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Best SEC RB: TJ Yeldon vs. Todd Gurley

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Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The battle for best pocket passer in the SEC will be contested between Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. The battle for best running back in the SEC is also a fight between the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs.

Both Alabama’s TJ Yeldon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley had spectacular freshman seasons. Both the Tide and Bulldogs expect to make it to the SEC title game on the strength of their offense and will rely on their sophomore running backs to get them there. But for all the similarities between Yeldon and Gurley, there can be only one top back in the SEC. So who is going to be the best in 2013?

Yeldon looks to be the next in a long line of great Alabama running backs. Mark Ingram was followed by Trent Richardson. Trent Richardson was followed by Eddie Lacy. Now TJ Yeldon follows Lacy. Last season, while waiting patiently behind the upperclassman Lacy, Yeldon had 1108 yards on 175 carries. Now the featured back in 2013, Yeldon will most certainly build on those numbers.

As impressive as Yeldon’s numbers were for a freshman, Todd Gurley was even better. Gurley’s 1,385 rushing yards were the most among SEC running backs. That’s of all SEC running backs, not just freshmen. Only Heisman winner Johnny Manziel ran for more yards. Gurley’s offensive contributions as a freshman were critical in propelling Georgia to an SEC title game that the Bulldogs very nearly won against the Crimson Tide.

Yeldon, though, wasn’t the starter like Gurley. Eddie Lacy got 204 carries and rushed for 1,322 yards. Now that Lacy is gone, many of those carries will be slotted for Yeldon. Alabama’s other options at running back are inexperienced freshmen, so they’ll probably spell Yeldon when he needs a rest. Otherwise, Yeldon will be in the backfield just about every play and, along with McCarron, will be the focal point of the Tide’s offense.

Gurley had to share carries too. Fellow freshman running back Keith Marshall had 117 carries for 759 yards. If it weren’t for Marshall, Gurley could’ve lead SEC running backs in yardage by an even greater margin. As it is, the dual running backs in Athens pose an unrelenting rushing attack that will wear down even the stoutest of SEC defenses.

But again, Yeldon doesn’t have to share carries in 2013. Last year Yeldon had 12 touchdowns, but Eddie Lacy ran for 17. Alabama always has a great running game that accounts for a lot of touchdowns. Without competition in the backfield, Yeldon doesn’t have to worry about another back vulturing goal-line carries.

It’s interesting that Lacy, who started in front of Yeldon, had 17 touchdowns. Do you know who also had 17 touchdowns? Todd Gurley. So not only did Gurley lead all SEC running backs in rushing yards, he and Lacy led the conference in touchdowns by a running back. If Gurley was as productive as, if not more than, Eddie Lacy and Lacy started ahead of Yeldon, what does that tell you?

No one will argue that Gurley had a better 2012 than Yeldon statistically, but that season is over. Looking ahead to 2013, Yeldon is set for a huge year. As good as McCarron is, Nick Saban’s teams tend to rely on defense and offensive ball control via a solid rushing attack. Don't expect that to change despite a retooled offensive line. As the lone feature back, Yeldon will be an integral part of the team’s plans. Gurley has to share carries with Keith Marshall and an offense that likes to air it out with Aaron Murray for long stretches of play.

Unfortunately, that’s the decisive factor in the battle between Gurley and Yeldon. Both Gurley and Yeldon are talented and are primed to succeed at this level and in the NFL. However, the situation at Alabama will give Yeldon more opportunities to display his athletic prowess. Both players should have monster years and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see these two teams meet in the SEC title game. Who will win the SEC championship is anyone’s guess, but as far as who should have the best year in the SEC at running back, the answer is TJ Yeldon of Alabama.