Two of the best tailbacks in college football hailed from the SEC in 2015. Although they finished first and second in the nation in rushing yards per game, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry had drastically different seasons.
The sophomore Fournette dazzled fans with an incredible start to the season that featured three-consecutive outings of at least 200 yards and at least two touchdowns.
At the midway point of the season, Fournette appeared to be a lock for the Heisman Trophy. Two months later, Henry was in New York City hoisting the Heisman and Fournette wasn’t even in attendance.
A rut in November spoiled Fournette’s Heisman hopes. He rushed for 230 yards and just two touchdowns during a three-game losing skid, including a defeat to Henry and Alabama.
Henry’s gain came at Fournette’s pain. The junior put himself back in the Heisman spotlight with a 210-yard, three-touchdown performance against LSU. That game was the catalyst for Henry’s Heisman run, as he rushed for 761 yards and nine touchdowns during Alabama’s final five games.
Both players were named Associated Press First-Team All-SEC selections. But with Henry seeking greener pastures in the NFL, Fournette becomes the top tailback to watch in the SEC for 2016.
Fournette would appear to be a preseason lock for one of the first-team spots next season, but as we learned in 2015, nothing is a given. Here’s a look at the running backs who will be in contention for First-Team All-SEC honors in 2016.
Winner: Leonard Fournette, LSU
It won’t take much to motivate Fournette this season. The question is can he top last year’s incredible season? Fournette rushed for 1,953 yards, an LSU single-season record, and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Chances are, he can put up better production next season. Fournette averaged an incredible 191.4 rushing yards per game in the nine games outside of his November slump. He will have an entire offseason to get faster and stronger, if that is possible, and already utilizes an unprecedented combination of speed and power to juke past and bowl over defenders. It has NFL scouts salivating over his potential.
The one concern could be Fournette’s NFL potential. LSU could be a bit more conservative with Fournette’s usage this season as a draft-eligible junior, and the Tigers have plenty of talent to spell him. Tailbacks Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams both saw a fair share of snaps in 2015.
Winner: Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Hurd also had an excellent sophomore season, finishing fourth in the SEC in rushing with 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. Hurd, who was named to Second-Team All-SEC last season, should only improve next season for a Tennessee team that could be a sleeper to win the SEC.
The one person who could prevent Hurd from earning first-team honors is teammate Alvin Kamara. The sophomore carried the ball 107 times last season and could dip into Hurd’s production. Kamara was used more often in the passing game, but the Volunteers weren’t afraid to go with a committee approach in the backfield, as Kamara carried the ball at least 15 times in three games last season. However, Hurd’s talent presents plenty of upside to earn a spot on the first team.
Here are some other candidates who could also compete for a First-Teams All-SEC selection:
Nick Chubb, UGA
If Chubb is fully healthy entering 2016 he could be a contender for first-team honors. Chubb’s sophomore season ended tragically after suffering a gruesome knee injury during UGA’s sixth game against Tennessee.
Although Chubb avoided a torn ACL, he still suffered a torn PCL and damage to other knee ligaments. Chubb was outstanding through his first five games, rushing for 747 yards and seven touchdowns.
Chubb presents plenty of upside for 2016, but it’s tough to project how explosive he will be in January. Teammate Sony Michel will surely see a healthy share of carries after rushing for 1,161 yards in relief of Chubb.
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
A Vandy tailback might not have been expected on this list, but Webb has a good shot as a sleeper pick for first-team honors. Keep this in mind, five of the top 10 rushers in the conference will not be returning next season.
Webb finished seventh in the conference with 1,152 rushing yards and five touchdowns during his sophomore season. He finished third behind Henry and Fournette with 277 carries, but had an underwhelming 4.65 yards per carry average behind a mediocre offensive line.
The good news for Webb is he’s the top option on Vanderbilt’s offense. The problem is he doesn’t have much talent around him to take the pressure off on occasion. However, Webb has the talent to build off of a very good sophomore season and could be a breakout candidate if his blockers can do a better job of paving the way for him.
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
A deep, deep sleeper here, but it’s tough to keep a ‘Bama back off this list. The Crimson Tide will need to find a new lead back with Henry and backup Kenyan Drake both departing. We have Scarbrough projected to be the team’s starter in 2016.
Scarbrough ran 18 times for 104 yards and a touchdown during his freshman season. He was a five-star recruit and the No. 16 ranked player in the class of 2014, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. The talent is there, the question is whether the production will match it.