Alabama Crimson Tide: Kenny Hilliard

Today, we continue our look at each position in the SEC by checking out quite the loaded group: Running backs.

SEC games are won and lost in the trenches, but the league has always poked its chest out from the running back position.

This season is no different, as the league is once again loaded here:

Alabama's TJ Yeldon
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJunior T.J. Yeldon leads an Alabama running back corps that might be the best in the nation.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide might have the nation’s best backfield. T.J. Yeldon enters the 2014 season with 2,343 career rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, while sophomore Derrick Henry, who might be the most talented back on the roster, excels as a bruiser and a cruiser with his pounding frame and elite speed. Junior Kenyan Drake provides a nice change-of-pace with his elusiveness, and the Tide will grind away with mammoth Jalston Fowler.

2. Georgia: When healthy, Todd Gurley is arguably the country’s best running back. He has that rare combination of size, speed and explosion that make him a terror for defenses. Even with nagging injuries, Gurley has 2,374 career rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Fellow junior Keith Marshall proved to be a great complement to Gurley with his explosiveness, but is coming off a devastating knee injury. Expect freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb to get chances, along with youngsters Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman.

3. South Carolina: Junior Mike Davis has the skill to be a Heisman Trophy candidate. He can pound away with his strength and break the big run. He has nearly 1,500 career yards and the talent to make this his last year in college. There isn’t a lot of drop off with Brandon Wilds, either. Injuries have been an issue for him, but when he’s on the field, he usually outworks opponents. He’s also a good blocker and a receiving threat. Shon Carson has shown flashes, but has to put it all together. Keep an eye on David Williams, who could be the back of the future.

4. Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t do a lot of good things on offense last season, but Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams presented a formidable duo for opposing defenses. Together, they rushed for 1,985 yards and eight touchdowns. The second number has to increase this season, but if the line improves, these two should produce plenty of headaches this fall. Korliss Marshall only played in eight games last year, but people around the program think he’s the biggest home run threat at running back.

5. Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is gone, but the backfield should be fine by committee. Tra Carson has what it takes to be a bellcow back with his blend of power, explosion and elusiveness. The Aggies could have a solid one-two-punch with Carson and Trey Williams, who might be the most gifted of A&M’s backs. Brandon Williams and James White should get carries too. White looks like the back of the future and is an every-down pounder, while Brandon Williams might be the fastest of the bunch.

6. Auburn: What Tre Mason did last year was nothing short of impressive, and the system he ran will only benefit the guys after him. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for more than 600 yards last season and each had six touchdowns. Artis-Payne could carry the load, while Grant is used as more of the speed back. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could get some carries, but keep an eye on true freshman Racean Thomas, who could really challenge Artis-Payne.

7. LSU: Jeremy Hill might be gone, but Terrence Magee could start for a handful of SEC squads. He rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season and stole some carries from Hill here and there throughout the season. He isn’t easy to take down and is more elusive than Hill was. But he’ll certainly be pushed by freshman Leonard Fournette, who was the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class. Senior Kenny Hilliard returns with more than 1,000 career rushing yards and 21 touchdowns.

8. Florida: This might the Gators’ deepest position. Sophomore Kelvin Taylor started to get more comfortable last season and is faster and more agile right now. He’s trying to be more of an every-down back and carry the load, but will get plenty of help from Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Brown has really turned things around in the last year, while Jones should be 100 percent after knee surgery this spring. The wild card could be freshman Brandon Powell, who could be a real threat in the passing game.

[+] EnlargeRussell Hansbrough
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesRussell Hansbrough could be on the verge of a breakout season for Missouri.
9. Missouri: The Tigers might have a gem in junior Russell Hansbrough. He isn’t the biggest back, but he blends power and speed and churned out 6.0 yards per carry last season. Hansbrough is primed for a breakout year and will have a good complement in Marcus Murphy, who is an extremely explosive player at running back and in the return game. Redshirt sophomore Morgan Steward, who is bigger than Mizzou’s typical backs, but might be the fastest of the bunch.

10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have a solid duo to work with in juniors I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Both registered more than 500 yards last season and were neck-and-neck for most of the spring. Expect an attack by committee where Walton has more of the flash and Mathers uses more power. Jordan Wilkins is a really physical back who is more of a grinder than the other two. There isn’t a workhorse, but all these guys fit what Hugh Freeze wants to do on offense.

11. Mississippi State: Another team with a potentially deadly duo headlining its backfield. Josh Robinson was third on the team last season with 459 yards, but averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He packs a punch and can break the big plays. Nick Griffin had a great spring, but has dealt with multiple ACL injuries. Having him healthy for the first time is huge. There’s excitement about Brandon Holloway moving to running back, and youngsters Ashton Shumpert and Aeris Williams could get chances this fall.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats have plenty of questions on offense, but there’s hope at running back. Sophomore Jojo Kemp led the team in rushing last season (482), but will battle Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard, who might be able to do a little more with his athleticism and speed. Josh Clemons is back after sitting out two seasons with injuries, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams will give Kentucky good depth.

13. Tennessee: Senior Marlin Lane has a ton of experience and will relied on even more with Rajion Neal gone, but inconsistency has always been something that has hurt Lane. He’s yet to hit 700 yards in a season, but he’s shown flashes his entire career. Freshman Jalen Hurd, who has great size and athleticism, is being viewed as the real deal in Knoxville and will have very opportunity to grab a good amount of carries this fall after enrolling early. Him taking the starting job wouldn't surprise anyone.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason was pleased with where his running backs were coming out of the spring. Junior Brian Kimbrow, who has a ton of wiggle and speed, is stronger, which should help him between the tackles. The Commodores could have a future star in redshirt freshman Ralph Webb and veteran Jerron Seymour, who led Vandy with 716 rushing yards, is back, giving Vandy some good depth to start the season.

Five things: LSU-Alabama

November, 9, 2013
11/09/13
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Here are five things to watch as top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0) hosts 13th-ranked LSU (7-2, 3-2)

Running the football: There will be a lot of focus on the quarterbacks and wide receivers in this game, but don't forget that these games often come down to who limits turnovers and runs the football best. Alabama's ground game has improved mightily since the start of the season with T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake developing into a potent duo. LSU, meanwhile, has the top rusher in the league in Jeremy Hill. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard, his two backups, are no slouches either.

Quarterback play: It's been a tale of two quarterbacks of late: AJ McCarron has gone one way while Zach Mettenberger has gone another. Mettenberger threw 15 touchdowns to two interceptions in his first two games, but four touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests. McCarron, meanwhile, has improved since his first four games where he threw six touchdowns and three interceptions, tossing 10 touchdowns and no picks in his last four contests. McCarron's 92.5 Total QBR since Oct. 1 ranks No. 1 in the FBS.

Defending the pass: Whoever starts opposite Deion Belue at cornerback for Alabama on Saturday, likely Cyrus Jones, will have his hands full. Whoever it is, the Tide corners will have their hands full defending Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU's talented tandem of wide receivers. Both rank in the top 10 among SEC receivers in yards and Beckham is second nationally in all-purpose yards per game.

Tale of two defenses: Alabama's defense has been nearly perfect this season. Since giving up 42 points to Texas A&M, Alabama has outscored opponents 246-26. The Tide has five more touchdowns (31) than its opponents have points during that time. LSU, on the other hand, has endured some ups and downs on defense. The Tigers have allowed 21.9 points and 351.7 yards per game, compared to the Tide which has allowed an average of 9.8 points and 280.9 yards per game.

Bye week help: If you think having a bye week before Saturday's game helps Alabama, think again. While getting players close to 100 percent helps, the final outcome hasn't been affected by having a week off. Alabama has lost three games under Nick Saban when coming off a regular season bye week. All three have come against LSU.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban eventually learned to take advantage of the bye week and relax. Through years of coaching at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, he found that using two full weeks to prepare for a game was counterproductive. Players got tired of hearing the same things over and over again, he said, and by the time the game actually arrived they were "sort of mentally and psychologically drained."

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger is one of the nation's most-improved QBs, a fact not lost on Nick Saban.
But Alabama's 62-year-old coach with four championship rings and plans on a fifth this season can only stick to his plan so much. He encouraged everyone on staff to go home and take the weekend off, to rest and recuperate before diving headlong into the task of preparing for LSU the following week. He said he looked forward to the change of venue -- "not come to work for the first time in six months" -- and added that he'd even watch some football on Saturday, especially if there was a good SEC game on.

Picturing Saban lounging on the couch with a cold drink and popcorn doesn't quite add up, though. Not with LSU on the horizon. The top-ranked Crimson Tide play host to the always dangerous purple and gold Tigers on Saturday. LSU will enter Tuscaloosa ranked 13th in the BCS, but more importantly as an underdog with a history of winning at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Their offense is potent, the talent unquestionable.

Should Alabama win, the Tide will remain favorites to win the SEC and reach the BCS National Championship Game for a third consecutive season. A loss would mean disaster, disappointment and a year's worth of questions.

The very thought kept Saban from enjoying the time off too much.

"I don't ever get too far from that computer, man," Saban told ESPN's Ivan Maisel on his podcast on Thursday. "It's just hard not to think about what's coming up and trying to prepare for it. Even though you get away, you never totally get away."

Though most of last week was spent looking at his own team, the matchup with LSU was impossible to ignore. Saban called it "the most challenging game" of the season and touted LSU's improved offense under new coordinator Cam Cameron, a coach he's familiar with dating to his days at Michigan State.

Zach Mettenberger has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC under Cameron's tutelage. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His 38.6-point improvement from the season before is the biggest gain of any quarterback who qualified.

With Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to throw the ball to, it's no wonder. The two starters rank in the top three of the SEC in yards receiving and have combined for 16 touchdown catches through nine games. Beckham ranks second nationally with 207.33 all-purpose yards per game.

And that's not to mention Jeremy Hill and LSU's stable of backs. Hill's 115.2 rushing yards per game is good enough for 15th nationally. Kenny Hilliard, his backup, has scored on 10.1 percent of his rushing attempts this season, trailing only Marcus Murphy and Kenyan Drake among SEC tailbacks.

"This is the most skilled group of receivers, combination of runners, combination of balance on offense, a good quarterback ... all the factors that I think are going to be the most challenging for us this season," Saban said.

There never has been a doubt about what the game means to everyone involved, Saban said, but he didn't want to "wear them out with it" last week. The Alabama-LSU rivalry speaks for itself. What's riding on this year's game is obvious.

But now that restriction is gone. It's Monday and it's time to start figuring out how to beat LSU.

Coaches and players know what to expect. Linebacker Trey DePriest called it a "physical, downhill-type team" that will line up and go right at you. Then the only thing left is "Can you stop it?" according to DePriest.

And the answer to that question means everything.

Tide schedule preview: LSU 

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
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Editor's note: The season is nearly upon us and TideNation is taking steps to get you ready for every one of Alabama's regular season opponents. Every Tuesday and Thursday we'll go through each week of the Crimson Tide's schedule, starting with the season-opener against Virginia Tech and closing with the finale against Auburn.

SEC power rankings: Week 2

September, 4, 2012
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The first weekend of the college football season brought some changes to our power rankings. As we enter Week 2, some teams are trending down, while others are on the up. And some look pretty much like we thought they'd look in their first games.

It's still early, but this weekend could help to better shape the conference race, especially in the SEC East where Florida travels to Texas A&M and Georgia heads to Missouri. Also, keep an eye on Mississippi State's home game with Auburn.

OK, time for the rankings:

1. Alabama (1-0): The Crimson Tide made quite the statement by absolutely dominating No. 8 Michigan inside Cowboys Stadium. The defense, which lost a host of top talent from last year's national championship team, took Denard Robinson out of the game from the start. The offense should be fun to watch this fall with freshman T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy carrying the ball and AJ McCarron throwing to those young, explosive receivers.

2. LSU (1-0): It's not like the Tigers looked bad against overmatched North Texas, but Alabama's performance was just that good. Zach Mettenberger did well in his LSU debut, passing for 192 yards and a touchdown, while running backs Kenny Hilliard (141 yards) and Alfred Blue (123) pounded away at North Texas' defense. The Tigers racked up 508 total yards and limited North Texas to just nine first downs and 219 total yards.

3. Arkansas (1-0): We know Arkansas can score and churn out yards. The Hogs made both of those things look very easy against Jacksonville State, especially quarterback Tyler Wilson, who threw for 367 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. But the defense still has some questions surrounding it, as the Hogs gave up 24 points. The defense settled down the second half and gave up 322 total yards, which was one yard less than the average given up by top 15 teams this weekend.

4. Georgia (1-0): The Bulldogs' defense is obviously hurting without Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree and it showed in the win over Buffalo. There was a lot of give in the pass defense and the Bulldogs struggled stopping quarterback runs. Improving in both of those areas will be crucial heading into the Missouri game. The offense looked pretty good, especially with freshman running back Todd Gurley carrying the ball. He registered 100 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries.

5. South Carolina (1-0): The offense was shaky when it came to throwing the ball, and it certainly wasn't any better after quarterback Connor Shaw went down with that shoulder injury. His health is critical, as there isn't much experience at all behind him. Running back Marcus Lattimore looked solid in his return and was back to his workhorse ways. The defense played well overall, but the secondary still has concerns.

6. Tennessee (1-0): Everything went right for the Vols against NC State. It became blatenly obvious that they have more depth across the board now than they've had during Derek Dooley's tenure. Getting the tough yards running the ball was still an issue at times, but Marlin Lane showed that he might have what it takes to be that explosive running back Tennessee needs. Tyler Bray had no issue throwing the ball with Justin Hunter back and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson going off.

(Read full post)

Size, speed separate SEC from others

January, 8, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS -- The rest of the college football world will be watching on Monday night.

But in the Big Easy, it’s strictly an SEC world.

The SEC will make it six straight national championships when Alabama and LSU clash in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in what will be the first matchup of two teams from the same league in the BCS National Championship Game.

The players on both sides said they don’t see the SEC onslaught ending any time soon. Already, several early preseason polls for 2012 include four and five SEC teams in the top 10.

Everybody wants to know what the common denominator is in the SEC’s success.

In short, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said it’s a combination of size, strength and speed mixed in with superior coaching.

“There are a lot of guys who are fast, or they’re big and strong,” Hightower said. “But in the SEC, you’ve got both. You’ve got guys who are 260 and run a 4.5 or 4.6 [in the 40-yard dash], and you see guys who are 200 and 210 pounds that can bench-press 500 pounds. You don’t see that in a lot of conferences.

“It’s that, and I think the coaches here have more of an edge than other conferences.”

LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said there’s a level of defense played in the SEC with a level of athlete, particularly in the defensive line, that other conferences can’t match.

“Look at the front sevens in the SEC,” Brockers said. “Where else do you see that kind of size, speed and depth? There are great players all over college football, but every team has them in the SEC, and I’m talking about big guys who can run and make plays.”

Alabama center William Vlachos said LSU’s depth in the defensive line is a perfect example.

“They run three or four off and bring in three or four just as good,” Vlachos said. “There’s no drop-off … in size, speed or strength.”

Depth, period, is something that sets both Alabama and LSU apart.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smarts points to LSU’s backfield on offense. Spencer Ware was the go-to guy to begin the season, but Michael Ford goes into the national title game as the Tigers’ leading rusher. Alfred Blue isn’t too far behind, and 240-pound true freshman Kenny Hilliard has emerged as their most powerful back toward the end of the season.

“By the fourth quarter, your linebackers are tackling them 30 times, and they’re getting tackled for the fourth time and fifth time because they’re sharing all the carries,” Smart said. “They’ve got four really good backs, and that’s what you better have in this league to be good.”

Even when the SEC’s streak hits six in a row on Monday, Hightower realizes there will be some people out there who simply won’t give the league its due.

Never mind that four SEC teams are poised to finish in the top 8 of the final polls for the first time ever or that five SEC teams finished among the top 16 in the final BCS standings.

“I feel like there’s always going to be a debate,” Hightower said. “But if you look at the six straight years of winning the national championship and all the bowl games, the SEC has always been the best overall.”

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