The SEC should own the title as college football’s best conference for running backs in 2017. Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough, Auburn’s Kamryn Pettway and LSU’s Derrius Guice rank among the nation’s best at this position, and the league has a solid second tier emerging with Kentucky’s Benny Snell, Missouri’s Damarea Crockett, Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams and Arkansas’ Devwah Whaley. Pettway, Guice and Chubb were all selected to Athlon's All-America team for 2017.
Having two running backs is almost essential for every college football team. While some teams have workhorse options that can handle 275 or 300 carries, most programs want to have at least two (and sometimes three) running backs to split up the workload. The thought process is pretty simple: Take the workload off one player and spread it around to keep everyone fresh. This concept seems to gain more steam each year, as a running game is no longer about just one go-to back. Instead, most teams need at least two solid ball-carriers to lead the way on the ground.
Ranking the running back tandems by conference is no easy task. How do you weigh two solid options versus one standout and a question mark at backup? Here are the SEC teams ranked by the running back tandems (projected No. 1 and No. 2 rushers and not the entire backfield depth chart) for the upcoming year. Note: We did take into account some projection for the 2017 season and how the running backs will perform - not strictly based on what they have done in their career so far.
Ranking the SEC RB Tandems for 2017
14. Ole Miss: Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney
The Rebels struggled to get their ground game on track last fall, averaging just 3.99 yards per rush in SEC play. The lackluster performance was largely due to a knee injury suffered by Eric Swinney in the opener, and Jordan Wilkins was academically ineligible last fall. The good news for interim coach Matt Luke: Both players are set to return in 2017. Wilkins has showed a lot of promise as a backup in his two seasons of snaps, recording 740 yards and five scores on 124 carries. Swinney was a four-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and only received one carry in the opener before sitting out the remainder of the 2016 season. If Swinney is limited early in 2017, senior Eugene Brazley or sophomore D’Vaughn Pennamon will fill in as the No. 2 back.
13. Mississippi State: Aeris Williams and Nick Gibson
Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald led the Bulldogs with 1,375 yards and 16 scores last season. It’s a safe bet Fitzgerald will likely lead the team in rushing yardage again, but the Bulldogs have a rising star at running back in Aeris Williams. As a sophomore in 2016, Williams finished with 720 yards and four scores. He saved his best for late in the year, as Williams posted 191 yards against Ole Miss and 140 against Texas A&M. Gibson is penciled in as the No. 2 back after rushing for 57 yards on nine carries last season. However, he will be pushed by junior Dontavian Lee and incoming freshman Kylin Hill.
12. Tennessee: John Kelly and Ty Chandler
Kelly assumed a larger role on the ground after Jalen Hurd’s transfer midway through the 2016 season. While Alvin Kamara remained the No. 1 back, Kelly finished 2016 with 630 yards on 98 carries – averaging an impressive 6.4 yards per rush. Kelly reached the end zone five times, including once against Missouri after rushing for 101 yards. Look for Kelly to push for 1,000 yards in 2017 as Tennessee’s No. 1 back. Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime has the inside track on the backup role after recording 14 carries last year, but true freshman Ty Chandler will be tough to keep on the bench.
11. South Carolina: Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams
The SEC is deep at running back this season, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Gamecocks finished higher than No. 11 on this list in 2017. Dowdle’s 2016 campaign got off to a slow start thanks to a sports hernia. However, he provided a spark for the South Carolina ground attack last year by emerging as the top back over the second half of 2016. Dowdle torched Western Carolina for 226 yards and eclipsed the 100-yard mark against Tennessee and Missouri. He finished the season with 764 yards and six rushing scores, while adding 15 receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Williams – a transfer from North Carolina – is expected to earn the No. 2 spot and push for a share of the carries. The South Carolina native ranked as a four-star recruit in the 247Sports Composite for the 2016 class.
10. Florida: Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine
The Gators have struggled to find a consistent ground attack over the last two seasons and ranked last in the SEC by averaging just 128.2 yards per game in 2016. A couple of factors are primarily to blame for the low average, but Florida’s offensive line has been one of the main culprits. With four starters back, the play in the trenches should improve, allowing the Gators to generate more production on the ground in 2017. Scarlett – a former four-star recruit – appears to be scratching the surface of his potential after leading the team with 889 yards and six rushing scores last fall. Perine recorded 421 yards and one touchdown as a backup in 2016 and is likely to fill that role once again. Senior Mark Thompson is also expected to contribute in the backfield.
9. Arkansas: Devwah Whaley and David Williams
The Razorbacks’ depth chart at running back suffered a significant blow when Rawleigh Williams decided to retire following a neck injury in the spring game. Williams led the team with 1,360 yards in 2016 and was expected to push for All-America honors in 2017. Williams is going to be missed, but coach Bret Bielema has a strong track record of finding and developing standout running backs. His next star rusher appears to be Devwah Whaley, who rushed for 602 yards and three touchdowns last fall as a true freshman. Whaley should push for 1,000 yards this season and contend for All-SEC honors. South Carolina graduate transfer David Williams is a solid pickup to add depth and experience to the backfield. Freshman Maleek Williams is likely to be the No. 3 option.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2017
8. Kentucky: Benny Snell and Sihiem King
The Wildcats were the only SEC team to have two 1,000-yard rushers in 2016. However, Boom Williams departed for the NFL after leading the team with 1,170 yards last fall, leaving a void behind standout Benny Snell. As a true freshman in 2016, Snell posted 1,091 yards and 13 scores. He should eclipse 1,000 yards once again with an even bigger workload in 2017. King is a speedy junior from Georgia who has just 22 carries over the last two years. He will compete with redshirt freshman A.J. Rose for the No. 2 role.
7. Missouri: Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter
Missouri’s rushing attack was stuck in neutral in 2015, as the Tigers finished last in the SEC by averaging 115.4 yards per game. But the emergence of Crockett changed the outlook for Missouri’s ground game, as the Tigers finished 2016 by averaging just over 200 yards (205.1) per contest. Crockett emerged as the team’s top back in the second half of last year and finished with 1,062 yards – a Missouri freshman school record – and 10 touchdowns. Witter has recorded over 100 carries in each of the last two seasons and posted 750 yards and six scores on 162 attempts last fall. He’s slated to handle the No. 2 role one again, with Nate Strong working in as the third back.
6. Texas A&M: Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford
With the Aggies handing the keys to the offense to an inexperienced quarterback – or potentially a true freshman – expect the ground game to be the focal point of the offense in 2017. The good news for coordinator Noel Mazzone? This group should be the strength of the offense. Trayveon Williams impressed in his true freshman campaign, leading Texas A&M with 1,057 yards and eight scores. He was also a valuable outlet of the backfield, grabbing 19 receptions for 91 yards. Ford – an Oklahoma transfer – chipped in 669 yards and six touchdowns in his first action with the Aggies last fall.
5. Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame
Webb has been a reliable and productive go-to back for coach Derek Mason in each of the last three years. The Florida native has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns and enters 2017 as the school’s all-time leading rusher (3,342 yards). Webb’s 1,283 yards in 2016 set a new Vanderbilt single-season record, while he reached the end zone 13 times on the ground. Blasingame was a solid addition to the backfield after converting from linebacker prior to the 2016 campaign. He rushed for 449 yards and 10 touchdowns on 97 attempts. Redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield is a promising No. 3 option for coordinator Andy Ludwig.
4. LSU: Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams
Replacing a first-round NFL draft pick is never easy, but the Tigers already have the next superstar in place at running back after Leonard Fournette departed for the next level. Guice emerged as one of the nation’s top running backs after Fournette was limited due to injuries in 2016. The Baton Rouge native posted 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 games and averaged a healthy 7.6 yards per rush. Guice is one of the preseason favorites to contend for the Heisman Trophy in 2017. Williams has rushed for 831 yards over the last three seasons and will compete with Nick Brossette for the No. 2 role.
Related: SEC's Top Coordinator Hires for 2017
3. Auburn: Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson
A punishing ground attack was the strength of Auburn’s offense last season. The Tigers led all SEC teams by averaging 271.3 rushing yards per game and posted 11 carries of 40 or more yards. The addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham should provide a spark for the passing game in 2017, which could open up more holes on the ground for Pettway and Johnson. Pettway was one of the SEC’s breakout stars from 2016, rushing for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 appearances. Johnson wasn’t far behind on the stat sheet. He rushed for 895 yards and led the team with 11 rushing touchdowns.
2. Alabama: Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris
Despite losing a Heisman Trophy winner (Derrick Henry), Alabama’s ground attack never missed a beat in 2016. The Crimson Tide averaged 245 rushing yards per game and posted a 6.03 per-carry average in league play. While the overall production was there, the offense utilized a different approach than in previous years. Quarterback Jalen Hurts led the team in carries (191) and finished second in yardage (954). Harris paced the Alabama backfield with 1,037 yards and added two rushing scores. Scarbrough came on strong at the end of the year, rushing for at least 90 yards in each of the final four games. The Crimson Tide are loaded with depth here, as Joshua Jacobs is a valuable change-of-pace option, and true freshman Najee Harris will be tough to keep off the field.
1. Georgia: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel
Chubb and Michel decided to turn down the NFL for one more season in Athens, ensuring Georgia of the No. 1 tandem spot in the SEC for 2017. Chubb’s 2015 season was derailed due to a serious knee injury midway through the year, and while some rust was evident at times in 2016, he eclipsed 1,000 yards and scored eight times on the ground. Now a full year removed from the knee injury, look for Chubb in 2017 to resemble the player that rushed for 1,547 yards and 14 scores in 2014. Michel led the team with 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns in Chubb’s absence in 2015 and posted 840 yards and four scores last fall. Chubb is the No. 1 back, but Michel is going to see plenty of carries and is a valuable outlet for quarterback Jacob Eason out of the backfield (22 catches in 2016).