Running Game Re-Emerging in College Football

There’s very little question that college football has gone through a transformation phase.

A game once dominated by land has taken to the air, where it has thrived for the better part of two decades. The sport that considered a 300-yard passing game an immaculate feat sees that accomplishment shattered on a weekly basis.

While the foundation of the modern game was a heavy rushing attack, physical defense and low-scoring affairs, it has since elevated to seeing teams pass 50 times a game, shift to a finesse style of play and witness shootouts that sometimes reach the low 60-point mark.

The shift in strategy and style of play since the 2000’s hasn’t been evident to just the eye, either.

Former Houston quarterback Case Keenum sits atop the record books for most passing yards in a career. During his 2007-2011 stint with the Cougars, Keenum threw for 19,217 yards. That’s more than 4,000 more yards than any quarterback threw for during a career pre-21st century.

What’s more telling is nine of the top 10 quarterbacks on that chart graduated in 2000 or later with BYU’s Ty Detmer being the lone outlier, ranking fifth. In fact, 42 of the top 50 spots are owned by collegiate millennials.

It’s transitioned into prestigious awards as well, with the Heisman Trophy being handed to a quarterback 13 of the past 14 seasons.

Hop over to the rushing category of this argument and you’ll notice the exact opposite runs true. Though the number of top 50 rushing leaders shows a little more balance, four of the top five players date their careers prior to 2000.

DeAngelo Williams rounds out the top five runners on that list.

Over the last 15 years the 400-yard passing games and total scores that have consistently peaked over 90 points has added a new dimension to college football. One that has demanded programs to field quality quarterbacks in order to compete on a national level. That’s not to say that running the football completely disappeared, but its significance certainly diminished.

While that aspect of this newly-evolved game still holds true, it appears that running backs and an efficient ground attack is beginning to resurrect itself.

That was showcased by the Big Ten just a year ago.

Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman eclipsed the 2,000 yard mark in 2014, both averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Four conference followers totaled more than 1,500 yards on the ground. Some of that was overshadowed by outstanding performances from quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Connor Cook, but there was no denying that in the Big Ten, it was the “year of the running back.”

The Big Ten has never been perceived as a pass-happy conference. Nor has it been revered as a league full of elite quarterbacks. Having a conference with so many talented players in the backfield, however, is something worth noting.

If the success on the ground in the Big Ten isn’t enough, there was plenty of impressive seasons sprinkled throughout the rest of the nation.

Despite a mid-season suspension, Todd Gurley impressed the SEC with his combination of power and speed throughout the year. Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine stole the NCAA’s single-game rushing record with 427-yard, five touchdown performance against Kansas only one week after Wisconsin’s Gordon took down LaDainian Tomlinson’s long-standing mark.


Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine broke the single-game rushing record a week after it was set by Wisconsin’s Gordon.

Pittsburgh’s James Conner was a highlight for the ACC, running for more than 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns in his sophomore season.

Much like the past decade and change, quarterbacks still stole the limelight in 2014. Marcus Mariota took home a Heisman Trophy. Jameis Winston was leading Florida State through countless comebacks. Bryce Petty put up video-game numbers while Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty and Marshall’s Rakeem Cato earned national respect for their feats outside the Power Five Conferences.

The “year of the quarterback” has quickly become the century.

But did 2015 signal the resurgence and the importance of the running game in college football? In the past, impressive single-season performances from Kevin Smith at UCF or Alabama’s Mark Ingram quickly seem to disappear from the relevancy of the current offensive style.

Perhaps so much success on the ground in one season, accomplishments that encompassed an entire conference and stretched across the country, signals the re-emergence of the running game.

Looking ahead to the SEC’s depth at the position, it certainly appears that it will be picking up where the Big Ten left off in 2014.

With returning talent like Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb and Jonathon Williams among others in the SEC, it’ll be hard to keep running backs out of the spotlight.

The popularity of quarterbacks and the astounding numbers they put up on a weekly basis is too significant to ignore. The high-octane offenses and scoreboard-shattering scores will probably be a part of this version of college football for several years.

Who says it has to be done through the air, though? With consecutive seasons of multiple running backs galloping for extraordinary totals, it seems that the importance of a strong ground game is coming back to life.

How long its lifespan will be is the next question.

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