Once upon a time, Big 12 football was better known as a power conference, meaning that the primary offensive weapon was running the football, and then pounding the ball again and again until opposing defenses overcommitted and ultimately wore down and broke down.
That was until more creative offensive minds discovered that by hurrying up the snap count and spreading out the offensive formations, forcing the defenses to have to cover a blitzkrieg of wide receivers in open space – including running backs out of the backfield – was a more efficient and exciting way to stretch defenses, pick up huge chunks of yardage and score early and often.
Since 2000, four Big 12 quarterbacks (Eric Crouch, 2001; Jason White, 2003; Sam Bradford, 2008 and Robert Griffin III, 2011) have been recipients of college football’s most prestigious individual prize, the Heisman Trophy. And that wasn’t because they were so good handing the ball off to a tailing running back.
In the 2013 season, the Big 12 had two teams in the top 10 nationally (Texas Tech at No. 2 and Baylor at No. 6) in passing offense. But don’t be fooled by that statistic. The reason both teams were so successful offensively, and with such a prolific aerial attack, is because they were able to run the ball well enough to set up their passing game.
In fact, Baylor had the Big 12’s leading rusher in Lache Seastrunk (1,174 yards and 7.4 yards per carry) and also the sixth best ground gainer in the league in then-freshman Shock Linwood.
You also might be interested to learn that having the team with the best running back in the conference does not necessarily equate to having the best rushing offense. For example, last season, West Virginia and Kansas State had two of the best running backs in the conference in Charles Sims and John Hubert, yet as a team, the two schools were no better than fourth and seventh in the Big 12 as far as total rushing numbers.
The teams with the best rushing attacks were teams that did not rely on a single back to catty the run game. Baylor had Seastrunk, who by far was the premiere running back in the Big 12 a year ago, but the Bears also had Glasco Martin and Linwood in the corral and ready to run.
Oklahoma, the second best running ream in the conference last season, used three different players, and sometimes four, at running back in practically every game throughout the season, plus two quarterbacks who were threats to run with the ball. And Texas fell into that same category with a running-back-by-committee approach (Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Gray and Joe Bergeron).
A couple of days ago, I ranked the Big 12 running backs I believe to be the top five in the conference for 2014. I rated Malcolm Brown of Texas as the best, followed by Shock Linwood, Desmond Roland of Oklahoma State, Rushel Shell, a newcomer at West Virginia, and Keith Ford of Oklahoma at No. 5.
That’s a different question, however, than which team has the best running backs. Here is how I rank the 10 Big 12 teams coming into the 2014 season based on the talent and ability they have at the running back position:
Ranking the 2014 Big 12 Football Teams at the Running Back Position
1. Texas Longhorns – Jonathan Gray is somewhat of a question mark rehabbing from an Achilles injury, but that just means more carries for Malcom Brown, Joe Bergeron and a whole stable of talent RB potential.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers - Charles Sims is gone, but the Mountaineers, but another transfer, Rushel Shell from Pittsburgh, and sophomore Wendell Smallwood will carry the rock and the rushing load.
3. Oklahoma Sooners – The Crimson and Cream lose Brennan Clay, Roy Finch Trey Millard and Damien Williams, but Keith Ford, highly touted RB recruit Joe Mixon and Alex Ross will be the primary backs as the Sooners revert back to more of a run-first team with the mobile Trevor Knight at QB. Some analysts are comparing the newcomer Mixon to Adrian Peterson.
4. Baylor Bears – The Big 12 top rusher a year ago (Lache Seastrunk) is gone, as is Glasco Martin. But sophomore Shock Linwood, a freshman All-American in 2013, appeared more electrifying at times last season than either RB. The Bears are also expecting sophomore Devin Chafin to have an inpact
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys – The Cowboys have produced a long list of quality running backs, and senior Desmond Roland has the starring role in 2014. Supporting Roland is transferee Tyreek Hill, who has the speed and athleticism to play both in the backfield and as a wide receiver, and sophomore Rennie Childs.
6. TCU Horned Frogs – TCU ranked ninth in the Big 12 in rushing in 2013, but the Horned Frogs should be a little better in 2014. B.J. Catalon and Aaron Green are very capable running backs. The Horned Frogs need to getter better performance from the offensive line before the running game can reach its full potential. Coach Gary Patterson likes the “thunder and lightning” capability of two talented freshman backs, Trevooris Johnson and Kyle Hicks.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders – The Red Raiders have taken their leading running back from a year ago, Kenny Williams, and moved him to defense. Don’t be surprised, though, to see Williams take some snaps on offense as well in 2014. DeAndre Washington moves up on the depth chart at the RB position, and he will be challenged for playing time by Quinton White and true freshman Justin Stockton.
8. Iowa State Cyclones – Aaron Wimberly is the lead back in the Cyclone arsenal, but his small size (5-9, 175 pounds) makes his durability a question mark. Wimberly is an all-purpose threat that can have an impact on a game in multiple ways. Junior DeVondrick Nealy saw some action last season, but his playing time should increase in 2014 because of the departure of three senior running backs, who were ahead of him on the depth chart last season.
9. Kansas Jayhawks – James Sims got two-thirds of the carries for the Jayhawks last season and 1,110 yards rushing, but he is gone. Coach Charlie Weis’ running backs will share the wealth more in 2014, with junior Darrian Miller and senior Brandon Bourbon, a bigger back. leading the way. Senior Taylor Cox rushed for over 400 yards in 2012 but sat out 2013 with a medical redshirt.
10, Kansas State Wildcats – This represents a huge change for a team that has made its mark for years with an outstanding running game. Look for the Wildcats to put up huge passing numbers and for the Waters-to-Lockett combination to be called out a lot in 2014.