The 2012 college football season is still months away, but it's never too early to preview. Athlon continues its countdown to the upcoming season and spring previews by ranking the running backs in each of the BCS conferences. The rankings take into account last season's production, what each player is expected to do in 2012 and the surrounding personnel.
Here's how Athlon ranks the running backs in the SEC for 2012:
1. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (JR)
Rushing Stats: 163 att., 818 yards, 10 TD
Receiving Stats: 19 rec., 182 yards, TD
If healthy, there is no running back in the nation with more physical talent than Marcus Lattimore. In 20 career games, he has averaged over 100 yards rushing and has scored 30 total touchdowns. Not counting the Florida State bowl game in which he got hurt early on, he has failed to reach paydirt in only four career games. Lattimore can move the pile with power, can get to the edge with speed and will make defenders look silly trying to cover him in the passing game. He has averaged an absurd 130.5 yards from scrimmage for his career and has topped 170 yards rushing five times in 20 games. He has missed time in both seasons due to injury, mostly due to his incredibly physical running style, and he was held back in spring ball this year. However, Lattimore appears ready to lead the Gamecocks in 2012 and, needless to say, he is the complete package in the backfield.
2. Knile Davis, Arkansas (JR)
Rushing Stats: None
Receiving Stats: None
Arkansas was dealt a tough blow in preseason workouts last year when Davis suffered a season-ending ankle injury. As a sophomore in 2010, he rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns, while catching 19 passes for 136 yards and one score. Davis earned all-conference honors for his breakout sophomore campaign, but was unable to build off of that due to the ankle injury. Davis is expected to return at full strength for the 2012 season and should emerge as Arkansas’ go-to back once again. The junior will have to knock off a little rust after missing an entire season, but he should finish among the SEC leaders in yards.
3. Eddie Lacy, Alabama (JR)
Rushing Stats: 95 att., 674 yards, 7 TDs
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 131 yards, 0 TD
Trent Richardson will be missed, but Alabama should have no trouble replacing his production in 2012. Lacy served as Richardson’s backup last year, rushing for 674 yards and seven touchdowns. He recorded 161 yards and two touchdowns in the 41-0 win over North Texas and posted 96 yards and two scores on 11 attempts against Mississippi State. Lacy doesn’t quite match Richardson in terms of talent, but he’s still one of the best running backs returning in the SEC for 2012. The junior is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, which could go down with more touches this season, but he should easily approach 1,000 yards and 10 scores in 2012.
4. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt (SR)
Rushing Stats: 201 att., 1,193 yards, 14 TD
Receiving Stats: 20 rec., 106 yards
Over the first five games of the 2011 seasons, Stacy averaged eight carries per game. Over the final eight games of the season, he posted 20.1 attempts per game — and he flourished behind a developing offensive line. He topped the century mark in rushing yards in four of the Commodores final seven games. Stacy also put plenty of points on the scoreboard by scoring 13 of his 14 touchdowns over that span as well. At the end of the year, one could argue Stacy produced the best single-season by a running back in Vanderbilt history as his yardage and touchdown totals set single-season school benchmarks. After dealing with some injury issues early in his career, Stacy proved to be more than capable if healthy. Look for another stellar year from the Vandy tailback.
5. Spencer Ware, LSU (JR)
Rushing Stats: 177 att., 707 yards, 8 TD
Receiving Stats: 11 rec., 73 yards, TD
Sorting through and ranking the LSU running backs is virtually impossible. They are all extremely talented, extremely physical and very productive. Ware got the most carries in 2011, posted 10 starts on the year and was the star of the running game early in the season. He topped the 20-carry mark in five of the team’s first seven games, including two of the entire team’s four 100-yard efforts for the season. The 233-pound back is a bulldozer on third downs and rarely goes down on first contact. The fact that Ware got only 33 carries in the final five games is more of a testament to the talent on the depth chart rather than any struggles by No. 11. However, three rushing attempts against Alabama in the national title game does seem inexplicable.
6. Isaiah Crowell, Georgia (SO)
Rushing Stats: 185 att., 850 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 59 yards, TD
The amount of recruiting hype surrounding Crowell was almost unfair when the freshman stepped onto campus. Yet, the in-state product posted one of the best true freshman rushing season in school history. He topped the 100-yard mark four times and earned AP SEC Freshman of the Year awards. His raw physical talent is clearly SEC-ready, but Crowell could finish this season much higher on this list if he matures and commits to being a leader on his team. The youngster’s report card likely includes “does not work well with others” and “distracts class often.” These are easily correctable issues that could vault Crowell in stardom — if the UGA offensive line can come together and create space for the sophomore in 2012.
7. Christine Michael, Texas A&M (SR)
Rushing Stats: 149 att., 899 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving Stats: 8 rec., 35 yards, 1 TD
If he can stay healthy, Michael has a chance to be one of the top five running backs in the SEC. Unfortunately for Texas A&M, Michael’s last two years have been cut short by injury. He suffered a broken leg in late October during the 2010 season, and tore his ACL in the 41-25 defeat to Oklahoma last year. Michael had four efforts of over 100 yards last season, including a 230-yard effort against Arkansas. All signs point to the senior returning at full strength for the 2012 opener, but coach Kevin Sumlin may take it slow with Michael’s recovery. The senior has the talent to rush for 1,000 yards, but his health will largely determine how much playing time he can receive.
8. Onterio McCalebb, Auburn (SR)
Rushing Stats: 112 att., 641 yards, 5 TDs
Receiving Stats: 32 rec., 344 yards, 2 TDs
McCalebb has been a solid change of pace option in his career, but is expected to be the No. 1 running back in 2012. With Michael Dyer transferring to Arkansas State, the senior should top 200 carries for the first time in his career. McCalebb rushed for 641 yards and five scores last year, but also added 32 receptions for 344 yards and two touchdowns. In his Auburn career, McCalebb has 2,016 career rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, while catching 45 passes and scoring once on special teams. The senior weighs only 174 pounds, so Auburn will have to be careful not to overload him in 2012. Tre Mason and Mike Blakely will spell McCalebb as backups, but the senior could approach 200 carries and over 1,000 yards this year.
9. Michael Ford, LSU (JR)
Rushing Stats: 127 att., 756 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 4 rec., 10 yards
Over the course of the entire season, Ford might have been the most consistent player in the backfield. He never topped 20 carries but received at least 10 attempts in eight games. He finished second on the team in attempts but first in rushing yards and tied for second in touchdowns. He made the biggest play of the season on an option pitch in overtime against Alabama. His six yards per carry were third in the SEC for any back with at least 100 carries. The 215-pound senior is a physical player who is looking to build on his two starts from last year in 2012.
10. Kenny Hilliard, LSU (SO)
Rushing Stats: 62 att., 336 yards, 8 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., 13 yards
It took a couple of months for Hilliard to earn his spot in the backfield rotation, but he might have been the best running back on the team down the stretch last fall. While Ware and Ford were racking up stats against lowly competition, Hilliard saved his best performances for the likes of Auburn, Arkansas and the SEC championship game against Georgia. The nephew of former LSU and New Orleans Saints great Dalton Hilliard, the 240-pound back posted five carries in the first seven games of his career. Yet, he exploded for 65 yards and two scores against Auburn, 102 yards and a score against the Hogs and 72 yards and two touchdowns against the Bulldogs. His eight touchdowns paced the Bayou Bengals — and he scored all of them in the final seven games of the year. In one short season, the massive tailback proved he belongs on the field with the Wares and Fords of the world.
11. Mike Gillislee, Florida (SR)
Rushing Stats: 56 att., 328 yards, 2 TD
Receiving Stats: None
Will Muschamp is looking for a three-down feature back and it appears that the 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior will get the call. Gillislee has played in 36 career games making him the most experienced back on the roster. The good news is he showed flashes of ability last fall by posting his two best career games with 79 yards and a score against UAB and 84 yards and a score against Kentucky. The bad news is he showed flashes against UAB and Kentucky. With an offensive line that struggled mightily a year ago, Gillislee will need to prove he can produce against front sevens from Athens, Columbia, and Baton Rouge to be considered a success in 2012.
12. LaDarius Perkins, Mississippi State (JR)
Rushing Stats: 87 att., 422 yards, 2 TDs
Receiving Stats: 13 rec., 59 yards, 2 TDs
With Vick Ballard out of eligibility at Mississippi State, all signs point to Perkins emerging as the new No. 1 back for coach Dan Mullen. The junior has shown flashes of ability in limited action, rushing for 422 yards and two touchdowns on 87 attempts and recording 566 as a redshirt freshman in 2010. Nick Griffin should be Perkins’ biggest competition for carries and may split time in the backfield. However, Perkins has waited his turn and is in for a breakout year in 2012.
13. Alfred Blue, LSU (JR)
Rushing Stats: 78 att., 539 yards, 7 TD
Receiving Stats: 3 rec., -3 yards
Possibly the toughest player to peg of the four elite LSU backs, Blue showed the ability to make big plays in the ground game. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry and was the lead back in the SEC title game with 96 yards and two scores. His 119-yard effort against Western Kentucky was just one of four total 100-yard games by any Tiger a year ago. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder can appear to be the forgotten man in the Bayou backfield, but fans can be sure that Les Miles knows exactly what he has in No. 4. Blue, who is at best third on the LSU depth chart, would likely start for Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Florida, Missouri and possibly Georgia.
14. Jeff Scott, Ole Miss (JR)
Rushing Stats: 116 att., 529 yards, 6 TDs
Receiving Stats: 15 rec., 99 yards, 0 TD
If Ole Miss wants to improve upon last season’s 2-10 record, improving the offense is at the top of the priority list for coach Hugh Freeze. Scott is one of the Rebels’ few proven offensive weapons, rushing for 529 yards and six touchdowns last season. He rushed for 118 yards and three scores against Southern Illinois and posted 138 yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt. Scott doesn’t have the size to be an every down back, but should be the Rebels’ leading rusher in 2012.
15. Kendial Lawrence, Missouri (SR)
Rushing Stats: 119 att., 566 yards, 5 TD
Receiving Stats: 14 rec., 77 yards
Lawrence earned the starting tailback job heading into last season but saw his year come to a screeching halt in the form of a cracked fibula after Week 1. He missed three games and returned to find Henry Josey torching defenses to the tune of 116 yards per game. Against Texas, however, Josey also suffered a severe injury and Lawrence was called upon once again. He got 75 touches in the season’s final four games and he produced more than 100 yards from scrimmage in three of those games — including games against the defensively stout Longhorns and Tar Heels. He also scored three times over that span, indicating that he is capable of toting the rock should Josey not be able to return in 2012. Sledding will undoubtedly be tougher in the SEC, but senior-to-be has the talent to be successful.
16. Ben Malena, Texas A&M (JR)
Rushing Stats: 67 att., 259 yards, 4 TDs
Receiving Stats: 10 rec., 52 yards, 1 TD
Christine Michael’s ACL injury opened the door for Malena to earn playing time late last season. In the final two games of 2011, he recorded 83 yards against Texas and rushed for 77 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl win over Northwestern. Malena has only 67 career attempts, but he has shown that he has the talent to be Texas A&M’s No. 1 running back if Michael is slow to return from his injury.
17. Marlin Lane, Tennessee (SO)
Rushing Stats: 75 att., 280 yards, 2 TD
Receiving Stats: 17 rec., 161 yards, 2 TD
If you wore Orange and White a year ago and wanted to pick up yards on the ground, you likely found life extremely difficult. A still-young offensive line struggled to block, the offense lost its top playmaker in Justin Hunter and had to play the heart of the schedule without its starting quarterback. But the running backs didn’t help the case much either. Lane has a chance to change all of that this fall. The highly-touted tailback has plenty of talent and versatility in the passing game to be successful. Additionally, he should be running behind a better collection of blockers this fall. Lane is first in line to snag the Vols starting job but will have to constantly battle to keep Raijon Neal at bay. With Hunter and Tyler Bray healthy for a full season, fans can expect an improvement in the ground game in Knoxville. Because, let’s face it, there is only one way to go after ranking 116th in the nation in rushing.
18. Dennis Johnson, Arkansas (SR)
Rushing Stats: 106 att., 670 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving Stats: 24 rec., 255 yards, 2 TDs
After missing most of 2010 with an abdominal injury, Johnson bounced back to lead Arkansas with 670 rushing yards last season. He scored only three rushing touchdowns, but caught two passes for scores and took a kickoff return for a touchdown. With Knile Davis back in the mix, Johnson likely won’t lead the team in rushing yards in 2012. However, he should be one of the SEC’s best all-around backs, contributing on the ground, in the passing game and on returns.
19. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama (FR)
With Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler returning, Alabama is loaded with options at running back. However, this group got even deeper with Yeldon’s arrival this spring. He ranked as the No. 32 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and recorded 179 overall yards in the spring game. Yeldon may not see a ton of carries this year, but he’s a name to keep an eye on if an injury occurs to Lacy in 2012.
20. CoShik Williams, Kentucky (SR)
Rushing Stats: 118 att., 486 yards, 3 TD
Receiving Stats: 19 rec., 70 yards
The diminutive tailback (5-foot-9, 178 pounds) missed three of the team’s first six games last fall but injuries forced Williams into the lineup. The former walk-on — he earned his scholarship after his sophomore season — took over for the injured Raymond Sanders and Josh Clemons in Week 7 of the season. In his first start of the year, he rushed for 148 yards on 22 carries in a rare win for the Cats. He went on to average 16.8 carries and 67.7 yards rushing per game while scoring all three of his touchdowns. Williams, arguably the toughest player on the Big Blue roster, has dealt with shoulder issues this spring but is considered the clear starter heading into his final season.
21. Kenny Miles, South Carolina (SR)
Produced in the final two games of the 2011 season and is listed as the No. 2 back on the depth chart.
22. Raijon Neal, Tennessee (JR)
Possibly better suited for the traditional feature back role than Lane, but possesses less physical ability.
23. Warren Norman, Vanderbilt (JR)
Dores active all-purpose yardage leader redshirted last fall due to leg injury. Gives Vandy tremendous depth behind Stacy.
24. Tre Mason, Auburn (SO)
With Michael Dyer choosing to transfer to Arkansas State, Mason will be the top backup to Onterio McCalebb this season. With Dyer and McCalebb entrenched as the go-to backs last year, he only registered 28 attempts for 161 yards and one touchdown. However, Mason showcased his upside with 64 yards and one score on nine attempts in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia.
25. Brandon Wilds, South Carolina (SO)
Topped 20 carries three times in Lattimore’s absence and posted three 100-yard games over that span.
Others to Watch
Mike Blakely, Auburn
Jalston Fowler, Alabama
Dee Hart, Alabama
Jeremy Hill, LSU
Ken Malcome, Georgia
Keith Marshall, Georgia
Raymond Sanders, Kentucky
Brandon Wilds, South Carolina
Other SEC Spring Preview Content:
Georgia or South Carolina: The SEC East's Best Team in 2012?
Ranking the SEC's Quarterbacks for 2012
Ranking the SEC's Head Coaches for 2012
Ranking College Football's Top 25 Head Coaches for 2012
Missouri or Texas A&M: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?
Tennessee or Vanderbilt: Which Team Will Have More Wins in 2012?
College Football's Top Transfers to Watch for 2012
College Football's Top Spring QB Battles to Watch
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat