Running Grades: Who will be up or down?

Here are the top teams from each BCS conference with projections on whether or not they will be up or down compared to last year's rushing numbers. This isn't about the best running backs in each conference—it's about the top 2011 teams and how they will fare in 2012. Note- overall conference records are used as tiebreakers to determine the top conference teams.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats took some heavy losses on the O-line but losing running back Isaiah Pead only adds to the downgrade — Pead was the 2011 Offensive Big East Player of the Year. Cincinnati will probably use the "running back by committee" approach unless someone steps up. George Winn is the most productive rusher coming back this year (219 yards). Butch Jones has a knack for exceeding expectations but the O-line losses are hard to ignore.

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Louisville: The dilemma here is that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will have a breakout year and thus, the rushing numbers may suffer, unless you count his numbers on the ground. On the other hand, if you have a prolific passer, the threat of the pass keeps the back seven from cheating at the line of scrimmage or box, which opens up the running game. Their running game all depends on Bridgewater's productivity. The Cards have four different running backs to choose from — Senorise Perry, Jeremy Wright, Dominique Brown and Corvin Lamb — which means they are deep, deep, deep. Magic Eight Ball says slightly up.

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Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish haven't settled on a quarterback and after last year, that's not good news. The running game, however, should be much more productive with starter Cierre Wood returning — he rushed for over 1,100 yards last year and looked good in their spring game. The O-line only lost two starters, so that's more good news. Irish fans have been clamoring for a solid running game to take the pressure off some under-achieving quarterbacks, and looking at Notre Dame's schedule, the Irish may not have a choice other than to run the ball and give their defense a rest.

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USC: Quarterback Matt Barkley returns and USC head coach Lane Kiffin will probably unleash an air attack to ensure he's in Heisman Trophy contention. Tailback U only averaged 162.58 rushing yards per game last season, but Kiffin noted during a teleconference that they had been running better late in the season. Curtis McNeal, a 1,005-yard rusher last year, returns, but I am intrigued by Javorious "Buck" Allen — he's a slashing runner that hits the hole fast. While Barkley will be throwing to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the team should improve over last year's mediocre rushing numbers.

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Oregon: With running backs DeAnthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner returning, the Ducks may actually see more yardage churned up on the ground — their run-spread attack is merciless. For the past five years the Ducks' rushing offense has never been ranked lower than No. 6 in the country. Thomas should see more carries this year now that LaMichael James — the No. 1 rusher in the country in 2011 — is playing on Sundays. He's hard to replace, but Kelly's got too many weapons not to surpass last year's numbers.

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Stanford: With Andrew Luck off playing in the NFL, the Cardinal will have to break in a new quarterback, and there's no better way to give him more confidence than to hand off the ball. A lot. While the Cardinal lost two outstanding linemen in David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, the blocking should be solid as former head coach Jim Harbaugh recruited the O-line well. Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson all have minimum two years' experience and Taylor rushed for 1,330 yards last season.

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Wisconsin: The offense lost three All-Big Ten offensive linemen but Heisman finalist Montee Ball is back. Badgers head coach Bret Bielema will be calling on Ball a lot to keep the chains moving, especially since quarterback Russell Wilson has used up his eligibility. Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien will likely be quarterbacking the offense, but the emphasis will probably be on ball control. Note - O'Brien reportedly won't be moving to Madison for another month. With James White sharing the backfield with Ball, the Badgers will be putting up a lot of clouds of dust.

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Penn State: I have a lot more confidence in Penn State's running game than in their passing game. Silas Redd is a terrific running back who got lost in the quagmire — like most of his teammates — when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke last year. New head coach Bill O'Brien doesn't appear to have a quarterback who has had a breakout spring or made a case for the starting spot, so the running game will have to compensate. Redd's numbers were good last year — 244 carries, 1,241 yards, 7 touchdowns — but they can and should improve this season.

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Michigan: Quarterback Denard Robinson will certainly contribute to the Wolverines' rushing attack, but Michigan will unleash another weapon in Fitzgerald Toussaint. Last year Toussaint rushed for 1,041 yards and nine touchdowns. Toussaint didn't have a lot of carries in the beginning of the season but came on strong in late October rushing for at least 120 yards per game in four of the last five regular-season games and in two of those games he rushed for 170-plus yards. Brady Hoke loves to run the ball, so let's go with "up" here.

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Michigan State: Despite Edwin Bell declaring for the NFL Draft, the running back situation at Michigan State looks excellent. Throw a green quarterback into the mix and all this spells emphasis on the run. LeVeon Bell, Nick Hill and Larry Caper should do a great job moving the chains but Caper has been hampered on-and-off with injuries (including a concussion in the Nebraska game) and was used sparingly last season. While Bell is the thunder, Caper is the lightning — if both stay healthy it could get stormy in East Lansing.

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LSU: The Tigers were ranked second in the SEC in rushing productivity last season but the team that was ranked first, Alabama, won the BCS Championship. This year, LSU could have one of the best rushing attacks in the country — four starters return on the O-line and four outstanding running backs will be fighting for carries. It's a pretty good situation to be in when the quarterback situation is a question mark. Michael Ford (756 yards), Spencer Ware (707 yards), Kenny Hilliard (336 yards) and Alfred Blue (539 yards) will bring those rushing numbers up, up, up.

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Alabama: The defending BCS champions have lost Trent Richardson to the NFL but head coach Nick Saban stocked the cupboards with talent. Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon (early enrollee) should keep the Tide rolling. Hart returns after a knee injury and if everyone is healthy, why not red-shirt Yeldon? That we're talking about red-shirting Yeldon is all you need to know about the backfield situation at Alabama — it's loaded. With nine defensive starters gone this year, count on 'Bama to run the ball more than last year to chew up the clock and keep opposing offenses off the field.

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South Carolina: Marcus Lattimore, if 100 percent healthy (knee), should help the Gamecocks' running game improve tremendously. Last year South Carolina didn't have one rusher ranked in the top 100 despite the team's No. 26 ranking in total rushing offense. Sophomore Brandon Wilds rushed for 486 yards in the eight games where he was handed off the ball. Overall, the Gamecocks look like they're in good shape, but if Lattimore fully rehabs, we could see one of the best running teams South Carolina has ever had. This team looks good to go running the ball.

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Georgia: In 2011, Georgia struggled to move the pile in some key games. With heavy losses on the O-line including center Ben Jones, I have concerns. Isaiah Crowell is a very talented running back but he fumbled the ball in 25 percent of the games he had stats (four fumbles in 12 games). Brandon Harton had two productive games last year rushing for 98 and 101 yards but those games were against New Mexico State and Kentucky, respectively. More concern: Vanderbilt and Mississippi State were ranked ahead of Georgia in SEC rushing productivity last season.

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Oklahoma State: Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon are gone as well as six other starters. The good news is that receiver Charlie Moore looks as good as advertised (243 yards in spring game) and both Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart also look like they will keep defensive backs busy. Running back Joseph Randle (1,216 yards, 24 touchdowns) is back as well. The 12-1 Cowboys were nationally ranked at No. 51 in rushing productivity but only No. 8 in the Big 12 last year. So what does that tell us? The rushing numbers really don't matter for the Cowboys.

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Kansas State: Collin Klein rushed for over 1,100 yards and passed for over 1,900 yards in their 10-3 campaign last year — he was Kansas State's offense. If the Wildcats want to have a better 2012, they had better get the ball to someone else or Klein will get knocked out of commission. Three starters from the line — and two of them are tackles — are gone, and that's worrisome. Bill Snyder has to be concerned over his quarterback accounting for most of the offense — he will probably tweak the playbook to feature other players. Running back John Hubert (200 carries, 970 yards, 3 touchdowns) needs to really step up his red zone production.

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West Virginia: The O-line was suspect last year and this year they lose two tackles. Sure, Geno Smith will light up the scoreboards, but at some point, playing a defensively solid team is going to hurt them. Last year the Mountaineers ranked No. 92 in rushing offense, and while it appears that those numbers won't hurt them in the Big 12 (see Oklahoma State), they are playing in a tougher conference, so I see their numbers going down. Their top returning rusher, Dustin Garrison, is rehabbing from an ACL injury. On a bright note, it probably won't matter.

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Clemson: Two All-conference tackles (Phillip Price, Landon Walker) plus a starting guard are lost — that's a tad scary. Clemson's primary offense is through the air (282.3 yards per game average) but if the pocket collapses, quarterback Tajh Boyd has the wheels to make positive yardage. But great teams have a great running game and a 158.5 rushing yards per-game average isn't going to get it done. Andre Ellington returns as the leading rusher (1,178 yards) and I am betting that head coach Dabo Swinney will want to increase those numbers to give the team some much-needed confidence.

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Virginia Tech: The Hokies' leading returning rusher is quarterback Logan Thomas. Like Kansas State, the team has all its chips in one basket — if their quarterback goes down, the team's offense will stall. Virginia Tech returns just three offensive starters and I just don't see a strong running game emerging — what I do see is a lot of play-actions and options to compensate for the inexperienced line. Hey, it could work because Frank Beamer is a magic-maker, but I think this team will be relying mostly on the pass to play catch-up.

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