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OAYP: 2019 SEC Running Back Rankings

By Jim Johnson
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The new OAYP advanced metric ranks the SEC's returning running backs.

Earlier in the offseason I released the 2018 OAYP rankings as part of the debut of a new advanced metric to evaluate college football teams. Last season’s scores will obviously factor into the eventual 2019 preseason rankings, but those alone are only reflective, not predictive.

In order to make the aforementioned OAYP metric predictive, we’re factoring in individual player OAYP scores for projected starters and key contributors. Those numbers are a sort of spiritual descendant of adjusted yards per attempt, the quarterback metric first introduced in the book The Hidden Game of Football by Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, and John Thorn, and Pro Football Reference founder Doug Drinen’s ‘approximate value’ measure.

The basic premise is to cross the efficiency measure of the former, but across all positions, with the value principles of the latter -- hopefully as a way of more accurately depicting a given team’s returning production. Returning good players is more valuable than returning only average or subpar players, and not all production is created equal, so this should ideally prove to be more predictive than simply looking at the raw number of returning starters or the percentages of returning production.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be diving into those individual OAYP scores for some of the top returning qualifying players in the SEC at each position, as well as some potential breakout stars that posted big OAYP numbers, but on too small a sample size to qualify.

Now, to separate the truly dominant players, rather than just using the OAYP scores, we’ll be looking at the scores relative to their positional averages. For the time being, we only have the SEC to look at, but those marginal ratings will eventually reflect their value relative to the entire country -- at least among qualifying returnees. That way, because there is some mild inequity in scoring from one position to the next, those disparities are wholly mitigated. Sort of like WAR in baseball, marginal OAYP tells us how far above or below a player is their positional average.

We dove into the SEC quarterbacks earlier this week. Today, let’s look at the running backs.

I, myself, was surprised by some of what the formula spit out here. We’ll tier them into ‘superstars’ (marginal OAYP >1), ‘average to above average’ (marginal OAYP between 0 and 1), ‘not as good as we thought?’, and potential breakout stars (players that didn’t get enough reps to qualify, but posted high OAYP scores on a smaller sample size).

*Marginal OAYP in parentheses*


-Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (2.02)
-D’Andre Swift, Georgia (1.0)

Whether you realize it or not, Ke’Shawn Vaughn absolutely is a superstar. Of players with at least 100 carries in a single season, his 7.92 yards per attempt ranks fourth in the conference all-time, behind just first round NFL Draft picks Felix Jones and Brent Fullwood and College Football Hall of Famer Hank Lauricella. Since the start of the new millennium, the only Power Five running backs with 1,200 rushing yards. 7.9 yards per carry and multiple touchdown receptions in a single season are: Reggie Bush, Travis Etienne and Vaughn. This Nashville native has quietly been historically good for the ‘Dores.

That being said, with all due respect to Vaughn, D’Andre Swift is the best returning rusher in the league. I don’t care what the formula says. There were a couple of weeks last season where I thought that, given the strides Elijah Holyfield made in the offseason, that he had supplanted Swift as the ‘Dawgs’ best running back. “Sure, Swift was playing hurt, but how much was that really holding him back?” I asked myself, stupidly. A lot. A lot is the answer. It was holding him back a lot.

Over the first half of the season, which included games against Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, and two of the SEC’s three worst rushing defenses -- South Carolina and Vanderbilt -- he averaged 5.1 yards per carry with a 5.63% touchdown rate. Over the next seven games, among which were two top 20 S&P+ run defenses -- Alabama and Auburn -- not to mention Florida, Kentucky, and Texas, he averaged 7.5 yards per carry with 6.52% touchdown rate. Somehow, the visual disparity was even more striking than the statistical one. He committed a handful of truly unspeakable atrocities against would-be tacklers in that three game stretch of Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn. For a point of reference, his marginal OAYP over that first stretch was 0.34, which, while solid, put him somewhere between Ty Chandler and Brian Herrien. Over the second half of the season it was 1.48, which is, well, the real D’Andre Swift.

Second Tier

-Asim Rose, Kentucky (0.95)
-Scottie Phillips, Ole Miss (0.89)
-Lamical Perine, Florida (0.78)
-Kylin Hill, Mississippi State (0.76)

-Najee Harris, Alabama (0.38)
-Brian Herrien, Georgia (0.37)
-Ty Chandler, Tennessee (0.33)
-Ty'Son Williams, South Carolina (0.31)

-Dameon Pierce, Florida (0.15)
-JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn (0.14)
-Isaiah Woullard, Ole Miss (0.06)

In reality, there are actually about three separate tiers within this tier. Asim Rose has some big shoes to fill, and all things being equal, he might have the talent to do it. However, I am curious to see if Kentucky’s offensive line is as good as it was a season ago after losing Bunchy Stallings. This was a unit that ranked in the national top 20 in line yards, opportunity rate, and stuff rate. Their relationship with Benny Snell was mutually beneficial. Rose might not get that same amount of help.

Vaughn and Swift are the only returning SEC backs that had as many 10+ yard plays from scrimmage as Phillips did last year, but he wasn’t just a home run hitter. One of the steadiest ball carriers in the country, the JUCO product could be poised for an even bigger year under Rich Rodriguez, who has consistently had some of the most efficient running backs in their respective leagues over the course of his career.

Perine and Hill had very comparable production in 2018, but achieved quite differently. Perine was a consistent presence for the Gators, while Hill was more boom or bust at Mississippi State. We mostly know what we are going to get from the former, whereas the latter is a more high risk-high reward proposition. Hill has the talent to be among the best running backs in the SEC, but I need to see him do it on a week to week basis.

The biggest surprise on the list for me was seeing Najee Harris this low. As Damien Harris climbed into the top ten of Alabama’s school rushing leaders for a career, and Josh Jacobs broke out as one of the nation’s premier multidimensional threats, Najee Harris was actually the most efficient ball carrier on the team, averaging almost a full yard per carry more than the other two. Both Damien Harris and Jacobs are off to the NFL, meaning, despite a plethora of young talent waiting in the wings, an increased workload for the 6’2”, 230 pound freak of nature is all but assured. His OAYP score was hurt by a relative lack of red zone opportunities, but he should be right up there with Swift and Vaughn in 2019.

Not as good as we thought?

-Tim Jordan, Tennessee (-1.02)

The only one that really stuck out at me here was Tim Jordan, and not because I necessarily thought he was great, more so on account of his workload relative to Ty Chandler’s. Jordan ended up third to last among the 27 qualified returning SEC running backs. Chandler was in the top ten. New Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney obviously favored a committee at Georgia, but that’s what the personnel called for. Based on the information at hand, the Vols’ personnel should result in a much higher carry share for Ty Chandler.

Potential Breakout Stars

-Lanard Fournette, (LSU 2.08)
-Nick Gibson, Mississippi State (1.85)
-James Cook, Georgia (1.11)

No, I don’t think Fournette will be better than Vaughn, Cook will be better than Swift, or even that Gibson should start ahead of Hill. Of the three, Cook was the only one even close to meeting the requisite number of touches to qualify. Most of these guys benefited from one or two big games against G5 teams or lesser conference defenses. Cook had 99 yards and both of his two touchdowns against UMass. Gibson compiled nearly half of his yards and lone touchdown against Arkansas and Louisiana Tech. And Fournette only had more than four touches in one game, against Rice.

Even so, these are all talented guys, two of which come from elite recent college football bloodlines, and are worthy of enhanced roles within their respective offenses in 2019.

Full Marginal OAYP Rankings for Qualifying SEC RB’s

  1. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (2.02)
  2. D'Andre Swift, Georgia (1.0)
  3. Asim Rose, Kentucky (0.95)
  4. Scottie Phillips, Ole Miss (0.89)
  5. Lamical Perine, Florida (0.78)
  6. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State (0.76)
  7. Najee Harris, Alabama (0.38)
  8. Brian Herrien, Georgia (0.37)
  9. Ty Chandler, Tennessee (0.33)
  10. Ty'Son Williams, South Carolina (0.31)
  11. Dameon Pierce, Florida (0.15)
  12. JaTarvious Whitlow, Auburn (0.14)
  13. Isaiah Woullard, Ole Miss (0.06)
  14. Rico Dowdle, South Carolina (-0.05)
  15. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas (-0.08)
  16. Jashaun Corbin, Texas A&M (-0.12)
  17. Larry Rountree, Missouri (-0.17)
  18. Tyler Badie, Missouri (-0.33)
  19. Shaun Shivers, Auburn (-0.41)
  20. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (-0.51)
  21. Devwah Whaley, Arkansas (-0.63)
  22. Jamauri Wakefield, Vanderbilt (-0.76)
  23. Brian Robinson, Alabama (-0.96)
  24. Chase Hayden, Arkansas (-1.0)
  25. Tim Jordan, Tennessee (-1.02)
  26. Jeremy Banks, Tennessee (-1.04)
  27. Kam Martin, Auburn (-1.05)
Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP