When most people think of Big Ten football, they imagine a physical game won in the trenches, with a burly running back barreling behind a stout offensive line. It's no wonder, then, that the league has traditionally featured some of the top tailbacks in the country. That should be no different in 2016, as a slew of backfield talent returns.
This week, the Big Ten writers will be running down which teams have the best position groups entering the season. In this list, we'll be dealing with running backs. It is a topic sure to inspire discussion among Big Ten fan bases. The answers are subjective, but this particular list is based on overall depth of talent or projected success rather than a program having one standout runner. Here's a look:
Big Ten teams with best running backs
Why Michigan State has the best RBs: The Spartans began spring with three tailbacks listed as co-starters. LJ Scott starred as a freshman and led the team in rushing yards (699) and touchdowns (11). He could be in for a breakout sophomore season. But Gerald Holmes and Madre London provide plenty of firepower as well. Holmes contributed 540 yards with eight touchdowns, while London added 500 yards and three touchdowns. With a new quarterback taking over for Connor Cook, the Spartans could rely on their running game even more. The key will be to strengthen the offensive line, which loses tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and guard Donavon Clark.
Why Wisconsin and Iowa are the runners-up: The Badgers are listed here based in large part on the presumed health of tailback Corey Clement. He was supposed to be the heir apparent to Melvin Gordon last season and one of the best running backs in the Big Ten. But a sports-hernia injury derailed his junior campaign. He has returned to Wisconsin for his senior season with a mission to prove he is as good as everybody believes he can be. In his absence last season, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal gained valuable playing time. Ogunbowale led the team with 819 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Deal tallied 503 yards with six touchdowns, and Clement finished with 221 yards and five touchdowns in only four games. Wisconsin closed the season without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2004, but the Badgers' running game should be back in 2016.
Even as Iowa loses senior and leading rusher Jordan Canzeri, the Hawkeyes reload with a talented trio. Leshun Daniels and Akrum Wadley return, and each had his moment in the sun during Iowa's stellar 2015 season. Daniels rushed for 195 yards and three touchdowns against Minnesota. Wadley tallied 204 yards and four touchdowns against Northwestern. The pair combined for 1,142 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns last season. With Derrick Mitchell back in the fall as the No. 3 tailback, expect Iowa's ground game to flourish.
Team that just missed the top-three cut: Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State has what many consider to be the top returning running back in the Big Ten with Saquon Barkley. He sparkled as a freshman, rushing for 1,076 yards and seven touchdowns. There is some unproven talent behind Barkley but plenty of reason for Nittany Lions fans to be excited. Miles Sanders, the No. 3 running back in the ESPN300 for the Class of 2016, will arrive this summer and should contribute next season. Freshman Andre Robinson redshirted last season but dominated in high school and has generated plenty of buzz. Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas also will be vying for time. Penn State's offense will feature an up-tempo spread attack with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and that could bode well for a deep running-back group to earn more carries.
Team that could surprise: Ohio State Buckeyes.
If basing this ranking purely on talent, Ohio State would win hands down. But with star running back Ezekiel Elliott gone, this is largely a group that is unproven. Elliott rushed for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, and he rightfully earned the bulk of the carries. The Buckeyes' leading returning rusher from the tailback spot is Curtis Samuel, who gained only 132 yards. But throw in names like Bri'onte Dunn, Mike Weber and Dontre Wilson, and this bunch could prove to be scary. That's the group of four coach Urban Meyer has said he anticipates running the ball next season. Early enrollee Antonio Williams is another tailback to add to the deep talent pool.
Team that needs to step up: Michigan Wolverines
It's hard to believe Michigan hasn't produced a 1,000-yard rusher from the tailback spot since Fitzgerald Toussaint in 2011. Still, the Wolverines have enough pieces in place to put together a strong 2016 campaign. De'Veon Smith was the Wolverines' top rusher last season, finishing with 753 yards and six touchdowns. Backup Drake Johnson performed well in limited action, gaining 271 yards with four touchdowns. Ty Isaac is battling to make up ground in the running-back race, and he's in a group with Karan Higdon, Kareem Walker and Kingston Davis. Walker is rated as the No. 4 overall running back by ESPN in the class of 2016.