McFadden latest in line of great SEC running backs

In this age of the "Hey, everybody look at me" athlete, Arkansas' Darren McFadden is a breath of fresh air.

He doesn't like talking about himself, his accomplishments or where he rates with some of the best tailbacks to play college football in recent years.

Getting him to do so is almost as difficult as getting him on the ground, which few teams have been able to do this season.

"To be honest, I really haven't paid attention to any of it," McFadden said, shrugging off the mounting accolades to come his way. "I just play ball."

Nobody has played any better in the Southeastern Conference, and it's difficult to find a player who means more to his team than McFadden anywhere else in the country.

Sure, the Heisman Trophy is probably already ticketed for Columbus, Ohio, and Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith. He all but struck the pose last week with his memorable performance against Michigan to send Ohio State to the BCS National Championship Game.

But here's a thought before all those Heisman ballots are cast: Who truly is the best football player in the country?

Ask the NFL people. Ask the college coaches (current and former). Ask the players.

If you had one pick of any college player in the country, who would you take right now?

Former Auburn coach Pat Dye coached against Georgia's Herschel Walker and coached Bo Jackson. Dye doesn't hesitate to mention those two SEC legends in the same breath as McFadden.

"There's been some great backs in this conference since they were here," Dye said. "But I believe McFadden is the best running back we've had in this conference since Bo."

Current Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville tutored Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, both of whom went in the top five picks of the 2005 draft, and Tuberville's not sure either was on the same level as McFadden.

"He's as good as we've seen in our league in a while, maybe across the country," Tuberville said. "He's a special running back. He's got the size, the speed and the quicks. If you go back and look at Ronnie Brown and Carnell, two great football players, and neither one of them had the burst after 5 yards that this kid's got. He's got the total package."

McFadden's value to his team is also off the charts. The Hogs go as he goes.

Arkansas, which faces LSU on Friday in Little Rock before taking on Florida in the SEC title game the following weekend, has lost just one game this season.

It came in the Razorbacks' opener when McFadden wasn't close to 100 percent. He was playing despite nearly having his toe ripped off his foot during an off-field fight during the preseason. He was lucky to even be walking, let alone playing football, and Arkansas was no match for USC with the 6-foot-2, 212-pound McFadden operating at maybe three-quarters speed.

But as he continued to get healthier, so did the Razorbacks. They've won 10 straight games since that 50-14 pummeling at home on Sept. 2, and they've been able to expand McFadden's repertoire along the way.

First-year offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn dug out the old single-wing quarterback package from playbooks of years gone by, and McFadden has been a perfect fit.

He's lined up at quarterback 36 times this season, gaining 317 yards and scoring seven touchdowns.

It's not just a run-only package, either. McFadden has already thrown two touchdown passes out of the shotgun, making it even more difficult to defend.

"It takes more than the front four. We committed more than that and got beat more than once," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose Vols were torched by McFadden for 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns, as well as a 12-yard TD pass.

"It will take seven, maybe one or two more. Stacking nine would be ideal. The key is not to let him on the perimeter. A [cornerback] trying to tackle him is no great bargain."

Mississippi State did as good a job as anyone last week in slowing down McFadden, who was held to 84 yards on 26 punishing carries. But like all great players, he still found a way to make a difference.

With the score tied at 7-7 in the first quarter, he took a kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown.

"We needed some momentum. It didn't matter who it came from. It had to come from somebody," McFadden explained in his patented selfless demeanor.

He's scored touchdowns four different ways this season. He has 12 rushing touchdowns, a 70-yard catch for a touchdown, two passing touchdowns and the 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. With 1,303 rushing yards, he's just 84 yards behind the Arkansas single-season record set by Madre Hill in 1995.

McFadden, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, said it would be a "great honor" to break the Arkansas rushing record.

But an even greater honor would be bringing a first-ever SEC championship back to Fayetteville.

The next two defenses (LSU and Florida) will be the toughest two McFadden has faced all season. The Gators are allowing just 71.8 yards per game on the ground and the Tigers 74.6 yards. Neither defense is giving up more than 2.7 yards per carry.

McFadden's teammates say these are the types of games he lives for.

"He runs hard, and you'll see it go to another level now," Arkansas cornerback Chris Houston said. "If you try to tackle him one-on-one, it's not going to be too pretty for you."

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.