An introductory note on criteria: proven production was the biggest factor for me. Sure, Derrick Green and Ezekiel Elliott and [INSERT YOUR SCHOOL'S FUTURE DOAK WALKER WINNER HERE] have plenty of talent and might turn out to be great backs. If that's the case, they'll make our postseason rankings (if we can be bothered to do those). But game recognize game, and if I haven't seen your actual game on the field yet, how am I supposed to recognize it? Oh right. 'CROOTIN RANX. Silly me.
The other things I considered are mostly context-based. Is the tailback his team's only option on the ground, or are there other capable guys taking carries away? What about sneaky dual-threat QBs hogging the ball? Is the rest of the offense so good that any schmuck off the street could rack 1,000 yards in it (haha not in this conference)? Can this guy help in the passing game? And, most importantly, have I heard enough about him to assess his skills without actually watching him play a down?
1. Melvin Gordon III, RS Junior, Wisconsin @Melvingordon25, @MG25Heisman
The call between Gordon and Abdullah for the top spot is a tough one, and if Abdullah ends up having the better season, I won't be at all surprised. But the edge ultimately goes to the guy with game-breaking ability, and Gordon has shown that from the first time he stepped on the collegiate field.
In 2013, Gordon moved from a jet-sweep specialist role into a highly effective timeshare with James White, wherein both tailbacks totaled over 1,400 yards. Gordon averaged nearly 8 YPC, rolling for 1,609 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. Although Gordon is not a threat in the receiving game (just one catch in 2013), his legs already give defenses plenty to worry about, and he figures to take more of a primary role in 2014 with White having graduated. Of course, if Wisconsin isn't able to create some semblence of a passing game after the departures of Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen, Gordon may find boxes even more stacked than Badger backs typically do. Also, backup Corey Clement showed enough promise last year to merit some carries. But with Gordon's ability and a talented, mostly-intact line in front of him, 2014 should still be a huge year for the junior.
2. Ameer Abdullah, Senior, Nebraska @Ameerguapo
After capably stepping into the primary role in relief of the injured Rex Burkhead in 2012, Abdullah took a large step forward as the leading man in Nebraska's offense last year, and undoubtedly pleased Big Red fans by deciding to return for his senior season. Abdullah totalled 1,690 rushing yards (at a brisk 6.1 YPC) and added 232 receiving yards on 26 catches. Although 10 total touchdowns might seem a bit low considering his otherwise-prolific stats, the presence of goal-line sidekick/touchdown vulture Imani Cross helps explain that. Beyond putting up his impressive stats, Abdullah was also Nebraska's go-to man when a big play was needed. A Herculean pickup of a 4th down conversion in the game-winning two minute drill against Northwestern comes to mind.
As Nebraska attempts to reconfigure its offensive line and settle on its quarterback, the Doak Walker semifinalist's steady presence will no doubt prove invaluable to the Husker offense in 2014. Nebraska does have other decent options at run- I'm sorry, I-back- but none with anywhere near the experience and proven versatility Abdullah brings.
3. Jeremy Langford, RS Senior, Michigan State @J_Lang33
Raise your hand if you thought, a year ago, that Jeremy Langford was going to take a lead role in the Spartan backfield. If your hand is up, you're either a terrible liar or some kind of prophet. Before last season, Langford had spent 3 years wandering the practice fields of East Lansing in search of a position, starting as a running back, switching to defensive back, then to wide receiver, then a brief stint playing goalie for the lacrosse team, and then back to running back before last season. He in no way separated himself from the back of would-be Le'Veon Bell successors- until the season started.
Langford fairly quickly distinguished himself as the best option available, and compiled 1,422 rushing yards and 18 TDs, with another 157 yards and a score through the air. Nick Hill and Delton Williams both chipped in through the bulk of the B1G season, but in the penultimate games of MSU's breakthrough season, Langford was the MSU run game, taking 47 of 51 carries by running backs against Ohio State and Stanford. Like Abdullah, Langford has a penchant for the big play at the critical moment, and iced multiple games for the Spartans with late, backbreaking touchdown runs. Also like Abdullah, Langford has capable understudies, as Hill and Williams are both still available, but either would represent a step down from what the lead back offers. Although MSU must replace 3ish starting offensive linemen, the passing game returns the huge majority of its production, and could open more space for Langford this season.
4. David Cobb, RS Senior, Minnesota @DCobb27
There are strong parallels between Cobb and Langford in that neither was projected to be much of a factor before the season, but due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness of the guys in front of them, each had an opportunity and seized it by the throat. Cobb found plenty of opportunity in Minnesota's run-heavy offense, and gathered 1,202 yards with 7 TDs. Like Abdullah, his somewhat low TD total is due to the staff's preference for other runners near the goal line, though here it's the quarterbacks who stole Cobb's thunder, as Mitch Leidner and Philip Nelson combined for 13 rushing scores. Cobb added 17 catches for 174 yards to Minnesota's anemic passing attack.
Cobb's overall numbers are more impressive when considering how profoundly limited Minnesota's passing offense was in 2013. Its quarterbacks completed only 51% of their passing attempts, and their best receiver was tight end Maxx "The Second X Is Not A Typo" Williams. Now that Philip Nelson has transferred, Minnesota's offense could plausibly need to lean on the run even more than last season. If that's the case, Cobb's ability to grind out tough yards between the tackles will be essential. Leidner, assuming he can win the quarterback job, will probably eat into Cobb's stats again, and incoming freshman Jeff Jones is probably too good to keep on the bench. But having already risen from obscurity into the lead role, and having performed well there, Cobb will likely be Minnesota's first option on offense once again.
5. Tevin Coleman, Junior, Indiana @Teco_Raww
Coleman's track speed proved to be a perfect fit with Indiana's high-tempo offense, and had he not missed the last three games of 2013 with a broken leg, he would likely have a higher profile within the conference- he had already scorched Illinois for 215 yards on just 15 carries when he was hurt. Overall, he notched 958 rushing yards, 12 TDs, and 193 receiving yards in an offense that had a lot of playmakers to feed.
As for his 2014 prospects, Indiana's offense needs to replace a number of talented receivers if it hopes to replicate last year's impressive pace and production. Coleman is the clear-cut top back, but this offense still passed more than it ran last year, and if Tre Roberson is taking the snaps, QB runs will also be a part of the offense. It also remains to be seen if Indiana's defense can improve somewhat, which would theoretically allow the Hoosiers to run more instead of throwing to try and keep up with their opponents' scoring. Still, Coleman showed last year that he doesn't necessarily need many carries to make a big impact, as he turned 150 touches into over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
Other Guys Who Might Do Things: Mark Weisman, RS Senior, Iowa (no Twitter because Iowa, but check out @NotMarkWeisman); Venric Mark, RS Senior, Northwestern @PurpleBlaze_5
Both are capable players, and will likely be important pieces of their team's offenses, but I can't put either in the top five. Weisman is limited by both his injury history and the timeshare he'll probably be in with Damon Bullock and Jordan Canzeri. When healthy, though, his brutal running style fits Iowa's zone blocking scheme to a T. Mark, meanwhile, is a spark plug when healthy, but did miss most of 2013 with his own injury, and if Trevor Siemian is Northwestern's primary QB, say goodbye to the option game that let Venric make his mark in 2012. (Heh. Heh. See what I did there.)