Is three better than one?

AUSTIN, Texas -- Major Applewhite has done his research.

Texas' co-offensive coordinator knows where the college running game is heading. It's been on this course for a while now.

Look at the past 15 years of national champions, he says. Applewhite cites Clinton Portis, Maurice Clarett, Mark Ingram. Their schools won titles with one star back.

But only a few others have. The majority have gotten the job done with timeshares.

"Most of those guys have had those 500- to 700-yard backs and there's been three of them," Applewhite said. "It's a conglomeration of two to three backs who have stayed fresh throughout the year."

That's exactly what the Longhorns' running backs coach is assembling with his foursome of sophomores Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, five-star freshman Johnathan Gray and senior Jeremy Hills.

Last season, Texas had six different players rush for 200 or more yards. Creating that kind of versatility is no easy feat.

But why have that many options when the alternative could be having three great backs? For Texas, that's the next step. And it's an elusive step.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, in the past five years, 12 major-conference programs have had three running backs each gain 500-plus yards in a season.

Nine of them went on to play in BCS bowl games.

Of those nine, three offer good models for what Texas' 2012 backfield could become.

The first: Last season's LSU Tigers.

The BCS championship runner-up was powered by three sophomore running backs: Michael Ford (756 yards), Spencer Ware (707) and Alfred Blue (539). Power back Kenny Hilliard chipped in 336 yards as a true freshman.

Ware earned 10 starts and more carries than the rest, but all four backs scored at least seven touchdowns.

Just as this season's Texas squad must, LSU learned to rely on a stable of underclassmen. The Tigers won their first 13 games by wisely knowing when to ride the hot hand.

But LSU also had the nation's 104th ranked passing offense. Texas' air game will -- and must -- be better than that after ranking 82nd nationally in 2011.

That brings us to our second blueprint: The 2007 USC Trojans.

Texas has Gray. This Trojans team had No. 1 overall recruit Joe McKnight.

Pete Carroll found a way to get the blue-chipper his totes -- McKnight ran for 540 yards and started the Rose Bowl -- but relied more on senior Chauncey Washington (10 starts, 969 yards).

USC also had two sophomores in their stable. Second-year back C.J. Gable started USC's first two games before suffering a season-ending injury, and Stafon Johnson finished as USC's No. 2 rusher with 673 yards.

These Trojans were more balanced than LSU -- No. 24 ranked run game, No. 27 total offense -- but there is one significant difference between them and the 2012 Longhorns.

USC had John David Booty, a fifth-year senior, under center. Texas doesn't have that luxury.

The Trojans' division of labor is a good model for Texas, but there is a better one. Brace yourselves for possibility No. 3, Bevo fans.

The 2007 Oklahoma Sooners.

It's simple, really: OU had a feature back in Allen Patrick (1,009 yards), a touted recruit to complement him in DeMarco Murray (764), a sophomore change-of-pace back in Chris Brown (611) and a clear No. 4 guy in Mossis Madu (232).

Oklahoma paired that backfield with a 24th-ranked passing attack to create the nation's No. 7 offense in total yardage.

And the guy running the show? Not a veteran. Just some redshirt freshman named Sam Bradford.

To find itself in the good company of these BCS-bound three-back teams, Texas needs a rushing attack with clearly defined roles. Those are already emerging.

"I think that all of us kind of share the same philosophy: Here's my two starters, here's my change-up back and here's my special back," Applewhite said. "You've got Joe and Malcolm. You've got Jeremy, an old guy who can do some third down stuff. And then you've got a fast guy like Johnathan Gray, a fast guy like D.J. Monroe."

That rotation is coming into focus as the season approaches. Brown and Bergeron continue to rotate in with the No. 1 offense. Gray and Hills have their own packages in the offense that best suit their skill sets.

The first-team carries will start coming more consistently for the much-hyped Gray as he continues to learn the nuances of the position -- situational football, as his coach calls it.

"He's a guy who can make space plays, can catch the ball in the screen game," Applewhite said. "As he becomes more familiar and more comfortable with protections -- which he is each and every day -- we can start to slide him into that role."

There's a delicate balance required when juggling a stable of backs. The goal is finding consistent results with an inconsistent game plan. Players have to buy in and the co-offensive coordinators must keep their fingers on the pulse of the group.

"For a running back, you don't want to get into a back-and-forth, in-and-out, in-and-out," UT co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said. "You want to give those guys some reps so they start to get a hot hand. You don't have to have too much of shot-gunning guys back and forth and pulling guys out."

Make no mistake, Applewhite and Harsin would love to lean on a 2,000-yard back. That makes their job easy.

"That's not what we're in for," Applewhite said. "That's just not how the game is played anymore."

Instead, Texas must maximize the output of four or even five backs. That's the mark of a great run game -- and more than a few BCS-bowl teams.

And that's a good challenge to have.