- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now that the college football season is drawing to a close, I thought I'd throw out a highly-contested question: Who is the SEC's best running back?
There are a handful of good choices in 2013 so we had to bring in multiple experts to tackle this one. With injuries and elevated play all around, this year's No. 1 isn't so cut and dry.
Along with four other SEC minds, we're taking on the question of which running back is the baddest of them all in the deep South. Because I'm such a southern gentleman, I'll let my esteemed colleagues go first before I state my case for the league's top running back in 2013:
David Ching: This is a fine subject of conversation, but I think we all know it wouldn't be much of an argument had Todd Gurley not injured his ankle in a Sept. 28 win against LSU. He was a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at the time because he's the total package, possessing a combination of breakaway speed and physical running ability that few backs in the country can match. When healthy, Gurley is simply the best running back in the nation. Even now when he's playing at less than 100 percent, he's still better than most. His 274 yards of total offense and three touchdowns in the two games since he returned can attest to that. Once he gets back to full strength, it's hard to imagine that there will be much debate here.
Alex Scarborough: T.J. Yeldon isn't a one-man show at Alabama. That's not the way Nick Saban likes to run his program, as evidenced by the Eddie Lacy-Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram-Richardson tandems of seasons past. So putting Yeldon's numbers up against other top rushers in the SEC can be deceiving. He doesn't have nearly the same number of carries as Tre Mason or Mike Davis. In fact, he ranks sixth in the SEC in rushing attempts (140) this season. He's not the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic, but in terms of production over the past two seasons, it's hard to take any tailback over Yeldon and his 1,970 yards and 24 touchdowns. He's only been stopped for zero or negative yards 34 times, the best in the country among those with at least 300 carries. His 47.8 percent of rushes for five or more yards is fifth best nationally and trails only Johnny Manziel for tops in the SEC. Those numbers might not wow you, but he's been steadily impressive since Day 1, which not every tailback in the conference can say.
Greg Ostendorf: Tre Mason wasn’t a five-star recruit. He’s not a guaranteed first-round draft pick. But you wouldn’t know it by watching him on Saturdays. The Auburn running back piles up the yards week after week, and he has a knack for finding the end zone. He’s second in the SEC with 1,038 rushing yards, and he leads the conference with 16 rushing touchdowns. As a sophomore, Mason quietly rushed for over 1,000 yards on a 3-9 football team. This year, the secret is out. The junior is the lead back in an offense that’s averaging 320 yards per game on the ground. That’s tops in the SEC and No. 3 nationally. Consequently, the Tigers are 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS and they control their own destiny in the West. Mason might not regarded as the most talented back in the league, but as far as production and consistency, nobody has been better.
Jeff Barlis: With 1,058 yards on 166 carries in his first season as a starter, South Carolina's Mike Davis is the SEC's top rusher. Need we say more? The sophomore, who was a midseason addition to the Maxwell Award watch list, is everything you'd want in a bell-cow running back. At 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds he has the size and power to take on SEC defenses. He has the speed to hit the home run, as evidenced by his five rushes of 40 or more yards. And he is a complete back. In fact, Davis is the Gamecocks' second-leading receiver with 29 catches for 326 yards. Davis' 117.6 yards per game and 10 touchdowns have paced the Gamecocks' high-powered offense, one that averages 456.4 yards a game, which would shatter the school record (428.8 YPG in 1995). While Davis' achievements are not yet approaching Gamecocks legend and 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers, he is just 139 yards away from Marcus Lattimore's best season -- 1,197-yards as a freshman in 2010. Eclipsing Lattimore's mark would put Davis' season among the three best in South Carolina history, behind only Rogers. Heady company indeed.
Edward Aschoff: I've said over and over that Gurley is the best running back in the country when he's fully healthy. I still believe that, but with him not at 100 percent and after watching LSU's offense fade the less Jeremy Hill touched it against Alabama, I can't help but think that Hill is the most valuable running back in the SEC. Keeping the ball out of his hands is a mistake. He's third in the league with 964 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he leads all running backs who have at least 100 carries with 6.8 yards per carry. In league play, he has eight touchdowns and averages nearly six yards per carry. He has a magnificent blend of power and speed with his 6-2, 235-pound frame. He can grind out tough yards and gash defenses with his breakaway ability. But he means so much to LSU's offense. He pulverized Florida's top-ranked rush defense for 121 yards and 6.4 yards per carry, and in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama, his carries dropped to 16 and 13 carries for a combined 106 yards and two touchdowns, resulting in LSU's two worst offensive performances. If he isn't continuously touching the ball, LSU's offense stalls.
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