TJ Carpenter: Best Backs in the SEC? How Knile Davis and Marcus Lattimore Compare Head to Head

Being considered the best running back in the SEC comes with national notoriety, Heisman hype and aspirations of playing the NFL. In many years the conversation and debate is heated; many times it is difficult to distinguish between one elite running back and another because all in the conversation dominate the country’s toughest conference known for its smothering defense.

This year the debate is not nearly as close as many would have you believe. It is fairly lopsided in fact, but not in the direction many would contend. This year, the debate is between Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina and Arkansas’ Knile Davis.

I’m having déjà vu back to the 2006 preseason. Most believed the best running back conversation would involve Ken Darby of Alabama and Kenny Irons of Auburn. Darren McFadden, an eventual two-time Doak Walker Award winner and two-time Heisman trophy runner-up was considered a distant third. What was it about McFadden that most people could conceivably have missed?

There were some, including our very own Russ Mitchell and yours truly, who trumpeted that the clear-cut best running back in the country was McFadden and his once-in-a-generation abilities. Others chose to look at the surface and not delve deeper.

This season, we are seeing much of the same in college football. Lattimore is almost universally considered to be the nation's top running back next season. However, few people stop to ask themselves why and simply recite the same things everyone else does. “He’s the workhorse of that offense, he was unstoppable against Alabama in 2010, he was instrumental in South Carolina’s comeback win over Navy.” (Really Navy? You’re going to cite Navy? But that is neither here nor there.)

Do the numbers, physical ability, and big game performances actually prove Lattimore should be considered the best running back in the SEC? Do they even prove there is a contest between Lattimore and Davis? Those who even mention Davis in the conversation often make it sound as though there are too many question marks and downsides in one place or another to give him an edge.

Let’s take a look at facts and then address the questions.

Marcus Lattimore was SEC Freshman of the year in 2010 after rushing for an impressive 1,197 yards on 249 carries and scoring 17 touchdowns that season. He started in 11 games, not including the bowl game against Florida State in which he only carried the football once. Impressive, no doubt.

Knile Davis? Davis, led all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2010. Yet the feat was hardly noticed, and did little to push his name further into the conversation of the conference’s best running back heading into 2011. When you factor in games started and not games played, Davis, with 133.44 yards a game, averaged nearly 41 more than Lattimore. In nine games as a starter in 2010, Davis accumulated 1,201 yards.

Lattimore was and looks to be the focal point of the Gamecocks offense. As most will point out, Lattimore is the “workhorse” of that offense, and as such will get the majority of the attention. Conversely, Davis is seen as a product of Bobby Petrino’s system and being surrounded with superior talent. Once again, how factual is this as a general statement? In his career, Lattimore has 30 or more carries in a game three times. Davis? Twice. The system being a factor? If it is, it shouldn’t be. Either Petrino is so much better at designing an offense and developing quarterbacks and wide receivers than Steve Spurrier that he can turn an inferior running back into a Heisman trophy candidate, or Spurrier has just gotten lazy in his old age. Either, Petrino really is that much better of a coach than Spurrier or there is less weight to the “system” argument than initially believed. Even if Petrino’s system was a significant factor, why should it be a detrimental point in saying Davis isn’t as good, if not better, than Lattimore?

Is Lattimore just a better athlete? Is he a faster, stronger back? More equipped at dealing with SEC defensive size and speed?

Lattimore runs a 4.5 in the 40 and bench presses just north of 300 pounds and he squats 482. Good numbers. Davis’s are better. He runs a 4.33 in the 40, benches 415 and squats 570. Is Lattimore just a better athlete? The numbers would suggest no.

For those keeping score at home; statistical production: Davis; Speed: Davis; Strength: Davis; System: moot.

Davis is as strong as a linemen and is the fastest player on the SEC’s arguably fastest team. To quote Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, “He’s the fastest, strongest guy on the team, so I’d say he’s doing pretty good.”

Pound for pound, yard for yard, carry for carry, Knile Davis is the best back in the nation.

In big games, Lattimore has been exceptional. I don’t want to take that away from him. Against Alabama he was huge, against Georgia, huge. He has been instrumental in the resurgence of the South Carolina football program and the Gamecocks will look to him to lead them to another double-digit victory season in 2012. Davis has been exceptional in big games as well, including a game in which the Razorbacks pummeled the LSU Tigers to end the 2010 regular season and used Davis as their battering ram.

The questions? How durable and/or injury prone are both running backs? Neither can take advantage of their considerable talents and skills if they aren’t on the field. Davis has had three ankle surgeries in his career. That is a legitimate concern. If there is one issue Davis has, it’s staying healthy. His health has never been an in-season issue, but he missed all of 2011 because of yet another recurring ankle injury. Missing half of the 2011 season because of an ACL tear, perhaps a more serious injury, is Lattimore’s biggest concern. Knees are finicky. No one including Lattimore knows how he will react to such an injury.

No one wants to see either running back’s career come down to an injury, but needless to say, it is a concern both fan bases and coaching staffs should keep a close eye on while hoping for the best.

Lattimore is a good running back, no one, including myself, believes otherwise. But when taking a serious look at a side-by-side objective comparison, it is clear, the hype and the debate belong to Knile Davis.

There’s still a long way to go before the season begins. I’m sure I’ll be getting plenty of hate mail and complaints about this column. To those who want to debate this point, remember, you aren’t just arguing with me, you’re arguing with facts. The facts are clear, Knile Davis is the best running back in the SEC.


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TJ Carpenter is host of The TJ Carpenter Show on The Hog Sports Radio Network from 6-9 am (listen live at HogSportsRadio.com) TJ Carpenter contributes to MrSEC.com, ArkansasSports360.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @tjcarpentershow or on Facebook.