Who has the best running back room in the SEC? There's heavy competition at the top
Way back in “the day” — which in reality was less than a generation ago — running backs ruled college football. You wanted to win, you had to stock up on blue-chip running backs. Running the gantlet of the Southeastern Conference meant ruling it on the ground, 4 yards at a time.
All that changed, of course, starting with Steve Spurrier’s Fun ‘n’ Gun offense at Florida. Danny Wuerffel chucking it all over the lot eventually begat offensive systems from Columbia to, well, Columbia conjuring up about how to run up half-a-hundred points before considering ways to grind it out on 3rd-and-2.
That doesn’t mean quality running backs haven’t gone away, of course. Derrick Henry carried Alabama to a national title in 2015. Najee Harris at Alabama will be a first-rounder in this spring’s NFL Draft. Leonard Fournette just earned himself a Super Bowl ring to replace the national championship ring he didn’t win at LSU. Georgia’s Todd Gurley is still churning it up in the NFL.
But the game has changed and running backs tend to be overlooked or at least not appreciated as much as they once were. Not today. Here, we break down and rank the running back room for each SEC team heading into 2021.
1. Texas A&M
Isaiah Spiller was the class of the SEC West (outside of Tuscaloosa, anyway…), going off for 1,036 yards and 9 touchdowns on 188 carries. It is quite possible that 1st-team All-SEC honors will come down to either Spiller or South Carolina’s Kevin Harris. Ainias Smith (49-300-4) also comes back, as does Devon Achane (43-364-4), who dominated UNC in a breakout Orange Bowl performance. Watch out for the Aggies on the ground.
The Bulldogs will contend for having the best running back room in the league.
Zamir White (779 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns) returns, along with James Cook (45-312-3) and Kenny McIntosh (47-263-1). Georgia’s biggest hurdle to having a conference-leading rushing attack could come from its passing game, as a healthy JT Daniels and a passel of Bulldog receivers are also back.
3. South Carolina
New coach Shane Beamer has a running back room with a bona fide All-SEC-caliber leader, as Kevin Harris rumbled for 1,138 yards and 15 touchdowns on 185 carries last season. MarShawn Lloyd just missed being a 5-star recruit in the 2020 class and missed all of last season with an injury. His spring status is to be determined, but he is expected to be back for the fall. It is a bit thin behind them, though, with only Rashad Amos (18-99) having much experience. Still, the possibility of a Harris-Lloyd rotation has to make Beamer smile.
New coach Bryan Harsin and new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have some work to do rebuilding Auburn’s offense, though Tank Bigsby gives the Tigers lots of hope in the running game. Bigsby rushed for 834 yards on 138 carries and 5 touchdowns to lead Auburn last year. Auburn’s offense was noticeably better when it finally started leaning on Bigsby. Shaun Shivers (62-276-1) also is back. Depth could be an issue after D.J. Williams entered the transfer portal, and ideally, Harsin won’t want Bo Nix to be the team’s second-leading rusher in 2021.
The Tigers went 5-5 last year, but the good news is that they return a lot of running back production. Tyrion Davis-Price led LSU with 446 yards and 3 TDs on 104 carries, and he will be backed up by John Emery Jr. (75-378-3). And they just added the No. 5 and No. 7 running backs in the 2021 class. It can only get better on the bayou.
6. Ole Miss
The situation in Oxford is almost identical to the one in Baton Rouge. Ole Miss’ record wasn’t great last year, but the offense certainly was. The Rebels led the SEC in rushing yards per game (210.6) despite switching from run-first QB John Rhys Plumlee to Matt Corral, who still accounted for 50 rushing yards per game.
Jerrion Ealy returns after rushing for 745 yards and 9 touchdowns on 147 carries. Snoop Conner (93-421-8) and Henry Parrish Jr. (56-275-2) are also veteran returners.
The Crimson Tide lose a huge piece of their offense with Harris heading to the NFL. Brian Robinson Jr. (91 carries, 483 receiving yards, 6 rush TDs) will be the primary back for Alabama, with Trey Sanders, Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams further down the depth chart. Does this mean we think the Tide will finish 7th in the SEC in rushing in 2021? Not necessarily, but they haven’t been in the top 3 since the 2017 season.
The Gators ran the ball almost as an afterthought in 2020, but with Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts headed to the NFL, running the rock could become more of a priority in 2021, especially now that dual-threat Emory Jones will lead the offense. Dameon Pierce (106-503-4) and Malik Davis (66-310) return, as does reserve Nay’Quan Wright. And the Gators added 5-star transfer Demarkcus Bowman.
The Razorbacks went 3-7 in 2020, but its rushing game returns largely intact for 2021. Trelon Smith led Arkansas with 710 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on 134 carries. Rakeem Boyd has departed, but T.J. Hammonds and AJ Green return in 2021.
The good news: Chris Rodriguez rumbled for 785 yards and 11 touchdowns on 119 carries in 2020, and he is back for more. The bad news: Asim Rose and Terry Wilson graduate, leaving Kavosiey Smoke as Rodriguez’s lone recognizable face left in the running back room. The Cats likely won’t get as much help from their QB, either, as new OC Liam Coen prefers more of a pro-style passer.
11. Mississippi State
Jo’quavious Marks showed a lot of promise as a freshman, leading the Bulldogs with 312 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 70 carries. He also was a threat out of the backfield, which is a requirement for anybody wanting time in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. He caught 60 passes, which led MSU and ranked 4th in the SEC. The next step is doing more with those catches as Marks averaged just 4.47 yards per reception.
Dillon Johnson (51 rushes-225 yards-4 TDs) also returns, but don’t get caught up in the rushing numbers. The short passing game is Leach’s running game.
Larry Rountree III (209-972-14) departs, leaving a big hole in an offense that was league average to start with. Tyler Badie (48-242-4) is the top returning running back, with Dawson Downing and Elijah Young having combined for less than 100 yards also in the mix. It could be a long season for the ground game in 2021.
The good news for new coach Clark Lea? The Commodores can’t get any worse than 0-9 in 2020. Kevon Henry-Brooks is back after gaining 494 rushing yards on 120 carries and 2 touchdowns. The bad news? Those 2 rushing TDs made up for precisely half of Vanderbilt’s total last season. Ja’Veon Marlow (46-186) is also back for more pain in Nashville.
New coach Josh Heupel has his hands full rebuilding a roster decimated by departures after Jeremy Pruitt was fired. Eric Gray? Gone. Ty Chandler? Gone. Who Tennessee will actually hand the ball off to come September is anyone’s guess, but Tiyon Evans, Jabari Small, Tee Hodge, Dee Beckwith and Fred Orr — who combined for 3 carries and 25 yards last season — are all potential candidates. Evans was the No. 1-ranked JUCO running back.