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August 2, 2011

Preseason unit rankings: Offensive backfields

Fall practice gets under way this week, and that means the 2011 college football season has started.

While we're still 31 days from the first games, think of this week as a figurative barrier: If a fan can make it to the start of fall camp, the final month of waiting will seem like about two or three days compared to the past seven months.

Today, we unveil the first of our national unit rankings. We'll reveal one unit per day and end next Tuesday with overall coaching staffs.

The rankings take into account what the players have accomplished, how we think the players will do this season and sheer talent. But production does trump potential.

Here are the offensive backfield rankings. This might be the deepest category in the nation; there are a lot of other schools we considered that ultimately came up a bit short. Next up: the receiving corps.


BUZZ: The Aztecs might have a new coach - former head man Brady Hoke left for Michigan and was replaced by Rocky Long, who was promoted from defensive coordinator - but they still have senior QB Ryan Lindley and sophomore RB Ronnie Hillman. Lindley threw for 3,830 yards and 28 TDs last season, and has 9,567 yards and 67 TDs in his career. Lindley's yardage total is third among active quarterbacks - both guys with more are on this list - and his TD total is fourth. Hillman ran for 1,532 yards - which was 10th nationally - and 17 scores last season.

9. USC
BUZZ: QB Matt Barkley needs to cut down on his picks - 26 in two seasons - but he has a ton of talent and might be No. 2 on the pro scouts' lists of top college quarterbacks. Barkley threw for 2,791 yards and 26 TDs last season and has 5,526 yards and 41 TDs in his two seasons with the Trojans. Senior Marc Tyler (913 yards) and sophomore Dillon Baxter will share tailback duties.

BUZZ: QB Landry Jones leads what should be an extremely potent offense. There is no established feature back, but chances are good that the Sooners will run the ball productively with a committee approach. Jones, a New Mexico native, was second nationally last season with 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns. He has thrown for 7,914 yards and 64 scores in his two seasons at OU. Look for sophomores Roy Finch and Brennan Clay and true freshman Brandon Williams to get the bulk of the carries at tailback.

BUZZ: QB Case Keenum is healthy after missing the bulk of last season with a blown-out knee, and he should graduate with NCAA career records in passing yards, completions and touchdown passes. He enters the season as the current career leader with 13,586 yards, 1,118 completions and 107 TDs; the records are 17,072, 1,388 and 134, respectively. He'll be joined in the backfield by TBs Bryce Beall, Michael Hayes and Charles Sims. Beall and Hayes combined for 1,499 yards and 20 TDs last season; Sims missed last season for academic reasons, but he ran for 698 yards and nine TDs as a freshman in 2009.

BUZZ: The Spartans have a new coordinator (Dan Roushar, who was promoted from line coach) after Don Treadwell left to become coach at Miami (Ohio). But don't expect any big changes from Roushar; he knows he has a good thing. QB Kirk Cousins completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,825 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. He is heading into his third season as the starter. Michigan State is loaded at tailback, with its top three rushers returning: Edwin Baker, Le'Veon Bell and Larry Caper. That trio combined for 1,950 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall. Baker is the leader; he ran for 1,201 yards and 13 scores last fall. The Spartans also have 253-pound FB Todd Anderson, who bulldozes foes.

BUZZ: Senior QB Kellen Moore is heading into his fourth season as the Broncos' starter, and he is 38-2 at the controls. He is No. 2 among active quarterbacks with 10,867 yards and 99 TDs. Perhaps the most impressive stat: He has thrown just 19 interceptions in 1,219 attempts. He has completed 68.2 percent of his career attempts and has a passer efficiency rating of 166.7; the record is 175.6, by Oklahoma's Sam Bradford (2007-09). Boise State also has some dangerous running backs, in particular Doug Martin. He ran for 1,260 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and has 27 rushing scores in the past two seasons. Martin also has played defense and plays with toughness. D.J. Harper, who has missed most of the past two seasons with knee injuries, is back and healthy; he was injured in Game 3 both seasons.

BUZZ: Senior Ryan Tannehill has started just six games at quarterback, but he played like a seasoned veteran down the stretch last season. He has a great understanding of the offense and does a good job avoiding mistakes. He threw for 1,638 yards and 13 TDs in seven games last season. He is helped out by a superb duo at tailback - Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. They combined for 1,764 and 16 TDs last season, though Michael missed the final five games of the season with a broken leg. Both have excellent speed and can score from anywhere. Gray ran for 100 yards in each of A&M's final seven games last season, scoring 10 TDs in that stretch. He also is an excellent receiver.

BUZZ: QB Russell Wilson's decision to become a Badger is big - as in Wisconsin lineman big. The Badgers haven't had a quarterback of his ilk of late, and Wilson hasn't worked with a rushing attack anything close to as good as Wisconsin's will be. Wilson has thrown for 8,545 career yards, which is fourth-most among active quarterbacks. He also has thrown 76 TDs and just 26 picks. Wisconsin might have the best tailback tandem in the nation in James White and Montee Ball, who combined for 2,008 yards and 32 TDs despite also sharing carries with 1,000-yard rusher John Clay.

BUZZ: Junior QB Andrew Luck is the best player in the nation and heads into the season as the Heisman front-runner. He will be a third-year starter for the Cardinal, and after serving as a caretaker of sorts in 2009, he was allowed to air it out a lot more last season and responded to the increased workload. He threw for 3,338 yards, 32 TDs and just eight picks, completed 70.7 percent of his passes and guided Stanford to 12 wins. He then stunned almost everybody by deciding to remain in school. Luck has good mobility and is a running threat. The Cardinal's main threat, though, is junior TB Stepfan Taylor, who ran for 1,137 yards and 15 TDs last season. He's a good receiver, as well.

BUZZ: In junior TB LaMichael James, the Ducks might have the nation's most explosive player. James ran for 1,731 yards and 20 TDs in 2010. A sprinter on Oregon's track team, James had 15 plays of at least 20 yards last season, including 11 runs of at least 30 yards and eight of at least 40. James had a play that covered at least 31 yards in eight games. Backup Kenjon Barner ran for 551 yards and six TDs, and redshirt freshman TB Lache Seastrunk arrived with a ton of hype. There's also dual-threat QB Darron Thomas. He rushed for 486 yards and five scores, and threw for 2,881 yards and 30 TDs, with nine picks. He threw a TD pass in every game and tossed at least three five times.

(Text by Mike Huguenin. Rankings by Olin Buchanan, Tom Dienhart, David Fox, Mike Huguenin and Steve Megargee.)

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