- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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We kicked off the SEC position rankings on Monday with the top quarterback groups and turn our attention today to the league’s top running back stables for the 2013 season.
1. Georgia: When you have two of the top five running backs in the SEC on your roster, it’s hard to rank that backfield anywhere but No. 1. And they’re both just sophomores. Todd Gurley led all SEC running backs a year ago with 1,385 rushing yards, while Keith Marshall chipped in with 759 yards. Go back and look at how many long scoring plays they had, too. Blink and either one of them are liable to be standing in your end zone.
2. Alabama: If anybody can catch Georgia, it’s Alabama. Sophomore T.J. Yeldon is coming off an 1,108-yard season and can do it all. The wealth of talent behind him is equally impressive from Jalston Fowler, to Kenyan Drake to one of the stars of the spring -- true freshman Derrick Henry. There’s more help on the way, too, in the form of highly ranked freshmen Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny.
3. Texas A&M: Even with the departure of Christine Michael, the Aggies are stacked at running back. Hard-running Ben Malena returns after racking up 808 yards and averaging nearly 6 yards per carry last season. But the guy to watch is Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams, who was electrifying this spring. Sophomore Trey Williams is also plenty talented, and don’t forget about Oregon transfer Tra Carson.
4. LSU: The Tigers would have easily been in the top three had Jeremy Hill not gotten into trouble and been suspended. Even if he doesn’t play this season, it’s not like LSU is hurting. Alfred Blue was off to a great start last season before tearing his ACL. Kenny Hilliard looked like a budding star two years ago as a freshman, and versatile Terrence Magee was a pleasant surprise this spring.
5. Mississippi State: LaDarius Perkins is back after finishing second in the SEC last season in all-purpose yardage and rushing for 1,016 yards. It was unfortunate that Nick Griffin tore his ACL in December, his second knee injury in as many years, but the Bulldogs love Josh Robinson'stackle-breaking ability, and Derrick Milton also returns.
6. Auburn: Tre Mason is back after rushing for 1,002 yards last season, the fourth straight year that Auburn has had a running back rush for 1,000 yards. Onterio McCalebb is gone, but Mason should still have plenty of help. Junior college newcomer Cameron Artis-Payne was impressive this spring and will push Mason, while Corey Grant is a burner. Freshmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford will also get a look.
7. Florida: Mike Gillislee was a rock for Florida’s offense last season and won’t be easily replaced, but sophomore Matt Jones looks like he’s the next big thing for the Gators. He has excellent size (6-2, 230 pounds) and has become a more physical runner to go along with his speed. Behind him, the Gators have promising freshman Kelvin Taylor, who has big-time quicks, and maybe this is the year junior Mack Brown puts it all together.
8. South Carolina: As great a player as Marcus Lattimore was for the Gamecocks, they were forced to finish each of the past two seasons without him after he went down with knee injuries. In both cases, Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds more than got the job done. Davis has everything it takes to be the next great running back at South Carolina, while Wilds played extremely well as a true freshman in 2011. Shon Carson is worth keeping an eye on, too.
9. Tennessee: Now that junior Marlin Lane has been reinstated, the Vols have an experienced one-two punch. Senior Rajion Neal is also back after rushing for 708 yards last season. Lane added 658 yards and also caught 29 passes. Neal had four touchdown catches, so they’re both versatile. The challenge this season will be making more happen after contact and getting the tough yards. It doesn't hurt that they will be running behind Tennessee’s talented offensive line.
10. Ole Miss: Jeff Scott has always had exceptional speed, but it’s hard to knock his production in a number of different areas a year ago. He finished with 846 rushing yards and also caught 23 passes. Look for sophomore I'Tavius Mathers to play an expanded role, especially if he improves his blocking, and the Rebels really liked what they saw this spring from true freshman Mark Dodson, who enrolled early and will push for immediate playing time.
11. Missouri: Of those players returning from injury this season in the SEC, Henry Josey ranks up there as somebody who could make the biggest impact. He rushed for 1,168 yards in 2011 before missing all of last season with a severe knee injury. Josey looked healthy in the spring, and when he’s right, he’s a dynamo. Junior Marcus Murphy also returns after rushing for 251 yards last season, and speedy sophomore Russell Hansbrough had an outstanding spring.
12. Vanderbilt: Losing dependable Zac Stacy was a blow. He’d rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons and was one of those runners who seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. Senior Wesley Tate is a premier athlete and will get his shot to be the feature back. If he gets a little confidence early, look out. The Commodores are also excited to see what sophomores Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour can do with increased touches.
13. Arkansas: Bret Bielema’s track record suggests that the Hogs are going to be able to run the football. Who the centerpiece of that running game will be remains to be seen. Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson are both gone. Sophomore Jonathan Williams is the leading returning rusher after gaining 231 yards last season. The guy Arkansas fans are eager to see is heralded freshman Alex Collins, who shouldn’t have to wait long to see the field.
14. Kentucky: Injuries have plagued the Wildcats the past two seasons at running back. Seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George both return after combining for 1,173 rushing yards last season. The X factor for Kentucky’s running game is sophomore Josh Clemons, who hasn’t played since hurting his knee during the 2011 season. If he can return to the form he displayed as a freshman, the Wildcats could move up this list.