The big cleanout at quarterback in the Sun Belt could certainly change the look of many league offenses this season, but thankfully the running back position is well stocked. Granted, Western Kentucky's superstar running back Antonio Andrews has graduated, but he'd be gone anyway with the Hilltoppers' defection to CUSA. Otherwise, the position is looking healthy, and the addition of another star rusher certainly adds to the talent level. Who's the best? Let's go with the new guy.
1. Marcus Cox, Appalachian State
The Southern Conference's loss is the Sun Belt's gain. Cox was a two-star recruit who was used sparingly over the first couple of games before the coaching staff realized that was not their best idea. He never had fewer than 17 carries again, churning out six games in excess of 100 yards en route to 1250 yards and 15 TDs on 245 carries. He got better over the second half of the season, putting a stamp on the year with 215 yards and 3 scores against Western Carolina in the final game. More than just a running back, Cox also caught 43 passes for 559 yards and another 6 TDs, with 3 receptions of 49 yards or more. Rather than rest on his laurels, Cox has been working hard, packing on 15 pounds of muscle to handle the rigors of an FBS schedule. He will give the Mountaineers a chance in every game.
2. Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette
Another sophomore, McGuire was in the shadow of long-time starter Alonzo Harris for much of the season. Well, at least when he didn't have the ball in his hands. While not considered big at 185 pounds, McGuire was one of the most dynamic players in the conference, gaining yards in chunks and making opponents look silly in the open field. He was tough too, and defenders had to be careful or McGuire was as likely to run over them as around them. Last year he gained 863 yards and 8 TDs on just 103 carries, and caught 22 passes for 384 yards and another 3 scores. Like Cox, McGuire has packed on more weight (15 pounds) for his sophomore season, but not at the expense of his explosiveness. There's also talk of him playing some quarterback, his high school position, just to get the ball in his hands more. There will be no shadow big enough for him to hide in this season.
3. Robert Lowe, Texas State
The Bobcats joined the Sun Belt last season with a bunch of solid running backs to keep their offense ticking over. It turns out one was a little more solid than the rest. Despite not starting the first three games, and playing on a team less than two years removed from the FCS, Lowe had some outstanding games on the way to finishing second in the league in rushing with 945 yards on 164 carries, scoring 9 times. The then-sophomore finished with four 100-yard games, and also caught 19 passes for 166 yards and another TD. The second team all-conference pick won't have to worry about splitting carries early in the season in 2014, and will have a big, improving offensive line to lead the way. He will be in the race to lead the league in rushing this season.
4. Alonzo Harris, Louisiana-Lafayette
It hardly seems fair to have two Ragin' Cajuns in the same list, but who said life, or football, was fair? Harris has been a starter since his freshman season, and has gotten steadily better each season. Last year, he rushed for 942 yards and 14 TDs on 199 carries, with three 100-yard games, and earning first team all-conference honors for his troubles. Instead of competing for carries with McGuire, the two formed an excellent ‘thunder and lightning' combo. Harris is a powerful rusher with enough speed to do some damage in the secondary. Like McGuire, the 216 pound rusher has been working hard in the offseason, and added some muscle to dish out even more punishment to Sun Belt defenses.
5. Michael Gordon, Arkansas State
Early in the season, Gordon rarely got more than a handful of carries while senior David Oku carried the load. Oku was less effective than he was in 2012, and it was obvious down the stretch that a change was needed. Gordon stepped into the fray and had some outstanding games, highlighted by 184 yards and 3 scores against Texas State. For the year he gained 754 yards and 10 TDs on 112 carries, and caught 16 passes for 206 yards and another score. At 191 pounds, Gordon wouldn't be considered a power runner, but he's hard to bring down, and also possesses the speed to score from anywhere on the field, with runs of 91 and 64 yards last season. Even with a new coaching staff, the Red Wolves are expected to compete for the Sun Belt crown. With Gordon running the ball more, those odds have increased that little bit more.