<
>

It's time for a running back to bring the Heisman back to the SEC

Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette are two of the early Heisman contenders from the SEC. Icon Sportswire, AP Photo

If you listen closely, you can hear the end of an era rumbling toward the 2015 college football season. A thunderous herd of bangers and bruisers are galloping closer to take back a prized possession that has eluded them for the past five years.

The running backs are coming for the Heisman Trophy.

More specifically, SEC running backs are coming for the sport's most coveted award.

Let's face it, the Heisman race has turned into a beauty contest infested with pretty gunslingers. A quarterback has won the award five straight times and eight of the past nine times. Since 2000, a quarterback has taken home the bronze trophy 13 times.

Only twice has the Heisman gone to a running back in that time -- USC's Reggie Bush in 2005 (vacated) and Alabama's Mark Ingram in 2009.

It's time for the rugged, hardworking grunts to crash this quarterback club. After all, the award showcases one of a running back's most potent finishing moves: The stiff arm.

And if any conference is going to carry a running back to the finish line, it's the SEC. As usual, the league is loaded with running back talent, but more importantly, it's loaded with top-tier talent with legitimate Heisman aspirations.

"Some of the most powerful guys I've ever gone against [are SEC running backs]," Mississippi State cornerback Taveze Calhoun said. "You have to really know how to tackle. You have to really work that craft because you're trying to tackle a guy who's running full force and can probably squat a truck. You're trying to get him down and it takes a lot of skill."

The elite body batterers are Georgia's Nick Chubb, LSU's Leonard Fournette and Alabama's Derrick Henry. Each have a chance to put up spectacular numbers this fall and all three are on teams that should spend considerable time in the national spotlight -- two requisites for Heisman success.

The next tier is headed by (insert Arkansas running back), (insert Auburn running back), Tennessee's Jalen Hurd and Missouri's Russell Hansbrough, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year while sharing carries with Marcus Murphy and is on a Mizzou team that will -- whether you like it or not -- be in contention for the SEC East late into the year.

At Arkansas, Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins both eclipsed 1,100 yards last year, so they could cancel each other out. But if one breaks out this season, watch out.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has coached the SEC's leading rusher the past two years, meaning the winner of the starting spot (Roc Thomas, Jovon Robinson or Peyton Barber) will certainly have a chance. Thomas, a sophomore, could be a special talent, but Robinson, a dangerous downhill runner (6-foot, 230 pounds), rushed for 3,198 yards and 43 touchdowns in two seasons at the junior college level.

Don't forget Malzahn's past success concerning Heisman love with Darren McFadden at Arkansas and Tre Mason during his first year as Auburn's head coach.

"We've had people come out of our offense on a regular basis that did that," Malzahn said.

Hurd will share carries with the dynamic Alvin Kamara, but he'll get the brunt of the workload for the Volunteers and will have the chance to cruise past the 1,000-yard mark in 2015 after averaging 4.7 yards per carry last year.

"What can't he do? He has the perfect size, the breakaway speed, can punish you, he's a finesse runner. He has it all," Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton said of Hurd. "He's a complete running back."

Last year, the SEC had seven 1,000-yard rushers. This fall, that number could hit double digits when you consider the backfield talent sprinkled around the league and the lack of quarterbacks experience throughout the conference. Rushing will be done early and often.

When it comes to the leaders of the pack, Chubb, Fournette and Henry will get the most early-season Heisman publicity and all three are operating alongside continuing quarterback battles.

Chubb is the obvious favorite. The Bulldogs are the Eastern Division favorites and after rushing for 1,547 yards with only eight starts after replacing Todd Gurley, Chubb stole the running back headlines before Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott gashed Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff. Chubb's bullish, bruising style allowed him to average 7.1 yards per carry on the season and he left defenders dizzy with his whopping 165.4 yards per game in his eight starts as a true freshman.

"I definitely think he can [win the Heisman]," Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "Just watch some of the breakout runs he had last season. The kid's highlight film is ridiculous. If he keeps working and keeps grinding, like I know he will, that's a possibility for him."

Fournette is another one of those scintillating sophomores ready for bronze statue fame. While he didn't explode onto the SEC scene as quickly as people expected, Fournette possesses all-world talent to rebound nicely in 2015. For starters, he's stronger, faster, leaner and playing with a chip on his shoulder. Reaching 1,000 yards again should be a cake walk this fall. Fournette is also a tremendous kick returner, averaging 26 yards per return and taking one 100 yards for a touchdown.

Oh, and he's already got the Heisman pose down.

As for Henry, he might be the SEC's best athlete. He has linebacker size with track star speed and Playstation agility. With T.J. Yeldon gone, Henry takes over as Alabama's No. 1 rusher and even though he'll share carries with slicer Kenyan Drake, Henry should have no problem stomping past his marks of 990 yards and 11 touchdowns from last year. If Alabama is a contender at season's end, Henry will be in New York.

The bottom line is that the SEC is thriving at running back and these guys will carry the torch for Heisman-seeking backs everywhere. This league is full of Clydesdales ready to trample opposing defenses all the way to NYC.

"That's what makes the SEC different than any other conference," Mississippi State defensive end Ryan Brown said. "Those guys from LSU to Alabama and even us, the SEC is known to have great running backs and we take pride in it."