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Big Ten Position Rankings: Running Backs

Over the next month, we’ll be rolling out Big Ten positional power rankings to gage how Northwestern stacks up with the rest of the conference. It’s also a good opportunity to educate yourself on the rest of the conference. Naturally, these rankings will be subjective, and therefore up for debate, but the idea is to assess each unit and project its strength for the coming season. There’ll also be a section at the end of each set of rankings to analyze Northwestern’s standing. Should you disagree with the assessments though, let your opinion be heard in the comments. Next up is the running backs, and wow, there are plenty of good ones.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

So last week, I set out to rank Big Ten quarterbacks. As I was doing so, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of proven talent at the position throughout the conference. From up-and-down careers to flat out ordinary, mediocre QBs, those rankings were eye-opening, and not in a good way.

The same, however, cannot be said for the running back position. It’s loaded. If you include newcomers Maryland and Rutgers, 13 of last year’s top 15 rushers (yards per game) return in 2014 – and that stat, of course, doesn’t even include a certain Northwestern star who lost most of last season to injury. But more on him later. Let’s get to the rankings so you can see what I’m raving about.

The Rankings

1. Wisconsin – You could make the case that Melvin Gordon’s success has a lot to do with the offensive line in front of him; you could also argue that, with James White having moved onto the NFL, Gordon might be less effective when forced to shoulder the full load. But he’s undoubtedly one of the best backs in the country, and there’s no reason to think that true sophomore Corey Clement can’t replace at least some of what White brought to the table. Both Gordon’s and Clement’s yards per carry averages were off the charts last year, and should be that way again this time around.

2. Nebraska – Ameer Abdullah is a star; there’s no two ways about it. His 1,922 yards from scrimmage last year speak for themselves. The only complaint could be that he was held to 9 TDs on the ground, but backup Imani Cross, who returns as a junior, had 10, and the two should form a lethal duo.

3. Michigan State – Jeremy Langford’s yards per carry average doesn’t compare to Gordon’s or even Abdullah’s, but there’s something to be said for being a workhorse. MSU has decent depth at the position, but Langford, like Gordon and Abdullah, is an NFL-caliber talent and coach Mark Dantonio likes riding one guy. When that guy is somebody like Langford, the strategy is going to work.

4. Northwestern – The lack of respect that Venric Mark is getting heading into his fifth and final year is criminal. I understand many predictions are done on a "what have you done for me lately" basis, but he’s only a year removed from totaling nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and there’s no signs that he’ll be hindered in any way by last season’s injury. Furthermore, his absence opened our eyes to the depth that NU has at the position. Treyvon Green is more than capable in whatever role necessary, and Stephen Buckley, Warren Long and Justin Jackson (who may or may not redshirt) are all exciting prospects.

5. Penn State – Neither Zach Zwinak nor Bill Belton is an elite tailback in his own right, but together, the two comprise an imposing backfield. Belton is a former wide receiver, while Zwinak is the power back, which makes for good balance. However, they have had a tendency to put the ball on the ground. Both will get work, but don’t be surprised to see the carries fluctuate from game to game.

6. Minnesota – After limited playing time during his first two years as a Gopher, David Cobb exploded for nearly 1,400 all-purpose yards last year to lead a rushing attack that was a major reason for Minnesota’s success. If Cobb can replicate those numbers in 2014, and if either Donnell Kirkwood or Rodrick Williams can step up as a clear-cut, steady No. 2, this could be one of the top backfields in the conference.

7. Indiana – Tevin Coleman was a joy to watch last season, and the argument can be made for him as a top-three back in the conference. His big play ability is unrivalled, and he was on pace for nearly 1,300 yards on the ground last season before an injury cut his season short. He’s healthy again this year, but the worry is that he’s not a true bell cow, and his complement in the backfield last year, Stephen Houston, has moved on. It’ll be interesting to see how much Coleman’s workload increases in this his junior season.

8. Ohio State – The Buckeyes are the wild card here. Based on past production, they probably shouldn’t be ranked ahead of Iowa after losing both Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall. But in the end, this is Ohio State we’re talking about, and the next man up is sure to have talent. Both Ezekiel Elliot and Dontre Wilson rushed for over 8 yards per carry last season (!), and Bri’onte Dunn is back after redshirting last year. Wilson, who’ll play some receiver too, doesn’t need many touches to have an impact – he might be the quickest player in the conference.

9. Iowa – Don’t misinterpret this ranking – the Hawkeyes have a very solid stable of running backs. This more speaks to the strength of the position in the conference than it does to anything about Iowa. Also, I just don’t see anything special in Mark Weisman, where as I do in all eight backfields ranked above. His yards per carry average was a mediocre 4.3 last season, and his receiving threat is nonexistent. Jordan Canzeri is a nice complement, and should have an increased role this year, as should Damon Bullock, but we haven’t seen enough of those two to really know what they’re capable of.

10. Illinois – Given his ability as a receiver out of the backfield, Josh Ferguson is one of the more underappreciated tailbacks in the conference. Last year he averaged 5.5 yards per carry behind a questionable offensive line, and he gained over 1,300 yards from scrimmage. Ferguson is back along with backup Donovonn Young, so this is a respectable unit.

11. Michigan – There’s talent here – or at least we think there is – but it hasn’t been tapped into yet. The uninspiring Fitzgerald Toussaint has graduated, so either De’Veon Smith, Derrick Green or Justice Hayes will step in. The most likely scenario actually is that it’s some combination of the three, which makes the Wolverines’ ground game even tougher to project.

12. Rutgers – Paul James looked like a decent player last year before succumbing to injury midway through the season. He returns to full health this year, but behind him, we don’t know much – other than that Rutgers’ backs will be facing a lot more staunch run defenses in 2014 than they did last season.

13. Maryland – There’s a lot of uncertainty at the running back position for Maryland. Brandon Ross was the Terps’ lead back in 2013, but wasn’t particularly productive. Everybody is back from a year ago, but it’s unclear who will touch the ball and who won’t.

14. Purdue – If we’re being honest, it’s tough to rate any Purdue RB because the offensive line was absolutely atrocious last year. Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert apparently have playmaking ability, but they were understandably unable to showcase it in 2013.

Second Guessing

Why Northwestern should be higher: If Venric Mark is what he was in 2012, Northwestern could be right up there with Nebraska and Wisconsin. That’s because of how well-rounded this crop of RBs is. If Green, Buckley and Long all contribute in addition to Mark – rather than in his stead as they did last year – this unit will be formidable.

Why Northwestern should be lower: Perhaps the biggest question mark not just concerning these rankings, but concerning Northwestern’s team as a whole, is Mark’s health. Is he "injury-prone"? We really don’t know. On one hand, small backs do tend to get dinged up with more frequency than larger ones. But on the other hand, Mark played in all 39 games through his first three seasons, so 2013 could just be an outlier. If the worries come to fruition though, Northwestern likely wouldn’t have a top-seven unit.

Second thoughts: I’m not backing off. I’ll keep them at No. 4 unless somebody can convince me otherwise.