Photo courtesy of Auburn athletics
Historically, no conference produces running backs the way that the SEC does.
From Bo Jackson to Herschel Walker to more recently Derrick Henry, the list goes on forever. In 2021, there are many ball carriers in the conference who could be considered elite.
Starting in the SEC West, we take a look at each team’s projected starting running back and ask ourselves: are we buying or selling?
Alabama RB Brian Robinson Jr.: Buying
In the era of the transfer portal, it’s rare that we see players wait multiple years to get their turn. Brian Robinson Jr. is one of those rare cases. Robinson has been a role player for his four years at Alabama so far. Thanks to the “COVID year”, he will be able to take over the starting job in year No. 5. Robinson might not be as slippery as Najee Harris, but he shares many similar qualities. At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Robinson already has the size to be a bell cow back, but his work between the tackles is what really makes him standout.
Last season, Robinson rushed for 483 yards on 91 carries as Harris’ backup. Most of his production would come when Harris needed a breather; he would then come in and usually keep the ball moving on the ground. Robinson likely won’t be as productive, but due to injuries and outgoing transfers in the backfield, expect Alabama to rely heavily on Robinson.
Arkansas RB Trelon Smith: Selling
This one may be surprising, but it’s only because of who Arkansas has coming in at running back. The Razorbacks added AJ Green and Raheim Sanders from the 2021 class. Both were highly recruited as freshmen. On top of that, Arkansas returns two guys in TJ Hammonds and Dominique Johnson who both could push for playing time. Trelon Smith is a scat style back — a guy who isn’t going to do much damage between the tackles. When you look at everyone else in the backfield, especially Green and Sanders, they have both the size and skill-set to be complete backs. On top of that, they are also valued as receivers.
It’s not that Smith will underperform; it’s just that there are other backs on roster now who can really push him. Expect Smith to be productive, just maybe in a more specific role. Arkansas might take the committee approach at running back this year. That doesn’t usually make for a big year for a single back.
Auburn RB Tank Bigsby: Buying
Not only is Tank Bigsby is the best running back in the SEC, but he might be the best in college football. Behind a bruised-up offensive line that underperformed at times, Bigsby completely transformed the Auburn running game last year. It only took a few games to see the talent that Bigsby was. It became rare to see a game where Bigsby didn’t stand out. His best attribute is his ability to make defenders miss. Whether it’s with a juke move or stiff arm, he almost always wins a 1-on-1 battle.
Bigsby ran for over 800 yards despite getting 15 or less carries in more than half of his games last season. With head coach Bryan Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo in control, you can pretty much assume that those carries are going to rise. In years past, Bobo has done a great job producing some lethal running attacks. Most notable are Todd Gurley at Georgia and Kevin Harris at South Carolina last season.
Bigsby will get more touches on the ground and more looks as a receiver his second time around. If he can stay healthy and produce the way he did last year, then Bigsby could have a Heisman Trophy-caliber season.
LSU RB Tyrion Davis-Price: Selling
There is still room for debate as to who will be the starting running back for LSU in 2021, but we’ll go with the leading returning rusher for the sake of this list. Davis-Price has shown flashes, but his skill-set doesn’t scream difference-maker in the SEC. John Emery Jr. hasn’t quite lived up to his 5-star hype, but he might have a better all-around skill-set than Davis-Price. One guy to watch is freshman Armoni Goodwin, who could remind fans in Baton Rouge of Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz has promised to get LSU’s backs more involved in the offense. Still, it’s hard to see Davis-Price putting up big numbers in 2021.
Mississippi State RB: Jo’Quavious Marks: Buying
It was hard to make a prediction for a running back that might finish with more receptions than carries, but we’re buying Jo’Quavious Marks. Mississippi State desperately needed someone to step up after star running back Kylin Hill opted out midseason, and Marks became that guy. Marks finished with 60 receptions for 268 yards — that’s more receptions than any other back in the SEC. He should only continue to get more looks in the passing game.
Marks was still pretty effective as a runner; he rushed for over 300 yards on 70 carries. Barring injury, Marks will be one of the biggest weapons for Mississippi State in 2021 yet again.
Ole Miss RB Jerrion Ealy: Buying
The Rebels should be very explosive offensively in 2021. Part of that reason is Jerrion Ealy. The former five-star has rushed for over 1,400 yards in his career with 745 of those coming last season. He has also shown promise as a receiver. Ealy has 35 total receptions in his career.
While Ealy wasn’t quite as efficient last season as he was in 2019, he was still the go-to playmaker out of the backfield for the Rebels. If he can stay healthy, expect Ealy to be one of the best running backs in the league once again in 2021.
Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller: Buying
This one was easy. Spiller is coming off a big season, and should have another on the horizon. The Aggies have big time playmakers in the backfield in Devon Achane and Ainias Smith. Both will have their own roles in 2021, but Spiller is the alpha in the backfield.
Spiller showed off his ability as a bell cow back. He was able to bounce off tacklers and be patient behind the line of scrimmage. He isn’t the flashiest of runners, but he did enough to rush for over 1,000 yards last season.
With quarterback Kellen Mond gone, Texas A&M might rely on the running game even more than it did in 2020. If that’s the case, then Spiller could put up even better numbers during his third season.