Does Wisconsin always have productive running backs because its offensive lines are always so awesome? Or do the Badgers always recruit top-notch offensive linemen because those hefty dudes want to block for such skilled rushers?
Either way, Madison is where the Big Ten’s old “3 yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy seems to find its best modern expression.
The latest example: Jonathan Taylor. Last season as a true freshman, Taylor burst onto the scene after not even being projected as a starter coming into fall camp. All he did was rush for 1,977 yards — third in the country behind San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and Stanford’s Bryce Love — and 13 touchdowns to lead the Badgers to a 12-0 regular season.
He was consistent, too, rushing for at least 4.2 yards per carry in every game except Wisconsin’s lone loss, when Ohio State held Taylor to 41 yards on 15 carries (2.7 average) in the Big Ten championship game.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
The first-team preseason All-American entering 2018 finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last year. Did we mention he was a true freshman? So, which is scarier for Big Ten defenses: The fact that Taylor projects to be even better now, or the fact that Wisconsin returns all of its best big guys up front? Athlon’s rates the Badgers as the best offensive line in America in its preseason magazine.
2. J.K Dobbins, Ohio State
Dobbins was another running back, like Taylor, who made defensive coordinators lose sleep when he was just a freshman in 2017. He was so productive (1,403 yards) that he made Buckeye fans forget about Mike Weber’s injuries and, at times, ineffectiveness. Dobbins led the Big Ten in yards per carry at 7.2 and torched Wisconsin for 174 yards on 17 carries in the Big Ten title game.
3. Ty Johnson, Maryland
Johnson flew under the radar a bit last season as the Terrapins struggled to a 4-8 finish, thanks in large part to injuries at quarterback. But Johnson, who enters his senior season in 2018, was third in the B1G at 6.4 yards per carry in 2017 as Maryland gained exactly as many yards rushing as passing, 1,940 each.
4. Karan Higdon, Michigan
Speaking of teams which needed a strong running game to overcome a lack of an aerial attack. The Wolverines were one of four Big Ten teams to gain more rushing yards than passing yards in 2018 (Wisconsin, Rutgers and Minnesota were the others). Higdon barely missed the 1,000-yard barrier (994 yards) and gained 200 yards in a game twice, but the Wolverines need more consistency from him. He gained just 140 total rushing yards during Michigan’s three-game, season-ending losing streak.
5. LJ Scott, Michigan State
The big bruiser (6 feet 1, 226 pounds) was considered a major get for the Spartans staff when they signed him out of Hubbard, Ohio, in the middle of Buckeye country. But entering his senior season, Scott has never quite put it all together to stand out in a conference stacked with talented running backs. Still, Scott has produced plenty of highlights, such as his 110-yard, two-touchdown performance in Michigan State’s 42-17 victory over Washington State in last year’s Holiday Bowl.