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Normally an Arms Race, the Big 12 Will Likely Be Won on the Ground in 2018



The Big 12 may be as wide open as it’s been in some time. A league that has been headlined by prolific passing attacks led by elite quarterbacks on a year-in, year-out basis, is looking at a reset.

For the first time in Big 12 history, the conference won’t return multiple 2,000-yard passers this fall. West Virginia’s Will Grier is the lone qualifier and easily the league’s most-accomplished QB.

So what does that mean for the rest of the league? A lot of inexperience behind center and probably an increased workload for a handful of dynamic running backs. What has become a yearly arms race might just turn into a leg race for the Big 12 crown.

There are several talented backs returning in 2018, including three 1,000-yard rushers back from last year, one of them in Stillwater.

Returning 1,000-Yd Rushers Team Yards Yards per carry TDs
Justice Hill Oklahoma State 1,467 5.5 15
Rodney Anderson Oklahoma 1,161 6.2 13
David Montgomery Iowa State 1,146 4.4 11
Justice Hill

Hill is probably the most important to his team. The junior led all freshman in the FBS, while setting an OSU rookie rushing record in 2016 with his 1,142 yards. He followed that up by leading the league as a sophomore with 1,467 rushing yards.

As far as 2018 goes, Hill is probably the best player on the roster and will be looked to shoulder an even bigger load as the Cowboys retool across every other position group on offense.

While Hill is the clear No. 1 option, Gundy seems pretty confident in his backups.

“We’ve always worked and believed that we needed to be able to run the football first,” Gundy said in the spring. “Even as we speak now, what I think we have with our group of running backs is maybe as deep as there is in college football. We’ll found out how Chuba (Hubbard) does, if LD (Brown) continues to mature and how far that will take us, but we’ll certainly rely on those guys.”

Rodney Anderson

Anderson registered just one carry for five yards as a true freshman for the Sooners in 2015 before his season-ending injury in Week 2 against Tennessee. He suffered another injury setback in fall camp that held him out for all of 2016, but finally he got his shot this past fall — and he made it count.

After toting the rock just 12 times for 34 yards and one score through the first five games last year, Anderson exploded for 1,127 yards and 10 TDs on 6.4 yards per carry over the last nine games.

With OU breaking in a new (albeit fairly experienced) starter at QB and with what may be an improved run-blocking offensive line, expect a hefty dose of Anderson as well as Trey Sermon, who pitched in 744 yards (6.2 per carry) and five touchdowns of his own as a freshman.

David Montgomery

Montgomery was the Cyclones’ workhorse as they rattled off their first winning season since 2009. Their eight wins in Year 2 of the Matt Campbell era, equaled Iowa State’s victory total for the previous three seasons combined.

With Kyle Kempt being awarded a sixth year of eligibility, the Iowa State’s offense is in good hands. And when he hands it to Montgomery it’s probably in even better hands. In a near-miss in Ames, he ran over OSU’s defense to the tune of 105 yards and three scores on 21 carries.

But according to Campbell, we’ve just seen a glimpse of what Montgomery can do. If his offensive line can get to that “championship level,” we could see more.

“We’re not there yet, we’re not there today, but there’s a lot of room to work,” said Campbell in the spring. “I think it will allow our running backs to grow. That natural running back skill and talent (Montgomery has), I don’t know if we’ve got to see that yet to be honest with you because there’s been a lot of improvising because of either scheme or because of that offensive line just being young and not mature. It’s nice to have four or five guys back who have played on the offensive line, so you really hope that maturation process really starts to occur for this program.”

Breakout Candidates

Darius Anderson —  Darius Anderson returns after leading TCU with 768 yards and eight scores while not even leading the Horned Frogs in carries. With Kyle Hicks now departed and a new QB taking snaps, Anderson could be in for a huge junior year.

Trey Sermon — The aforementioned Sermon from Oklahoma is more than just an RB2. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lincoln Riley employ a two-back formation at times a la Mixon and Perine as he efforts to get his playmakers in space — which he’s shown to be masterful at doing. Could we see another 1,000-yard rushing duo in Norman? I wouldn’t put it past Riley or that Sooner O-Line.

Alex Barnes — Barnes was the leading rusher on the Big 12’s second best rushing team last fall. But the fact that Kansas State spread its carries around so evenly — six different RBs (and two QBs) had at least 10 carries — and the way K-State flies under the in terms of media coverage may have most sleeping on Barnes. But with Barnes the clear No. 1 and the Wildcats returning all five starters across their offensive line, expect him to be among the league’s top rushers.

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