- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten postseason position rankings march on with the running backs. The running back rankings evaluate the entire position group, although superstar players affected the placement, too. Certain groups of running backs ran behind better offensive lines than others, and we took that into account when compiling the rankings.
Check out the preseason running back rankings here.
Onto the rundown ...
1. Wisconsin: Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball built on a strong finish to 2010 and took his game to another level in 2011. The Big Ten offensive player of the year headlined a Wisconsin rushing attack that led the Big Ten and ranked 11th nationally. While James White had a reduced role this past season, he still averaged 5.1 yards a carry and racked up 713 rush yards and six touchdowns. Ball also contributed in the passing game with 24 receptions, six of which went for touchdowns.
2. Nebraska: Rex Burkhead wore an "N" on his helmet, but it might as well have been an "S" on his chest. The player nicknamed "Superman" triggered a Nebraska rushing attack that ranked 15th nationally. Burkhead racked up 284 carries for 1,357 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. Although the Huskers didn't show a ton of depth at the position, young players like Ameer Abdullah have bright futures.
3. Ohio State: Although a quarterback (Braxton Miller) led the pass-averse Buckeyes in rushing, Ohio State had several capable ball carriers this past season. Carlos Hyde contributed early in the season and finished with 566 rush yards and six touchdowns on 106 carries. Dan Herron provided a spark after returning from suspension, averaging five yards a carry. Jordan Hall also tallied 100 carries and averaged more than four yards per rush.
4. Michigan: The coaches entered the season looking for a featured back and got one as Fitzgerald Toussaint emerged midway through the season. Toussaint racked up 120 yards or more in four of Michigan's final five regular-season games and displayed superstar potential at times. Although Toussaint and quarterback Denard Robinson had the bulk of the carries, reserves Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both averaged more than six yards per carry.
5. Penn State: Much like Ohio State, Penn State relied heavily on its ground game to account for a shaky passing attack. Sophomore Silas Redd shouldered the burden, particularly during the month of October, when he led the FBS with 703 rush yards, including five 100-yard games. Redd finished with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns, and Stephfon Green stepped up later in the season and had six rushing scores. Burly sophomore Curtis Dukes averaged 5.8 yards a carry.
6. Purdue: The Boilers had a featured back in Ralph Bolden but also had very good depth at the position. It showed up in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which Bolden missed with a torn ACL. Akeem Shavers led the way and others contributed, too. Purdue finished the season with two 500-yard rushers in Bolden and Shavers, while freshman speedster Akeem Hunt averaged 8.7 yards on 33 carries.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes were a bit of a dichotomy in 2011, as they finished last in the Big Ten in rushing but had the league's top rusher for part of the season in Marcus Coker. Despite being suspended for the Insight Bowl, Coker finished second in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,384) and 15th nationally in rushing average (115.3 ypg). He had 281 carries, while no other running back had more than 31, so it was a one-man show for Iowa in 2011.
8. Michigan State: The Spartans' rushing production went down in 2011, as Michigan State went from 64th nationally in rushing to 78th. MSU ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing for much of the season and finished 11th. But the team's struggles had more to do with a new-look offensive line than the running backs. Le'Veon Bell came on strong late in the season and rushed for 948 yards and 13 touchdowns. Edwin Baker's numbers went down, but he added 665 rush yards and five scores.
9. Illinois: Here's another team that had a quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase) as its leading rusher, but Illinois also featured multiple options at running back. Although Jason Ford had an up-and-down season, Troy Pollard and Donovonn Young proved to be capable ball carriers. Young averaged 5.2 yards a carry and scored seven touchdowns, while Pollard averaged 7.2 yards a carry and had 488 rush yards and two scores.
10. Indiana: Although the Hoosiers have plenty of issues to address going forward, the running back spot appears solid. Stephen Houston started the final eight games and established himself as the featured back with 802 yards and eight touchdowns on 151 carries (5.3 ypc). Houston was productive in Big Ten play and a nice complement to quarterback Tre Roberson. D'Angelo Roberts and Matt Perez both added four touchdowns.
11. Northwestern: Echoing a common theme, Northwestern's top rusher was a quarterback (Kain Colter). While the offense has been productive the past few years, the Wildcats haven't found an elite featured back since Tyrell Sutton graduated. Jacob Schmidt was solid for stretches, and young backs Treyvon Green and Adonis Smith contributed at times. Mike Trumpy might still be the best of the bunch, but his season was cut short by a knee injury.
12. Minnesota: Although quarterback MarQueis Gray ran the ball well (966 rush yards, 6 TDs), Minnesota needs more from the running back spot going forward. Duane Bennett and Donnell Kirkwood both averaged less than four yards per carry, and the Gophers had only two 100-yard rushing performances from a running back.
The Big Ten postseason position rankings march on with the running backs. The running back rankings evaluate the entire position group, although superstar players affected the placement, too.