Decades of Big Ten seasons have started and finished with tales of great tailbacks and dominant running games.
This year will be no different. Last season, only five Big Ten tailbacks collected 1,000 rushing yards. However, given the influx of stellar underclassmen backs, that number could double in 2016.
Here’s a countdown of the presumptive seven best backs in the Big Ten, what they’ve done so far and what we expect them to do this year:
1. JUSTIN JACKSON, NORTHWESTERN
Justin Jackson, who has 15 career touchdowns, holds the dual distinction of being the Big Ten’s top returning rusher from last season (1,418 yards) and the conference’s leading active rusher (2,605 yards).
Jackson has cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his first two collegiate seasons. The junior-to-be also rushed for 120 or more yards seven times last season.
In 2015, Jackson averaged 139 rushing yards when tallying 20-plus carries (nine games).
Of his last seven November outings dating back to 2014, Jackson boasts an incredible average of 148.4 rushing yards. During that span, he also has eight touchdowns. Speaking of which, Jackson has tallied at least one score in his last four games.
Warren Long has registered only 104 rushing attempts in three seasons with the Wildcats, thus validating Jackson’s standing as a ‘workhorse’ back. On a positive note, however, Long holds a rock-solid average of 4.9 yards per carry.
It’s imperative for Jackson to rack up 700 rushing yards in his first five games (vs. Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke, Nebraska, Iowa). After that, Northwestern has a dicey stretch of Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin — a crucial period which could make or break Jackson’s candidacy for Big Ten Player of the Year.
PREDICTION: 1,570 rushing yards
2. SAQUON BARKLEY, PENN STATE
Saquon Barkley easily led the Big Ten in freshman rushing yards last season (1,076). In just his second collegiate game against Buffalo, Barkley rolled for 115 rushing yards and one touchdown. He then amassed 195 rushing yards and two TDs against Rutgers the following week.
Citing a four-game stretch of Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois and Northwestern last year, Barkley averaged 143 total yards and one TD. Against the Buckeyes, the freshman notched 194 rushing yards.
For good measure, Barkley (5.9 yards per carry, 8 total TDs) tallied five games of 100-plus rushing yards last season.
The sophomore-to-be should expect a subsantial uptick from last year’s 182 carries. As such, he’s a prime candidate for 1,500 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Mark Allen logged only 27 freshman carries last season. He’ll likely replace Akeel Lynch (grad transfer to Nevada) as Barkley’s primary backup.
The Big Ten has a lot of high-upside backs this season, but Barkley may possess the greatest ceiling of the group with his good size, explosive burst and top-notch quickness. When watching film, Barkley compares favorably to a young LeSean McCoy.
PREDICTION: 1,343 rushing yards
3. COREY CLEMENT, WISCONSIN
During his three years at Wisconsin, Clement boasts an average of 6.6 yards per carry. (Ay the rub: Injuries have limited the senior-to-be to only 26 collegiate games.) At that stellar YPC rate, he would need roughly 250 carries to claim the Big Ten rushing crown.
Strange but true: Clement has never collected 20 carries in a single game. In fact, when citing the New Jersey native’s eight 100-yard efforts, Clement merely averaged 13.7 carries per outing.
Clement, who rushed for 949 yards in 2014, has scored at least once in his last three games, (five total TDs during that span).
Wisconsin’s brutal schedule doesn’t necessarily work in Clement’s favor. After the daunting opener against LSU’s NFL prospect-heavy defense, the Badgers must later endure a continuous stretch of Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern.
Clement’s countdown ranking shouldn’t undermine the track-record goodness of Dare Ugonbowale, the Badgers’ leading rusher from last season (819 yards, 8 total TDs). In 2015, Ugonbowale posted three 100-yard outings, while averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
Ugonbowale’s presence could greatly hinder Clement’s breakout chances for 2016. But then again, Montee Ball and James White flourished in a two-back setting a few years ago (2,804 total yards/35 TDs in 2012); so, why couldn’t the current Badgers pull off a similar feat?
This especially rings true when considering the following thought: Wisconsin might have the Big Ten’s worst quarterbacking situation this fall. If the Badgers are to exceed last year’s average of 26.8 points per game (81st nationally), it will require a steady diet of Clement and Ugonbowale touches.
PREDICTION: 1,248 rushing yards
4. DEVINE REDDING, INDIANA
By a long shot, Devine Redding was the Big Ten’s premier backup tailback last year, finishing fifth in rushing yards (1,012). In fact, the terrific tandem of Jordan Howard and Redding combined for 422 carries, 2,225 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Redding had the best finishing kick of any Big Ten tailback last season. For his final three games, the Ohio native amassed 401 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
For the season, Redding also tallied multiple touchdowns three times (vs. Southern Illinois, Ohio State, Rutgers).
How’s this for pressure: The Hoosiers’ last two primary rushers (Howard, Tevin Coleman) averaged 1,625 rushing yards and 13 TDs in their respective final seasons.
Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson has never shied away from a two-headed backfield; but this year may qualify as an outlier, given Redding’s sublime skill set of size, speed, power, experience and athleticism. (Pro comparison: DeAngelo Williams.)
Secondary touchess will be determined among the cluster of Devonte Williams, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Majette, Ricky Brookins and converted receiver Camion Patrick.
Redding had two games of 30-plus touches last year. The over-under for 2016 current sits at four games of 30 or more carries. Put it all together and Redding (career average: 4.4 yards per carry) could contend for the Big Ten rushing crown.
PREDICTION: 1,241 rushing yards
5. SHANNON BROOKS, MINNESOTA
Shannon Brooks may have logged only 709 rushing yards last year, but his spot in this countdown was clinched before the Thanksgiving holiday: The freshman averaged 175 rushing yards and two TDs against Purdue and Illinois.
Among the returning tailbacks, Brooks stands as the only Big Ten rusher to post a seasonal yards-per-carry of 6.0 or higher. When collecting 14 or more carries last season, Brooks averaged 125.2 rushing yards and 1.5 touchdowns.
Returning back Rodney Smith actually had 39 more carries than Brooks last season, but the latter prevailed in the categories of touchdowns, yards per carry, receptions and receiving yards.
It’s reasonable to earmark Brooks for 16 or 17 carries per outing this fall, or roughly 240 during a 13-game season (including the bowl). That puts the sophomore-to-be in good shape for 1,200-plus yards — even with a mild, but expected dip in yards-per-carry production.
PREDICTION: 1,228 rushing yards
6. MARKELL JONES, PURDUE
Markell Jones enjoyed a fabulous freshman campaign, rushing for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. For good measure, he also caught 34 balls for 239 yards and one score.
How’s this for symmetry? Jones tallied one rushing touchdown in his first three college games – and one rushing TD in his final three outings. Jones scored multiple TDs in Purdue’s two biggest outings last year — a narrow road loss to eventual Big Ten champion Michigan State and the Boilermakers’ high-scoring upset of Nebraska. For those two games, the Indiana native averaged 151 total yards.
Of the seven outings in which Jones registered 18 touches last season (including receptions), he scored at least one touchdown six times. Jones was one of just five Big Ten tailbacks to post double-digit rushing touchdowns last year, along with Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Canzeri, LJ Scott and Brandon Ross.
This could be a dicey pick sooner than later if Boilermakers backs D.J. Knox (409 rushing yards, 2 TDs last year) and redshirt freshman Richie Worship log substantial touches in the first five games, all somewhat winnable meetings with Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada, Maryland and Illinois.
But Jones has the talent, athleticism and statistical upside to crack this countdown — assuming he can hit the magical threshold of 195 carries.
Jones seems like a lock for 1,000 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns. Let’s just hope he doesn’t become the sole focal point of a Purdue offense that scored 24 or fewer points seven times last season. He doesn’t need nine defenders in the proverbial ‘box’ on every first or second down.
PREDICTION: 1,046 rushing yards
7. LJ SCOTT, MICHIGAN STATE
As a freshman in 2015, LJ Scott rushed for 699 yards and 11 touchdowns despite averaging only 10.4 rushes per game. Scott notched four outings of multiple TDs last year, including three straight games during Big Ten play against Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan.
Scott had a yards-per-carry average of 5.9 or higher six times last season. By comparison, that output exceeded or matched rushing stars like Saquon Barkley (Penn State), Markell Jones (Purdue) and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State).
Scott might look like a burgeoning star at the college level, but there’s no guarantee of a full-on breakout this fall. The reason: Returning assets Gerald Holmes (540 rushing yards, 8 TDs) and Madre London (500 rushing yards, 3 TDs) were both rock-solid contributors last year, with each back collecting a minimum of 110 carries.
And given how Michigan State will be breaking in a new quarterback (presumably Tyler O’Connor), the rushing attack should be a greater priority in 2016.
We have Scott tabbed for an average of 5.1 yards per carry this fall, meaning the sophomore-to-be would require 193 rushes to crack the 1,000-yard mark. On paper, this seems like a doable goal, but there’s still some lingering uncertainty about Scott breaking from the eminently qualified pack of Spartan backups.
PREDICTION: 1,019 rushing yards
Terrell Newby (Nebraska), LeShun Daniels Jr. (Iowa), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (Illinois), Dare Ogunbowale (Wisconsin), De’Veon Smith (Michigan), Robert Martin, Josh Hicks (Rutgers), Rodney Smith (Minnesota) and highly touted freshman Mike Weber (Ohio State).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.