Settle It: Who is going to be the top running back in the SEC in the 2013 football season?

Alabama Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon (4) answers questions from Yahoo sports reporter Eddie George after the 2013 BCS Championship game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Sun Life Stadium. Alabama won 42-14. (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Yes, Alabama boasted the nation’s most efficient passer in 2012 in AJ McCarron, but the Crimson Tide rolled to their third BCS title on the strength of coach Nick Saban’s defense and his running game.

Junior star Eddie Lacy sat patiently behind first Mark Ingram and then Trent Richardson before finally exploding for 1,322 yards in his lone season as the Tide’s starter. But he was not alone. As a true freshman, Lacy’s backup TJ Yeldon busted out for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns. Obviously, the backfield will be his in 2013.

Generally speaking, a 1,000-yard season on the part of an 18-year old would be cause for celebration, but Georgia fans were too busy singing the praises of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to notice. Both true freshmen themselves, Gurley led all SEC running backs with 1,385 yards and tied with Lacy for tops in the conference with 17 rushing touchdowns. His backfield mate, Marshall, averaged 6.5 yards per carry en route to 759 yards and eight scores himself.

Following a slew of injuries to the young men ahead of him on the depth chart, LSU’s Jeremy Hill shocked the conference in busting out for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns as yet another true freshman sensation. He compiled the 12th-most rushing yards in the conference despite playing minimally through the team’s first six games. Sir Hill broke the 100-yard plateau in four of the Bayou Bengals’ final seven games.

[Keep voting! Which SEC quarterback is going to light it up in 2013?]

These youngsters had the chance to shine in 2012, but several others are going to be expected to break into the spotlight with a year of weightlifting and studying under their belts. Matt Jones was a highly-touted recruit who is (Gator) chompin’ at the bit for the opportunity to replace the graduated Mike Gillislee at Florida. Ditto for Brian Kimbrow, who replaces the most prolific rusher in Vanderbilt history in Zac Stacy. Double ditto for Jonathan Williams, who spent his freshman year mainly sitting behind Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis at Arkansas.

Can we do a triple ditto? No one is telling us not to. Triple ditto for Mike Davis of South Carolina, who looked good in taking 52 rushes for 275 yards (a 5.3 yards per carry average) and two scores his freshman year. He replaces Marcus Lattimore, who will rehab his knee injury in the NFL, and Kenny Miles, who graduates.

Kendial Lawrence is gone, so Mizzou sophomore Marcus Murphy and frosh Russell Hanbrough will duke it out to handle the load in the Tigers’ second year in the SEC. Fellow newcomers Texas A&M will mainly trust the fleet feet of quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the Aggies, like a few other teams, will also trot out a veteran aching to prove himself as an elite back.

Ben Malena rushed for 808 yards and eight scores as a junior, and he should be aching to crack 1,000 in his swan song in College State. Raymond Sanders III was one of the very few bright spots on a bad Kentucky team, rushing for 669 yards as a junior. Under first year coach Mark Stoops, Sanders should be looking forward to an even bigger workload — and possibly 1,000 yards.

cLadarius Perkins of Mississippi State, Tre Mason of Auburn and Rajion Neal of Tennessee all broke that elite, 1,000-yard barrier in 2012, but all three did so on below average-to-terrible teams. That word, ‘elite’, means many different things to many different people.

However, it definitely does not mean rushing for 179 yards against Troy and then only 38 and 42 against Alabama and Texas A&M, respectively. Such were the ups and downs suffered by Perkins in his junior year.

Can he make up for the inconsistencies and move into the upper echelon of SEC backs — and even all the way to the top spot? Can Neal, Mason, or junior Jeff Scott of Ole Miss carry their teams to great things as they enter their junior or senior years?

Will any of the young gunners break into the college football stratosphere and possibly into the Heisman Trophy conversation?

We’re just going to come right out and ask it …

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