Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
I had a question recently about who I thought would be the top five running backs in the SEC next season.
After careful study and breaking down everybody's returning running game, here's my take:
1. Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State: The decision to go with Dixon as the top guy is based on a couple of factors. For one, Mississippi State offensive coordinator Les Koenning told me recently that Dixon was having a very good offseason and was down around the 220 to 225-pound range and moving extremely well. Here's the other thing: The Bulldogs are going to feed him the ball next season. He's their only proven weapon offensively and is going to get a bunch of touches. Dixon has been overshadowed the last couple years by other backs in the SEC. But not next season.
2. Charles Scott, LSU: The only problem with the 235-pound Scott is that the Tigers are so deep at running back. Keiland Williams and Richard Murphy also return, so there's a chance LSU may spread the wealth in 2009. Scott may also be pressed into some duty at fullback with Quinn Johnson gone. Still, when you run for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns, as Scott did last season, chances are that you'll be the No. 1 option again. With so much inexperience at quarterback, the Tigers won't stray too far from their running game, but they have to replace the middle of their offensive line now that center Brett Helms and massive guard Herman Johnson are gone.
3. Michael Smith, Arkansas: He's the Hogs' little guy that could. Few players in the SEC have a bigger heart than the 5-7, 173-pound Smith, who will miss the spring while recovering from surgery on his hamstring. Smith rushed for 1,072 yards in 10 games last season, but the wear and tear of carrying the ball so much eventually took its toll. Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino is going to get him some help this season. The Hogs are bringing in some bigger backs to ease the short-yardage load, which should keep Smith fresh. Smith can also catch the ball out of the backfield, which makes him a factor on any down.
4. Caleb King, Georgia: This may be a bit of a gamble, but King has tons of ability and is just waiting for a chance to be the No. 1 option in the running game. He and Richard Samuel will share the carries next season, but offensive line play figures to be one of the Bulldogs' strengths in 2009. Nobody's going to step in and be Knowshon Moreno, and nobody's saying King will put up those kind of numbers. But here's betting he has a big season in 2009 and asserts himself as one of the most talented runners in the SEC.
5. Trent Richardson, Alabama: I went back and forth on this one, because we know somebody for the Crimson Tide is going to be among the rushing leaders. Mark Ingram would have been the safer choice after he rushed for 728 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season, and he may well wind up being Alabama's go-to guy in the running game. But watching Richardson on tape and knowing how quickly Nick Saban develops young players who are physically and mentally ready, my hunch is that Richardson steps in where Glen Coffee left off a year ago.
In closing: I didn't include Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster because he said recently that he would be working with the receivers this spring. But he's still something to see in that Wild Rebel package and has gained some weight this offseason. Leaving Auburn's Ben Tate out of the top 5 was tough, and all the Florida speedsters sort of cancel each other out. If had my choice of any "running game" in the SEC, I'd take Tim Tebow along with the Jeffery Demps-Chris Rainey combo. People tend to forget that the Gators led the SEC in rushing with an average of 231.1 yards per game last season. The second-place team (Ole Miss) was almost 45 yards behind them. If you're looking for two guys to break through next season at running back, I'd go with Ole Miss' Enrique Davis and Tennessee's Lennon Creer. And is this the year we finally see all of Mario Fannin's talents on full display at Auburn?