Last season was widely called “The Year of the Running Back,” with countless big performances at the position, but as 2016 approaches, the ACC is expecting big things out of its tailbacks once again. In fact, the league has eight running backs returning who compiled at least 1,000 scrimmage yards last season -- and that list doesn’t include 2014’s offensive player of the year, James Conner.
So, how do all the big-name running backs stack up?
We dug beyond the traditional metrics, where Dalvin Cook dominated, to put together our list.
LINE INDEPENDENT RUSHING
It’s tough to filter out offensive line play, but we gave it a try by looking at adjusted yards-per-carry (weighing yards after contact at a 3:1 ratio vs. yards before contact) and runs beyond the line of scrimmage (yards-per-carry on all runs of 1 yard or more). Admittedly, neither metric is particularly scientific, but they give us a sense of what each runner created on his own.
Again, Cook looks like the superstar of the group. He averages more than a half-yard better than any of the other runners in adjusted yards-per-carry, and on runs in which he crossed the line of scrimmage, he averaged better than a first down per rush. That’s astounding.
QUALITY OF OPPOSITION
NC State's schedule was hardly grueling, but dig a little into Dayes’ performance, and he still looks good. Against Power 5 and bowl-eligible Group 5 foes last year, Dayes averaged 7.09 yards-per-rush, while those same opponents surrendered, on average, just 4.68 yards-per-rush to other FBS opposition. That’s a 52 percent differential. Cook (50 percent improvement) and Hood (43 percent) also tracked well relative to their opposition, while Miami’s Joseph Yearby (11 percent worse than opponent average) and Pitt's Qadree Ollison (7 percent worse) don’t look quite as good.
ROLE ON OFFENSE
Dayes was injured midway through NC State’s eighth game of the year, but when he was healthy, he was also a huge part of the Wolfpack’s playbook. Looking strictly at first- and second-down plays (third down play calling tends to be dictated by distance), Dayes touched the football 32 percent of the time in the eight games he played — a hefty workload for a runner not traditionally considered a bell cow.
Virginia Tech freshman Travon McMillian is another interesting case. He was not the primary ball carrier early in the year, but from the Hokies’ sixth game on, he touched the ball on 35 percent of all first- and second-down plays — significantly more than Cook, Gallman or Hood.
Of course, third downs matter, too, and this was an area where Cook really struggled, converting just 22 percent of his third-and-short runs. Certainly a big portion of this can be attributed to his offensive line, but it’s still perhaps the lone chink in his armor. Ollison, McMillian and even Dayes all performed quite well.
Lastly, we looked at big plays. Big runs change the complexion of a game, and this is where Cook really separates himself.
Nearly a quarter of Cook’s rushes last year gained 10 yards or more, which is an astounding rate — and more than double that of McMillian or Ollison, by comparison. Last year, drives that included at least one 10-yard run translated into points nearly twice as often as those that didn't. Cook's big-play ability is among the best in the country, though Hood, Conner and Yearby turned in strong numbers, too.
After crunching the numbers, it seems clear our initial theory holds true. Cook remains the top tailback in the ACC entering 2016, and it may not be particularly close.
The No. 2 spot clearly belongs to Hood, whose workload should only grow in 2016.
It's hard to know quite what to expect from Conner, but if he's fully healthy, his 2014 numbers warrant the No. 3 spot on our list, and similarly, Dayes' stats were eye-opening enough that he places fourth, assuming he can stay on the field.
Gallman’s advanced metrics don’t look quite as impressive as his raw numbers, but his workload in Clemson’s offense is important. McMillian proved to be a workhorse, and his role in Justin Fuente’s offense this year will be interesting, while Yearby could certainly benefit from playing in Mark Richt’s new system at Miami.
Beyond this group, Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell has proven to be the league’s most versatile back (75 catches), and Syracuse’s Jordan Fredericks actually posted solid numbers given his surrounding talent last season, too (16 percent better yards-per-rush than his opponents allowed to others). A healthy Jon Hilliman and an improving Marcus Marshall could be in the mix, too.
Cook is clearly the leader in the clubhouse, but 2016 should be an impressive season for backs in the ACC.