Power football is alive and well in the Southeastern Conference with several backs putting up impressive numbers running through and around defenders.
Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. is one of four SEC backs ranked in the top 20 in rushing yardage per game. Snell is third, Mississippi’s Scottie Phillips is 13th, Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams is 18th and LSU’s Nick Brossette is 20th.
Snell and Brossette have led their programs to impressive 4-0 starts and unexpected national rankings. LSU is No. 5 and Kentucky is 17th in the Top 25; SEC media picked both to finish fifth in the West and East divisions, respectively.
At a time when mobile quarterbacks are all the rage in college football, having a durable running back who can chew up yardage and time on the clock is still coveted by coaches. Snell relishes the workload and responsibility in the always-competitive SEC.
“I thought, you’ve got to be a Herschel Walker, a Todd Gurley,” said the Ohio native, who grew up in Big Ten country. “How I fit in now, I feel like I’m perfect. … I can run, I can make you miss. It’s all about getting those tough yards in the SEC.”
That applies to all teams, including those with dynamic aerial attacks.
Just ask Alabama coach Nick Saban.
The Crimson Tide’s passing attack has rung up four consecutive blowouts behind the QB tandem of Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. That didn’t stop Saban from indicating he wants more from his running game after it thumped A&M 45-23 .
Saban has plenty of backfield depth to choose from, starting with senior Damien Harris. He returned this season in search of a third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and has 230 yards, but his 31 carries trail teammate Najee Harris (38) while Josh Jacobs and Brian Robinson have 23 and 22 respectively.
“I think it’s definitely tough for defenses to match up,” Jacobs said. “Each one of the running backs in the room would start anywhere. Putting two of them on the field at the same time is going to be a matchup problem.”
Kentucky knows what that feels like. Two years ago Snell teamed with Stanley “Boom” Williams for the program’s first 1,000-yard rushing tandem. The 5-foot-11, 223-pound Snell followed that with 1,333 yards last fall and has 540 this season – including 340 in SEC upsets of Florida and Mississippi State for the Wildcats’ best SEC start since 1977.
Second-ranked Georgia doesn’t have a running back ranked in the top 20 in yards rushing, but there is no shortage of talent in the Bulldogs’ backfield.
Even with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel now in the NFL, the Bulldogs can turn to D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.
This year’s duo both had careers highs in carries last week at Missouri: Swift had 16 carries for 71 yards while Holyfield, the son of former boxing champion Evander Holyfield, had 14 carries for 90 yards.
“Both of those kids have been productive, tough, physical, and good pass protectors,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who has included Brian Herrien, James Cook and his receivers in the mix. “We have to continue to help them. We have to try to get them in favorable situations to run the ball, and they’ve done a good job of that.”
But Phillips (467 yards, five TDs) and Brosette are part of the group of backs setting the bar in the SEC so far this season.
Phillips has filled the void at Ole Miss (3-1) after Jordan Wilkins ran for more than 1,000 yards last season. Mississippi offensive coordinator Phil Longo is known for his ability to have a productive run game while still using a spread offense.
“During the spring game, we ran the ball a bunch and that was to try and develop the physicality up front that we wanted,” Longo said. “We came into camp and came out of camp feeling a lot better about our ability to run the football, which we always want to do in this system.”
The stage is set for another intriguing SEC running back matchup Saturday night between the Rebels and LSU.
The Tigers’ Brossette (409 yards, five TDs) has rushed for more yardage than he did in his previous three seasons combined. Though passing figures to play a role in this early season showdown, the outcome will likely ride on how well – and often – Brossette and Phillips carry the ball.
Grinding down opponents with a ground game is what SEC teams like to do.
“That’s why you come to the SEC,” South Carolina center Donnell Stanley said, “to run the ball.”
AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Mississippi; Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina; Brett Martell in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia; and John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.
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