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August 16, 2011

Preseason top 20: Running backs

How much can a dominant running back transform a program? Just ask Oregon and South Carolina fans.

LaMichael James led the nation with 1,731 rushing yards last season and carried Oregon to its best season in school history - a wild ride that took the Ducks all the way to the BCS championship game. Marcus Lattimore took the SEC by storm as a true freshman and led the Gamecocks to their first East Division championship.

James and Lattimore are back this season, but who ranks alongside them as the nation's top running backs? We begin our breakdown of the nation's best players at each position with a look at running backs. "Best" doesn't necessarily mean the most pro potential or even the most talent. Instead, it's a mix of what the player has accomplished and how we think the player will do this season. But production does trump potential.

We will look at a position a day until Aug. 29, when we rank all 120 of the nation's quarterbacks. Wednesday, we will look at wide receivers. Here are the running back rankings.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-11/208, Jr.; Mansfield (Texas) High
THE BUZZ: As good as QB Andrew Luck is, Stanford opponents cannot ignore Taylor. Last season, Taylor took over for '09 Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart and rushed for 1,137 yards and 15 touchdowns. He gained more than 100 yards in seven games. He's also a good receiver.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/205, Jr.; Danville (Va.) George Washington
THE BUZZ: Wilson has been an important reserve/return man for the Hokies the past two seasons, but he will start this fall in the team's rebuilt offensive backfield. He ran for 619 yards and five TDs last season and also was an effective receiver. He also averaged 26.5 yards on 22 kickoff returns last season, taking two back for scores.

THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/230, Soph.; Hyattsville (Md.) DeMatha Catholic
THE BUZZ: Primarily a backup in 2010, Coker will be a key starter for Iowa this season. He started four games last season and responded by rushing for 508 yards and three touchdowns. When pressed into starting duty in the Insight Bowl, Coker earned most valuable player honors by rushing for 219 yards and two touchdowns. He did not play in six games last season and had as many as 20 carries just three times. A lack of opportunity won't be an issue this season.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-9/203, Sr.; Haltom City (Texas) High
THE BUZZ: Dunbar has posted the third-highest rushing total nationally - 2,931 yards - over the past two seasons. Only Oregon's LaMichael James and Nevada's Vai Taua gained more. Dunbar followed up a 1,378-yard output in 2009 with 1,553 yards last season. Last season, he exceeded 200 rushing yards three times, including a season-high 270 vs. Big 12 member Kansas State. He had eight 100-yard performances, including 117 vs. Clemson.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-8/205, Sr.; Griffin (Ga.) High
THE BUZZ: Although toiling on a team that has managed just four victories in three seasons, Rainey is among the most productive running backs in the nation. The reigning Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Rainey rushed for 1,649 yards in 2010 and was third in the nation behind Oregon's LaMichael James and Connecticut's Jordan Todman with a 137.4-yard average. A workhorse who had at least 30 carries in five games, Rainey rushed for at least 100 yards in nine games. And lest anyone dismiss his production because it was primarily against Sun Belt opponents, it should be noted that he ran for 155 yards against Nebraska, which was 11th in the nation in total defense last season.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/195, Soph.; Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas
THE BUZZ: The Big Ten freshman of the year in 2010, White aims to build on a tremendous debut season in which he rushed for 1,052 yards while averaging 6.7 yards per carry. A big-play threat, four of White's 14 touchdown run covered at least 30 yards and two for more than 60. He received as many as 20 carries in just two games, but he figures to get more attempts this season.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-6/175, Sr. Westerville (Ohio) Brookhaven
THE BUZZ: The little guy has produced big results for the Buffaloes. Despite his stature, he proved his durability by carrying at least 27 times in five games last season. A three-year starter, Stewart enters his fourth season with 2,744 career rushing yards, including 1,318 last season. If he rushes for 1,197 this season, he'll set Colorado's career rushing record.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-9/210, Soph.; Little Rock (Ark.) Christian Academy
THE BUZZ: With QB Cam Newton gone, Dyer figures to become the focus of Auburn's offense, a responsibility he surely can handle. He runs with power and has breakaway speed. He ran for an Auburn-freshman record 1,093 yards despite getting fewer than 10 carries in six games. He had as many as 20 carries in just three games and gained 423 yards in those games, including 143 in the BCS national championship victory over Oregon.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-11/210, Jr.; Wentzville (Mo.) Timberland
THE BUZZ: Ball is coming off a 996-yard performance in 2010, when he was the Badgers' No. 3 running back for much of the year. He did not receive as many as 20 carries until November, but then he rushed for at least 127 yards in five consecutive games, including 132 against TCU in the Rose Bowl. Ball, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry, will get more chances this season.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/205, Sr.; Warren (Ohio) Warren Harding
THE BUZZ: "Boom" is a blue-collar runner with a nose for the end zone. Equally adept at running between the tackles and around the end, Herron will be one of the Big Ten's top backs but must sit out the first five games for violating NCAA rules. Last season, he rushed for 1,155 yards and 16 TDs. He also caught 19 passes for 180 yards.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-11/214, Jr.; Redlands (Calif.) East Valley
THE BUZZ: After missing most of 2008 because of injury, Polk has rushed for 2,528 yards and 14 TDs the past two seasons. He was most effective during the Huskies' four-game winning streak to end 2010, when he rushed for 685 yards and five TDs. Coaches will look to him for even more production because the Huskies are breaking in a new quarterback.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/175, Soph.; La Habra (Calif.) High
THE BUZZ: Hillman ran for 1,532 yards and 17 TDs last season while leading the Mountain West and ranking 10th nationally with 117.9 rushing yards per game. He rushed for at least 150 yards in six of San Diego State's 12 games, including 228-yard efforts in a Poinsettia Bowl triumph over Navy and an early-season loss to Missouri.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-9/208, Jr.; Oak Park (Mich.) High
THE BUZZ: Baker established himself last season, when he ranked fourth in the Big Ten in rushing at 92.4 yards per game (1,201 yards rushing for the season). He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and figures to again have a big season for what should be a strong Michigan State offense.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/210, Sr.; Toccoa (Ga.) Stephens County
THE BUZZ: Poole didn't do much in his first two seasons, then emerged as a star last fall for new coach Derek Dooley. Going into last season, Poole had carried 32 times for 171 yards. He started all 13 games last season and finished with 1,034 yards and 11 TDs. He tied for the SEC lead with six 100-yard games.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-9/215, Sr.; Stockton (Calif.) St. Mary's
THE BUZZ: He has rushed for 27 touchdowns in the past two seasons and became the Broncos' feature back last season, when he had 201 carries and 1,260 yards. He should be an even more important part of the offense this season because Boise's wide receiver corps is in flux.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-11/224, Jr.; Pensacola Escambia
THE BUZZ: Richardson has been a productive backup, rushing for 1,451 yards and 14 TDs in his first two seasons, and he should be the focal point of the Tide's offense this season. He was a second-team All-SEC choice last season and should vie for All-America honors this fall.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/198, Sr.; DeSoto (Texas) High
THE BUZZ: Gray is coming off an excellent junior campaign, one in which he rushed for 1,133 yards and 12 TDs despite sharing time for half the season with Christine Michael. After Michael was injured and lost for the season, the explosive Gray had seven consecutive 100-yard games.

THE PARTICULARS: 6-0/232, Soph.; Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes
THE BUZZ: Lattimore was highly touted out of high school and lived up to the hype last season. He arrived in Columbia amid a ton of hype - and lived up to it. He ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns, and he was a big reason South Carolina won its first SEC East title. He also had 29 receptions for 412 yards and two TDs. His rushing total was the third-best single-season mark in school history.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-10/200, Sr.; Jacksonville Trinity Christian
THE BUZZ: Despite playing in an offense without much of a passing attack, Harris should end his career as the leading rusher in ACC history. Harris has 3,600 career yards, putting him 1,002 yards away from the record held by Ted Brown (4,602 yards for NC State from 1975-78). Harris also has 21 career 100-yard games; Brown's ACC record is 27. Harris led the ACC with 103.6 rushing yards per game last season.

THE PARTICULARS: 5-9/195, Jr.; Texarkana (Texas) Liberty-Eylau
THE BUZZ: James is coming off a monster 2010 season, one in which he finished third in the Heisman voting and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. He ran for a school single-season record of 1,731 yards, which led the nation. He also scored 24 TDs (21 rushing, three receiving), which set a school record and led the nation. He has played in 25 career games and reached the 100-yard plateau in 18 of them.

Rankings and player capsules compiled by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.

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