1) Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: There’s something about Wisconsin football which produces big stud running backs year-in and year-out. It doesn’t matter if the coaching staff changes, the schedule changes and the faces change, Wisconsin’s style remains constant. It might not be pretty, but it is a grind-it-out, in-your-face rushing attack which they let you know is coming, but teams continue to fail to stop it. Gordon averaged a healthy 7.8 yards per tote last season, with 1,609 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Look for Gordon to flirt with 2K in yardage while piercing the end zone 15-plus times.
2) Todd Gurley, Georgia: If Gurley can stay healthy, and that’s a big ‘if’, he will be one of the top mail carriers in the land. He and Keith Marshall form one of the best tailback tandems in the nation when they are healthy, but last season they missed a combined 11 games. Things might get off to a bit of a slow start, and UGA doesn’t have your typical cream puff start to the season. They get right after it with a home game against Clemson before traveling to South Carolina for their second game. Be sure to have plenty of depth on hand until the cushy part of the schedule, starting with Troy Sept. 20. Gurley has the potential to hang 100 or more yards on at least six of his 12 opponents.
3) Jay Ajayi, Boise State: Ajayi and the Boise State offense will face their most stern test in the opening game against Mississippi, and then they will not face another top-tier defense until late October when Brigham Young pays a visit to the ‘Smurf Turf’. Ajayi rolled up 1,425 yards with 18 touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He had five multi-touchdown games last season, and Boise State was victorious in each outing. With plenty of subpar defenses in the Mountain West, Ajayi and the Broncos will be primed for another big offensive season.
4) Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The senior Abdullah amassed 1,690 yards with seven touchdowns in 2013. Fantasy owners love the yardage, but they would like to see at least a dozen scores this time around. With two out-of-conference tilts against Florida Atlantic and McNeese State to kick off the 2014 campaign, Abdullah could get his Heisman candidacy off to a roaring start. It might not be until early October, a trip to East Lansing, where anyone is able to slow him down.
5) T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: Yeldon piled up 1,235 yards with 14 scores, teaming with Derrick Henry for an incredible one-two punch in Tuscaloosa. The out-of-conference schedule is a bit of a joke, as West Virginia is expected to be rather middlin, while the Tide also host Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Western Carolina. Head coach Nick Saban can be forgiven, though, as the SEC schedule, particularly in the West, is extremely daunting. Yeldon could produce big Fantasy stat lines in spurts, particularly in those games outside of the SEC. Overall, he should be good for at least 1,200 yards again, but don’t be surprised if a lion’s share comes before the leaves start to change colors.
6) Mike Davis, South Carolina: If Davis could manage to stay healthy he would conjure up memories of former South Carolina standout Marcus Lattimore. Davis was the fifth-leading rusher in the SEC last season, checking in at 98.6 yards per game. He found the end zone 11 times, and had just less than 1,200 yards on the ground. With a schedule that includes leaky defenses from East Carolina, Furman, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, Davis should hit the century mark frequently. But be sure to have plenty of depth, as he also faces sturdy defenses from Auburn, Clemson, Florida and Georgia.
7) Travis Greene, Bowling Green: The Falcons offense could be prolific with a deep stable of running backs and QB Matt Johnson returning. Greene set a school record with 1,594 yards and 11 touchdowns, delighting the fans at Doyt Perry Stadium on numerous occasions. Greene’s toughest task will be facing Wisconsin Sept. 20, a team with a decent defense. A visit from Indiana the previous week might also be difficult. However, once Greene and the Falcons get into conference play, look for him to run roughshod over most opponents, as the MAC has some awful defensive units.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana: The Hoosiers have a proud history of running backs from Anthony Thompson to Vaughn Dunbar, and Coleman might be the next big thing. He rolled for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns, and he has the breakaway speed to house it every time he puts his mitts on the pigskin. While IU might be overmatched once league play begins, particularly during their road schedule, Coleman has the chance to go over 1,000 yards against a soft out-of-conference slate which includes dregs Indiana State, Bowling Green and North Texas.
Ezekiel Elliot, Ohio State: Elliot proved his speed is legitimate in his brief chances last season as understudy for Carlos Hyde. Now, it is Elliot’s show, and as long as the patchwork Ohio State O-line can give him some room to run, he could be the next great Buckeyes back. A handful of early games against pushovers from Navy, Kent State and Rutgers will ease the transition.
Duke Johnson, Miami (Fla.): Johnson (ankle) is anything but a sleeper when he is healthy, but he is making his way back from a broken ankle suffered in a showdown against Florida State last season. He missed spring ball while still recovering, and it’s unclear if he is at 100 percent. If he can get back to his pre-injury form, and all indications are that he is, Johnson will be a steal for Fantasy owners who take a chance on him on draft day in the middle to late rounds.
David Cobb, Minnesota: The senior Cobb has the chance to fire out of the chute with three favorable out-of-conference home games. In fact, Cobb and the Gophers should enjoy plenty of success all around until things turn significantly more difficult in early November. You won’t be disappointed with Cobb as a late-round flier on draft day.
Alonzo Harris and Elijah McGuire, Louisiana: The duo of Harris and McGuire is the most unheralded pair of running backs in the country. Fans of Sun Belt football certainly know their names, and defenders frequently see their backs while they’re dashing to the end zone. Harris posted 942 yards with 14 scores, while McGuire was good for 863 yards and eight TDs. McGuire also led the nation with an average of 8.4 yards per carry. This situation will be worth watching. Initially, it will likely be an even split for reps. However, if an injury occurs and one player is depended upon to deliver the goods, that player will emerge as a must-start in all Fantasy leagues, especially in league play against some soft opponents.