Auburn Rushing Attack Ranked 5th in the SEC?


Dec 7, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (44) celebrates a touchdown with quarterback Nick Marshall (14) during the fourth quarter of the 2013 SEC Championship game against the Missouri Tigers at Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC Network is great. Since its launch, I’ve been able to turn it on the television set and leave it on as background noise for the rest of the day, allowing my eyes and ears to drift in and out as interesting tidbits are discussed on studio shows or as classic games are replayed.

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I missed last night’s episode of SEC Now, but was able to catch a rerun this morning over breakfast and coffee. As former Alabama and NFL quarterback turned SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy began his conference rushing attack rankings, I was not shocked to see the Alabama Crimson Tide take the top spot, and it really has nothing to do with his Tuscaloosa ties.

TJ Yeldon has had a great career thus far as he has rushed for 2,343 yards and 26 touchdowns across his first two seasons. Over that same time frame, Kenyan Drake has added nearly 1,000 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, and he will be a factor in the passing game this year as well.

Plus, as McElroy pointed out, Derrick Henry could be the best of the bunch. Henry averaged more than ten yards per carry in limited duty last season and exploded onto the national scene in last year’s Sugar Bowl when he ran for 100 yards and a touchdown and caught a 61-yard TD pass. Overall, Alabama averaged 205.6 yards rushing last season, which ranked fourth in the SEC and 25th nationally and those three players all return.

I was pretty certain that Auburn would come in at number two on McEloy’s list, but was instead surprised to see the Tigers’ week one opponent, Arkansas. Sure, we’ve already discussed that the Razorbacks have a talented trio of running backs in Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall.

Last season, Arkansas ran the ball well, finishing ahead of Alabama with 208.7 rushing yards per game, and they too return their best players. But are they, in addition to the Hogs’ offensive line, better than Auburn’s rushing attack? According to McElroy they are.

The Tigers return 2,325 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns from last year’s squad in Marshall, Artis-Payne and Grant alone. That’s more than Alabama’s top three (2,311), Arkansas’ trio (2,072), Georgia’s top four (1,964) and South Carolina’s top three returners (1,662).

Surely, McElroy would put the Tigers third? Nope, the former quarterback feels that the Georgia Bulldogs were more deserving.

It’s true that Georgia’s Todd Gurley is one of the best players in all of college football – we’ve ranked him as the best running back in the SEC. But he’s struggled to stay on the field – he missed three games last season – as has primary backup Keith Marshall.

Additionally, the Bulldogs have quite a few question marks on the offensive line and they weren’t very good running the football last season. With Gurley and Marshall limited by injuries, the Dawgs were 11th in the SEC in rushing offense in 2013 – an average of 169.9 yards per contest. Do they have talent? Yes. But it’s hard to say that Georgia will have a better rushing attack than Auburn.

Next, McElroy picked the South Carolina Gamecocks. Mike Davis had 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and Carolina has a solid offensive line, but are they too better than Auburn?

When McElroy finally selected the Auburn Tigers as the fifth best rushing attack in the Southeastern Conference, he mentioned that it was due in large part to the loss of Tre Mason, the Heisman Trophy finalist and feature back in 2013 that was one of the best players in all of college football.

Yes, Mason will be missed. He carried the ball 317 times for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. He helped the Tigers become not only the SEC’s best rushing attack with an average of 328.3 yards per game, but was a big part of the reason that the Tigers led the entire country in rushing last season.

However, with all due respect to Tre Mason, he won’t be missed that much. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant combined to run for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 157 carries last season – better than eight yards per attempt. Plus, the Tigers have a weapon that none of the teams listed ahead of them do – a quarterback with game-breaking speed. Nick Marshall ran for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns on 172 carries in 2013.

Nov 30, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall (14) carries the ball for a 45 yard touchdown in the first quarter against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

For those of you that haven’t added it up yet, the Tigers return 2,325 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns from last year’s squad in Marshall, Artis-Payne and Grant alone. That’s more than Alabama’s top three (2,311), Arkansas’ trio (2,072), Georgia’s top four (1,964) and South Carolina’s top three returners (1,662).

While the Auburn coaching staff has said the Tigers are likely to throw the ball more in 2014, Gus Malzahn’s power running game will still be in full force. Also, the offensive line is one of the best in the league.

McElroy’s rankings are projections of how he believes the teams will fare in 2014, and are not based on 2013’s results. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that Auburn’s returning players outrushed the competition even after you account for the loss of Tre Mason.

With more carries this year for Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, as well as talented freshmen like Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas giving Auburn even more depth, it’s hard to imagine Auburn finishing the season with the fifth best rushing attack in the SEC.

In all actuality, it’s hard to imagine they won’t be the best.