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Ranking the collective running backs, league by league, for the 2017 season

NATIONAL running backs
PHOTOS BY USA TODAY SPORTS

Throughout their history, the Big Ten and SEC have been known as ground-and-pound leagues, and that certainly should be the case this season. The conferences are loaded with productive running backs.

So, which league is the best this season when it comes to running backs? Well, we broke down each of the 10 FBS leagues in four ways. First, we picked the top running back in each league. We listed running backs who already are in the top tier nationally (for this exercise, “top tier” means one of the top 10 nationally). We listed running backs who could move into the top tier. We also listed running backs who already are or could move into the second tier (a top-25 or -30 back nationally).

(We did the same thing with quarterbacks.)

Here’s how we rank the leagues, from 10th to first.

10. Conference USA

Marquee attraction: Southern Miss’ Ito Smith.
Top tier nationally: None.
Potential top tier: Smith.
2nd tier, now or potential: Smith, ODU’s Ray Lawry.
The skinny: Smith is a high-level college running back. He was 11th in the nation in yards from scrimmage last season with 1,918, a total that is third among returning players. He rushed for 1,459 yards and had 43 receptions for 459 yards; he also totaled 19 TDs. Lawry is a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and missed that plateau as a freshman by 53 yards; he has 38 career rushing TDs.

9. Sun Belt

Marquee attraction: New Mexico State’s Larry Rose Jr.
Top tier nationally: None.
Potential top tier: None.
2nd tier, now or potential: Rose, Appalachian State’s Jalin Moore, Troy’ Jordan Chunn.
The skinny: Rose rushed for more than 2,700 yards in his first two seasons, but he missed three games with an injury last fall and managed just 865. When healthy, though, he is a big-time home-run threat. Moore led the Sun Belt with 1,402 rushing yards last season. Chunn is a workhorse who had 16 rushing TDs last season, tied for fourth-most nationally among returning running backs.

8. MAC

Marquee attraction: Ball State’s James Gilbert.
Top tier nationally: None.
Potential top tier: None.
2nd tier, now or potential: Gilbert, Western Michigan’s Jarvion Franklin, Toledo’s Jeremy Swanson.
The skinny: Gilbert rushed for 1,332 yards last season and will be the focal point of the Cardinals’ offense. Franklin will share time – and maybe with two backs. Still, he has rushed for 1,000 yards in two of his first three seasons and should reach that plateau again. Swanson becomes Toledo’s feature back this season, and that basically guarantees that he will reach 1,000 yards in the Rockets’ prolific attack.

7. AAC

Marquee attraction: Tulsa’s D’Angelo Brewer.
Top tier nationally: None.
Potential top tier: None.
2nd tier, now or potential: Brewer, Temple’s Ryquell Armstead, USF’s D’Ernest Johnson.
The skinny: Brewer definitely bears watching this fall; he rushed for 1,435 yards last season – and was the No. 2 rusher on his own team, behind James Flanders, who has graduated. Brewer still will share carries, but will be the unquestioned feature back this season. Armstead also shared carries last season, yet still managed 919 yards; he, too, will be the unquestioned feature back this fall. Johnson, who is a productive receiver, becomes USF’s No. 1 running back with the departure of Marlon Mack. While QB Quinton Flowers almost certainly will be the Bulls’ leading rusher again, Johnson has the talent to be a 1,000-yard guy.

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