- Adam Rittenberg, College Football
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Running back typically is among the Big Ten's strongest position groups, and it should be once again in 2014. The league returns two preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, as well as several others who could break through to the national or regional stage. Eight of the Big Ten's top 10 rushers in 2013 return for the 2014 campaign, and Northwestern's Venric Mark, who had 1,371 rush yards in 2012, is back from injury.
This should be a very fun group to watch, so let's take a closer look around the league.
Best of the best: Wisconsin
The Gordon-Abdullah debate is a great one and will continue throughout the season, but few can deny Gordon's unique explosiveness with the ball in his hands. Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry during his career and had just 81 fewer rushing yards than Abdullah last fall despite 75 fewer carries. If he maintains his big-play pace, he could challenge for 2,000 rush yards if he gets enough chances. The only reason he wouldn't is Corey Clement, who had 547 rush yards, seven touchdowns and a Gordon-like average of 8.2 yards per attempt as a freshman last fall. A year after Gordon and James White set an NCAA record for rush yards by teammates (3,053), Wisconsin once again boasts one of the nation's best tandems.
Next up: Nebraska
The Huskers could unseat Wisconsin for the top spot by the end of the season, especially if Abdullah builds on his tremendous consistency in 2013, when he eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 contests. He leads all active FBS players with 17 career 100-yard rushing performances. Burly junior Imani Cross is a formidable red zone threat with 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons. There's good depth here as Terrell Newby averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman and Adam Taylor will compete for carries after redshirting last fall.
A steadfast commitment to the run, combined with a strong group of returning backs, puts Minnesota in position for a productive year on the ground. David Cobb might have been the nation's most anonymous 1,200-yard rusher in 2013, but he proved himself in Big Ten play with five 100-yard rushing performances. There's veteran depth behind him with Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr., and fan favorite Berkley Edwards enters the mix after missing last season with an injury. The Gophers could add another big piece if heralded recruit Jeff Jones qualifies for his scholarship.
Problem for a contender: Ohio State
Again, problem isn't the right word here, but the truth is all the other Big Ten title contenders -- Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa -- return their top ball carriers from 2013. Ohio State loses bulldozing back Carlos Hyde, who led the Big Ten in rushing average (138.3) and rush yards during league games (1,249). The Buckeyes obviously benefit from Braxton Miller's running ability at quarterback but must develop backs who can help him. Ezekiel Elliott is in line to start and brings some exciting skills to the field, but Ohio State needs other options to develop like Bri'onte Dunn, dynamic freshman Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball.
Running back typically is among the Big Ten's strongest position groups, and it should be once again in 2014. The league returns two preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, as well as several others who could break through to the national or regional stage.