Inside the Pocket: 2014 is the year of the running back in college

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When the Cleveland Browns released Ben Tate and the Pittsburgh Steelers did the same with LeGarrette Blount last week, it was seen as yet another nail in the coffin for the running back position after each signed free-agent deals in the offseason to much fanfare. Add in two straight drafts in which the position was "devalued" more than a junk bond, and it's no surprise that the hyperbole around tailbacks has reached the point where some are encouraging youngsters to consider changing positions to something with a brighter future like linebacker.

Flying in the face of all that, college football is rebelling in 2014. Despite spread attacks and pass-happy offenses that are as prolific as ever, this might as well be labeled the year of the running back. The past two Saturdays are perfect examples of how football's second-most-famous offensive position after quarterback has made a resurgence.

It starts, of course, with the FBS single-game record for rushing yards being broken in a span of seven days -- first by Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and then surprisingly by Oklahoma true freshman Samaje Perine on a stormy Norman afternoon against Kansas. The amazing performances, each uniquely impressive, only serve to highlight that a whopping 17 players have rushed for over 200 yards in a game the past two weeks.

Take a look at the top single-game rushing yardage performances in major college football history.

"The guy is just so exceptional in everything that he does," Sooners head coach Bob Stoops said Saturday about Perine. "We were thinking about resting him, and then someone said he only needs 35 more yards, and you know, that's just too close not to do it, and there's too much time left in the game."

Ask any NFL scouts and they'll generally agree this year's crop of running backs -- from draft-eligible juniors down to true freshmen -- is one of the best in recent memory. Georgia's Todd Gurley had a lot to do with that hype prior to his season-ending knee injury, but even in his absence there have been players who have put up some impressive numbers on the ground in 2014. Statistically we're on pace for heights not seen since the days of the option and student body right.

Part of the success can be traced to bad defenses, but it's also due to the caliber of players taking handoffs. Gordon is right in the thick of the race for the Heisman Trophy and is largely the reason Wisconsin has had any success offensively this year despite a number of issues at quarterback. Perine is shattering Adrian Peterson's school records at Oklahoma as a 245-pound bowling ball with break-away ability, and others like Minnesota's David Cobb and Boise State's Jay Ajayi are having quietly productive seasons thanks to their ability to run between the tackles and grind out yards. Even more impressive is the bright future in college football at the position: seven freshmen have over 1,000 yards on the year already to go along with the six sophomores who have topped that total.

Gordon, by the way, became just the 17th player in FBS history to rush for 2,000-plus yards in a season and he's on pace to break Barry Sanders' record for most rushing yards in a season if he plays in three more games. We actually might have a pair of players top that 2,000-yard mark in the same season for just the third time ever if Indiana's Tevin Coleman can rush for 95 yards in the Hoosiers' finale against Purdue. Throw in Pitt's James Conner sitting at 1,600 yards with a possible two games left (the Panthers still need to qualify for a bowl game) and Marshall's Devon Johnson 427 yards away with three games left and we could see three or even four running backs accomplish the feat for the first time ever. The tailbacks this season are not only good, but they're historically productive.

Back in 2009, when Alabama's Mark Ingram technically became the first running back to win the Heisman Trophy in a decade, just eight running backs had over 1,500 yards rushing on the season. This year we have four already over that mark with seven more players within 100 yards with at least one game remaining. Teams might be throwing it more than ever, but we're seeing a season unlike any other on the ground, too.

Who knows if Gurley, Gordon or somebody else can break the first-round drought running backs have had? There might some disinterest in the running back position in the NFL as of late, but we're seeing players flourish running the ball in college at an unprecedented pace this season. Step back and enjoy it while you can because 2014 is mostly certainly the year of the running back.



Stat of the week

Per USA Today, LaDainian Tomlinson's NCAA single-game rushing record stood for 5,474 days. Melvin Gordon's stood for seven.

Stats to chew on

» Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon reached 2,000 yards for the season on his 241st carry, the fewest ever needed to reach 2,000 yards. The previous record holder was Penn State's Larry Johnson at 251 carries.

» Future trivia answer: Oklahoma's Samaje Perine didn't even start the game in which broke the FBS single-game record for rushing yards -- sophomore Keith Ford did. The Sooners, by the way, have won 48 straight games when leading at halftime to extend the best mark in the nation. Bob Stoops is now 147-9.

» Illinois had made only two field goals all season prior to last week. They made three in beating Penn State on Saturday.

» Oregon's Marcus Mariotabroke Matt Barkley's Pac-12 record for touchdowns in a season with his 42nd of the year against Colorado. He still has one more regular-season game left, plus the conference title game.

» SMU had more turnovers (five) and penalties (eight) than first downs (three) against UCF. The Mustangs also had just 116 yards of total offense.

» Quarterback J.T. Barrett has accounted for an Ohio State record 42 touchdowns, which also matches Drew Brees' Big Ten single-season record. Barrett also now owns school records for passing touchdowns and total offense in a season after the Buckeyes' win over Indiana.

» Every SEC West team is bowl-eligible this season, the first division in a conference to have every team bowl-eligible since the 2008 ACC Atlantic. The latter division only had one team finished ranked (No. 21 Florida State), while the SEC West has four teams ranked at the moment and could have more in the top 25 when the season is over.

» One of Arizona's sports information directors notes the Wildcats are one of eight teams with 3,000-plus passing yards and 2,000-plus rushing yards. Those eight teams are 76-10 this year.

Sound from Saturday

Here are the highlights of Samaje Perine's record-setting day from the Sooners Radio Network.

Tweet of the Week

As any quarterback or running back can tell you, always thank the offensive line.

Quote of the Week

12-year-old student reporter Charlie Papé to Oregon coach Mark Helfrich during Saturday's press conference: "There's three things that go on at O'Hara Catholic. There's Jesus, there's girls, and there's Marcus Mariota."



Sideline standouts

Gold medal:*Robb Smith*, Arkansas' defensive coordinator, helped the Razorbacks post back-to-back shutouts in the SEC after forcing Ole Miss into six turnovers.

Silver medal: Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, for beating Notre Dame despite having an inexperienced freshman quarterback on the road in a hostile environment.

Bronze medal:*Jerry Kill, the Gophers' head coach, helped Minnesota slow down *Ameer Abdullah and beat Nebraska to set up a winner-takes-all showdown with Wisconsin to win the Big Ten West next week.



Pre-snap read

Auburn at Alabama: It will be hard to top last year's edition of the Iron Bowl after the mesmerizing play Auburn turned in to win the game and send the Tigers toward a berth in the national title game. The Crimson Tide will be out for revenge after the "Kick Six" play and should be able to take it out on the Tigers at home, where they've played their best football this season. In my mind, this will be a close game until the fourth quarter, when some big plays help Alabama pull away.

You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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