The PAC 12 may be better known for its quarterbacks over the last couple of seasons, but there is no shortage of quality running backs lining up to help make life that little bit easier for their star passers. However, there has been change afoot, with four of the conference’s top rushers from 2013 off to the NFL. With Ka’Deem Carey, Bishop Sankey, Tyler Gaffney and Marion Grice and their combined 6468 yards and 74 TDs gone, the list of top running attacks will see a shakeup. A major in-conference coaching change will have an impact too. Returning rushers, offensive linemen and offensive system will also be factored in. Read on for the first half of the rankings. Part two coming soon.
12. Washington State
It is a testament to Mike Leach’s passing attack (and Connor Halliday) that the Cougars made a bowl last season, as they were plum last in the country with a meager 53.4 yards rushing per game. WSU only ran the ball 243 times last season (including 32 sacks), and the leading rusher, Marcus Mason, led with just 429 yards and two scores. It likely won’t get much better in 2014, despite the return of Mason and backup Teondray Caldwell. Only two offensive linemen are back, both of whom were first-year starters, although the new kids on the block are bigger and more athletic. Leach also brought in a couple of freshmen running backs to compete for carries, but will there be enough to go around?
The Golden Bears ranked ninth in the conference last season, but will likely be passed by others, as opposed to a production slip, hence the drop in rankings. Cal returns eight offensive linemen who started a game last season, but they still lack much experience and all are young. The only losses in the backfield are leading ball-carrier Brendan Bigelow (106-425-2), who has never reached his potential, and Darren Ervin (35-124-0), who was forced to retire. Speedy Khalfani Muhammad, who led the team with 445 yards and 4 TDs on 74 carries, and big Daniel Lasco (67-317-2), look to carry the load, but the line will likely still struggle, making it hard to find room to maneuver. Coach Sonny Dykes does like to run the ball, but the passing attack will always be first and foremost. It may not be by choice this season.
10. Oregon State
The Beavers have struggled on the ground over the last four seasons, coming second last in the conference in rushing in 2013. The running attack improved over the last couple of games, against the not inconsiderable defenses of Oregon and Boise State, giving some hope for the future. The offensive line returns a couple of starters, including all-conference center Isaac Seumalo (2nd team), and there are some nice options in reserve, if they can put it together straight away. The running back combo of Storm Woods and Terron Ward combined for just 998 yards and 11 TDS, but they are entering their third year together and are capable of better, Woods in particular. Having a strong quarterback like Sean Mannion to deflect attention certainly won’t hurt.
The Buffaloes have fallen on hard times lately, but look to be heading in the right direction under the tutelage of Mike MacIntyre. Last year the running attack accounted for just 121 yards at 3.4 yards per carry, struggling behind a line that was far better in pass protection. That offensive line returns three starters, including multi-year starter Daniel Munyer at right guard. Their assumed improvement certainly counts greatly towards this ranking, but the return of the thunder-and-lightning combo of Christian Powell and Michael Adkins III, who combined for 1097 yards and 9 TDs on 250 carries, will benefit immensely. Also to be factored in is the development of sophomore Sefo Liufau, who has taken great strides since he took over midway through the season.
The Utes have had some tough luck in their first three seasons in the PAC 12, but they’ve been competitive too, generally holding their own against their new league-mates. What’s even more impressive is, they’ve managed this despite not yet matching the top of the conference for talent. Last season, Utah averaged 160 yards per game at 4.1 yards per carry, their best since 2009. But, while similar results can be expected, the likelihood of them moving further up the conference charts is slim for now. The offensive line was hot-and-cold last season, but with three starters returning, there is a strong possibility for improvement. Running back Kelvin York finished the season strong, but has graduated, so James Poole (149-607-2), who had some bright moments, should see more action. Quarterback Travis Wilson is a decent rushing threat, but he may be reined in more this season due to injury concerns. Help arrives in the latest recruiting class too.
The Cardinal is famous for its bully-boy offensive tactics now, loading up in jumbo packages and just flat-out battering opponents into submission. So, why have the mighty fallen so far? Well, there are a number of factors. The biggest is the clearout on the offensive line, with left tackle Andrus Peat the only returning starter up front. The Cards have recruited well, but one has to expect a dropoff with limited experience. Also gone is leading rusher Gaffney, who ran for 1717 yards and 21 TDs, and his primary backup Anthony Wilkerson (84-353-2). Who will replace such production? The name Barry Sanders springs to mind but the junior has yet to prove he deserves more than the five carries he got last season. In Sanders’ defense, his father sat behind Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State before his breakout year, so he could be on the verge of something big. There are other options, and quarterback Kevin Hogan will pitch in, but the unproven nature of this year’s attack keeps the Cardinal in the lower half of the conference rankings.