of the season (he averaged 192.5 yards per game) showed just how dangerous he is when healthy.
With his speed at 235 pounds, Pettway is a force unlike few in college football. He and Kerryon Johnson are going to rack up a bunch of yards this year, especially if Stidham is the real deal.
2. Nick Chubb, Georgia
This is the year Chubb stays healthy for an entire season and gets back to his freshman self, right? That’s what Bulldog fans are hoping for from the dynamic senior. Chubb didn’t have quite the season he wanted, but he still racked up 1,130 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 2016. Even with Sony Michel back, those numbers should climb if Georgia can stretch the field better than it did last year.
1. Derrius Guice, LSU
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a wee bit of hype surrounding Guice. Heisman Trophy candidate, first-team All-American, future first-round pick … not bad for a guy who enters a season as a starting tailback for the first time.
It was easy to forget that Guice shared a backfield with Leonard Fournette for a good chunk of 2016. The numbers don’t reflect it. He still led the SEC in rushing and plowed his way to 7.6 yards per carry and 15 scores.
There are some questions about the offensive line, but there aren’t any questions about Guice. As long as he stays healthy, there might not be a back quite like him in all of college football.