You can officially start getting excited for the 2012 football season. Why? The preseason position rankings have officially arrived.
During the next few weeks, Brian Bennett (if he ever returns from his European voyage) and I will rank every position group in the league, both the top 10 individuals and the team rankings. We'll rank the individuals based on past performance and potential for the 2012 season, placing a bit more emphasis on their track record to this point. Performance in Big Ten play also carries additional weight in these rankings. For the unit rankings, we'll place emphasis on a star player if there is one, while also taking into account the depth of the group.
Let's kick things off with the league's strongest position: running back.
Here are your top 10 entering 2012:
1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, senior: The obvious choice for the top spot, Ball is one of just two Heisman Trophy finalists from 2011 who are back for the 2012 season (LSU's Tyrann Mathieu is the other). Ball comes off of a record-setting junior season in which he rushed for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He was at his best during Big Ten play with 1,262 yards, 20 touchdowns and a ridiculous 6.8 yards-per-carry average. There isn't a more complete back in college football entering 2012 than the Wisconsin star.
2. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, senior: It's a very close call between Burkhead and Penn State's Silas Redd for the No. 2 spot, but Burkhead gets a slight edge. He did it all for Nebraska in 2011, rushing for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns and adding 21 receptions for 177 yards and two scores. Burkhead showed he could handle a featured back's carries load -- and then some. He's one of the hardest-working, most likable players in college football and deserves to get more national attention.
3. Silas Redd, Penn State, junior: Like Burkhead, Redd showed he can handle a hefty carries load in 2011 and transformed himself into a more powerful player after showcasing his moves as a freshman. Although the workload took a toll on Redd late in the season, he dominated the month of October and should take another step as a junior in new coach Bill O'Brien's offense. Redd already has reinvented himself once at Penn State and looks to become a complete back this year. He'll also be running behind an improved line.
4. Fitzgerald Toussaint, Michigan, junior: Michigan entered last September with questions about its No. 1 tailback, but Toussaint left no doubt when the season concluded. He did his best work during Big Ten play, racking up 818 yards on only 139 carries (5.9 ypc, second to only Ball's 6.8 ypc). Michigan should be an even better offense in Year 2 under coordinator Al Borges, and Toussaint could easily work his way into the lead pack by season's end.
5. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, junior: Of all the players on this list, Bell might take the biggest jump in 2012. Although he had decent numbers in 2011 (948 rush yards, 13 touchdowns), he played in a pass-first offense behind a patchwork line. Michigan State should be much better up front this season, and the offense will be geared more toward the run because of the changes at quarterback and receiver. The 6-2, 238-pound Bell has legitimate NFL potential and should see his production spike.
6. Stephen Houston, Indiana, junior: Houston's performance went under the radar in 2011 because he played for a lousy team and didn't fully emerge until the Big Ten season. He racked up 711 of his 802 rush yards and seven of his eight rush touchdowns during league play. His yards-per-carry average in Big Ten games (5.5) ranked third behind only Ball and Toussaint among players with at least 120 carries. If Houston can build on the way he finished 2011, he'll be right in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.
7. Akeem Shavers, Purdue, senior: Like Bell, Shavers is another player with the potential to take a major step forward in 2012. He shared carries with several players last season but capitalized on his opportunities and racked up 519 rush yards and six touchdowns on 111 carries. Ralph Bolden's injury issues put his status up in the air, and Shavers will enter the fall as Purdue's featured back. The junior-college transfer also is taking a greater leadership role as a co-captain during his senior season.
8. James White, Wisconsin, junior: White was a forgotten man in 2012 as Ball stole the show -- and more of the carries load. While Ball remains Wisconsin's top option in the run game, White should bounce back from a bit of a sophomore slump. He's still a very talented back with excellent speed and moves who accumulated 1,052 rush yards as a freshman (6.74 ypc) and followed it up with 713 yards last year. There will be a time where Wisconsin needs White this fall, and he should be able to deliver.
9. Jordan Hall, Ohio State, senior: Hall's recent foot injury knocks him down a peg or two since his stock is based mostly on future potential. If he's healthy, he could be an extremely dangerous weapon in Ohio State's new offense under coach Urban Meyer. The coaches raved about Hall during spring ball, and he's considered the team's top candidate to fill a hybrid tailback-receiver role that gets a lot of touches in Meyer's offense. Hall's career numbers aren't anything special -- 814 rush yards, 202 receiving yards -- but he can finish with a flourish if he can stay on the field.
10. Ralph Bolden, Purdue, senior: Bolden is perhaps the biggest wild card of the group, as he battles back from a second ACL tear during his Purdue career and a third since his senior year of high school. When healthy, Bolden can be very effective. He rushed for 935 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore and had a team-high 674 yards and six touchdowns last year before the injury. If not for his injury history, Bolden would be several spots higher on the list.