2013 was the year of the quarterback in the SEC. The league featured standouts in AJ McCarron, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, James Franklin and Connor Shaw.
But heading into 2014, the SEC is a league searching for answers at quarterback. Auburn’s Nick Marshall ranks as the No. 1 signal-caller, with Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Missouri’s Maty Mauk in the next tier.
With the SEC losing several quarterbacks, expect the league to feature its rushing attacks and defenses more in 2014.
The SEC is loaded at running back in 2014, as Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, South Carolina’s Mike Davis, Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Arkansas’ Alex Collins could all be All-Americans this year.
Gurley missed action last year due to a foot injury, but the junior is expected to be at full strength in 2014. Collins and Yeldon should have plenty of opportunities, but both players will have competition from a talented backfield. Davis should have no trouble matching last year’s numbers, especially with an offensive line that could be the best in the SEC.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Who will lead the SEC in rushing in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The SEC is loaded at running back this year. Just how loaded? One of these backs: Mike Davis (South Carolina), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) or Todd Gurley (Georgia) will have to be placed on the second-team All-SEC squad this preseason. And the depth extends deep in the conference, as Derrick Henry is ready for a breakout year at Alabama, Jerron Seymour could shine at Vanderbilt under new coordinator Karl Dorrell, and Texas A&M has a talented trio of running backs waiting for more opportunities. With the losses at quarterback this offseason, expect to see a return by the offenses in the SEC on the ground attack. While I expect this will be a close race for the top spot, I’ll take Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Despite a nagging ankle injury last season, Gurley finished fourth among SEC running backs by averaging 98.9 yards per game. Gurley also averaged six yards per carry and opened the year with back-to-back 100-yard games (Clemson, South Carolina). The Bulldogs’ offensive line is a work in progress, but I suspect a motivated (and healthy) Gurley will finish atop the SEC leaderboard in rushing yards in 2014.
Josh Ward, MrSEC.com, (@Josh_Ward)
I’ll take Todd Gurley. He averaged six yards a carry last year despite playing at less than 100 percent for much of the season. Gurley has the perfect combination of size and running ability and should enter his third season at Georgia in the best shape of his career. There are other strong choices for this question – Mike Davis at South Carolina and Alex Collins at Arkansas come to mind – but I’ll stick with Gurley. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason called Gurley the “best back in the country” when he’s healthy. Sure, Mason is biased. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Last year, the SEC was a QB driven league that was deep at that position. This year, those QBs have exited but a bunch of great RBs remain. Todd Gurley, TJ Yeldon, Mike Davis, Alex Collins and Derrick Henry just to name a few. In looking at this question, I looked back at the last four years in the SEC and noted that the player that led the SEC in rushing was either the best RB in the league (Tre Mason, Trent Richardson) or a QB (Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton).
So the way I figure, it's either going to be Todd Gurley, Mike Davis, Derrick Henry, Nick Marshall or Dak Prescott. Alabama and Georgia are deep at RB and I think that will take some carries away from Gurley and Henry (and you also have to factor in Gurley's past durability). South Carolina will rely more on Davis this year but I still wonder how much the Ol' Ball Coach wants to pound the rock play after play. I might be going outside the box a bit but my pick is Nick Marshall.
He finished 7th in the league last season in rushing, but he also had to learn Gus Malzahn's offensive system and he had a feature back in Tre Mason to hand the rock to. He had at least 89 yards rushing in six games last season and he got better at making decisions as the season went on. Auburn will still have some good RBs in the backfield but I foresee more of an onus being put on Marshall to carry the load in 2014 and it will result in more carries and more yards and maybe, just maybe, for the third time in five years a QB will lead the SEC in rushing yards.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
History says the SEC’s rushing leader will be something of a surprise. I doubt anyone would have predicted Tre Mason to win the rushing title by more than 400 yards last year. Or that a quarterback would do it in 2012 and 2010. The off-the-wall pick would be Arkansas sophomore Alex Collins, but the Razorbacks might not give him enough leads to protect late in the game. My guess, then, is Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Think about what he did last season before he got hurt: 154 yards against Clemson, 132 against South Carolina. Going back to his freshman season, Gurley topped 100 yards in five of the final seven games. With a new quarterback and the possibility that Keith Marshall will redshirt, Georgia will need to rely on Gurley. We know he’s up to the task.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
With the recent departure of elite quarterbacks from the SEC, fans should expect a return to normalcy in the nation's toughest league in 2014. That means running the ball with a deep and talented collection of running backs. Georgia's Todd Gurley is the most gifted back, but he has dealt with injuries and may lose touches with the return of Keith Marshall. Alabama's T.J. Yeldon is an All-American back but should also lose touches to the very talented Derrick Henry in Nick Saban's traditional two-back system. Alex Collins at Arkansas is in the same boat with Jonathan Williams expecting at least 150 carries for the Hogs. So I will go off the board with South Carolina's Mike Davis. He is as talented as any of the aforementioned runners and will be playing behind five returning starters for the Gamecocks. The schedule isn't all that daunting as Steve Spurrier's bunch will miss all of the toughest defenses from the West: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Davis dealt with his own small injuries a year ago and still managed to finish fourth in the SEC with nearly 1,200 yards. Should he play in every game, my money is on the rising junior star in Columbia to lead the SEC in rushing.
I'm going to give a slight edge to Todd Gurley over Mike Davis. Gurley, a junior, has been consistent in his first two seasons in a Georgia uniform, averaging 98.9 yards rushing per game. Last season, Gurley missed three-plus games because of an ankle injury. Taking his 98.9 yards per game average into consideration, if Gurley had played all 13 games he would have finished with 1,286 yards rushing. That total would have placed him third in the SEC behind Auburn's Tre Mason (1,816) and LSU's Jeremy Hill (1,401). Both Mason and Hill are gone, so as long as Gurley stays healthy, I think he will get more than enough carries to post some pretty big numbers, especially with unproven Hutson Mason entering his first full season as the Bulldogs' starting quarterback. South Carolina's Davis, a fellow junior, averaged basically the same number of rushing yards per game (98.6) as Gurley last season, and he definitely should be the Gamecocks' workhorse this fall. However, I'm giving Gurley the slight edge over Davis in this matchup of SEC East ground-gainers based on Gurley's more impressive track record and the assumption that he will be able to stay healthy this season.