2013 Big Ten football preview: Who will be the conference’s best running back?

Wisconsin Badgers running back James White (20) runs against Stanford Cardinal cornerback Terrence Brown (6) in the second half during the 2013 Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Big 12, after losing four programs to attrition, surprised the nation in 2012. The now-10-team league became known for its spectacular passing performances and a very low premium placed on defense. Conversely, the SEC has earned its winning reputation on the strength of its elite defensive units — and a low premium placed on literacy, zing!

Those way out west like to burn the barn down in the Pac-12, with the always cool Oregon Ducks leading the way. However, the Big Ten proved again last season that, for better or for worse, the league is a bone-crushing, grind-it-out, run dominated conference.

At Wisconsin, the most prolific scorer in the history of college football, Montee Ball, is to be replaced by the arguably even more talented James White. Despite taking a backup role in 2012, White still finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten with 12 rushing touchdowns while averaging 6.5 yards per carry en route to 806 on the season.

However, the league as a whole is looking far stronger heading into 2013, and the Badgers will not have the only fantastic running back in the Midwest. Just like White compiled great numbers in a secondary role, Carlos Hyde piled up 970 yards and a whopping 16 scores despite watching quarterback Braxton Miller do most of the work for Ohio State. Ameer Abdullah has been forced to deal with both situations as well while waiting his turn at Nebraska.

Not only does quarterback Tyler Martinez do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, but Abdullah also had to wait his turn behind the studly Rex Burkhead. However, 2013 is his year as the feature back, and he should improve upon his sensational 1,137-yard sophomore season.

[Related: Who is going to win the Big Ten Championship in 2013?]

We’ve brought up several fantastic names thus far, but the only All-American out of the B1G in 2012 was Venric Mark of Northwestern (feel free to impress your friends with that little morsel of knowledge). Granted, he was named to the team as a punt returner after leading the nation with a 20.1-yards per return average, but he also finished third in-league with 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The Wildcats’ first option is always to run. So is their second, and generally their third as well. Mark, as a senior, may just lead the Cats to double-digits wins yet again, not to mention leading the conference in rush yards.

Mark was a revelation at the position, just like Zach Zwinak at Penn State. After Silas Redd transferred to USC and Bill Belton got hurt early on, Zwinak stepped up in a huge way. As a sophomore, he rushed for 1,000 yards on the dot while averaging a tick under five yards per carry. He may never play in a postseason game for the Nittany Lions, but he runs like every game is his last.

Minnesota, with six wins and a three-point bowl game loss to Texas Tech, should be even better in 2013, as long as Donnell Kirkwood continues his upward trajectory in his fourth season. Kirkwood rushed for 107 yards in minimal playing time in 2010, 229 in 2011, and finally 925 with six scores in 2012. If he can crack the 1,000-yard plateau, his Gophers may just crack the .500 mark, which would be a feat (and yes, that is a slightly backhanded compliment).

A few guys are looking forward to bouncing back from injuries. Next year is Fitzgerald Toussaint’s final opportunity to prove to his Michigan teammates, fans and himself that his 1,000-yard 2011 season was no fluke. Damon Bullock rushed for 513 yards for Iowa, but only played in six games.

Both programs within the state of Indiana have been vastly disappointing over the last decade, but both have talent that can make a difference at running should they be used to their potential. Stephen Houston rushed for 749 yards and 12 touchdowns on a pass-first Hoosiers team, while Akeem Hunt, who averaged nearly eight yards per attempt in 2012, takes over full-time duties at Purdue with the graduation of Ralph Bolden.

Dare we mention any of Illinois’ backs? No, no we don’t — the memory of Rashard Mendenhall feels like a lifetime ago down in Champaign. Michigan State is going to sorely miss Le’Veon Bell, who jumped a year early into the NFL Draft.

The Big Ten is a run-first, smash mouth league. There will be more passing as the conference as a whole moves into the 21st Century, but at its core, these bruising Midwestern bodies will always be known for doling out punishment, not for Swiss cheese defense and 50-49 final scores.

All of that being said, we’re just going to come right out and ask it …

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