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ACC football 2017 position preview: Running backs

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Syracuse’s backfield isn’t great, but what about everyone else’s?

NCAA Football: Duke at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, we previewed the Syracuse Orange’s running backs, which are experienced but will need to be a whole lot better to make a difference this season. Can they improve, even marginally? And how good are they (or can they be) relative to the talent in the rest of the ACC?

Along with our Orange position group previews each week, we’ll also be offering a glance at the rest of the ACC’s situation. Who’s in the best and worst shape? Which are the best eturning players? And how does Syracuse compare to the other teams in the conference?

Today:

ACC Football 2017 Running Backs Preview

Last year’s top performers

Florida State’s Dalvin Cook put a pretty loud exclamation point on his accomplished career, with nearly 1,800 yards -- leading the league by nearly 200 over the nearest player. Along with Cook, four other ACC running backs also managed to hit the 1,000-yard mark: NC State’s Matt Dayes, Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, Miami’s Mark Walton, Pittsburgh’s James Conner. While last year was a great one for those players, the conference’s rushing prowess was largely dependent on those performances only, however.

Just three ACC teams (Georgia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh) were among the top 30 in terms of ground production per game, and two of those were lifted in large part by the quarterback position. North Carolina, Wake Forest, Virginia and Syracuse were all bottom-30 rushing teams. Adding Miami and Boston College to that list, six different ACC squads ran for less than 152 yards per game.

Who will excel in 2017?

Maybe everyone, to be honest. The league’s top quarterbacks all graduating/heading to the NFL means more inexperienced passers, which could show teams leaning on the run more heavily than they did last year. Georgia Tech is going to be run-heavy, as they always are, so Dedrick Mills should put up quality stats just by way of the system. Miami’s Walton will be getting his own larger workload both without Gus Edwards and with a very inexperienced QB under center. Expect his own numbers to be boosted as a result.

Elsewhere, Florida State likely has the best one-two punch in the ACC, deploying both Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick to fill in for Cook. Qadree Ollison, who rushed for over 1,100 two years ago, should pick up right where he left off for Pitt and be one of the league’s top ball-carriers as well. Virginia Tech’s Travon McMillan is another name to watch as he’ll lead a more run-centric Hokies offense replacing Logan Thomas at quarterback.

NCAA Football: Florida State Spring Game Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Top three units: 1. Florida State, 2. Georgia Tech, 3. Miami

It’s not common for a team to lose its conference’s best player at a position, and maintain the top spot anyway, and yet, here’s Florida State. Akers and Patrick are the ideal mix of running styles (Akers has speed and Patrick can be more of a brusier) that should keep defenses off-balance. Cook was successful behind a poor offensive line last year. This year’s backfield can do the same (and more, even behind an improved line).

The ‘Canes backfield is led by Walton, sure. But there’s a pretty extensive stable of runners behind him to make it a formidable backfield (unless he’s injured, of course). Georgia Tech will always have the conference’s deepest collection of talent to run the ball, though Mills is one of the better individual names they’ve had doing so in awhile.

Bottom three units: 12. Wake Forest, 13. Syracuse, 14. Virginia

There’s promise for Syracuse to improve this year, and they have the experience to potentially do so with Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal both taking on carries once again. But SU had them last year with little success. Even an improvement is not going fix last year’s terrible production right away.

Wake Forest has sported a bottom-30 rushing attack in each of the last six seasons. Last year looked a bit better and the Deacons return their best rushers (Matt Colburn, Cade Carney), but “better” still only amounted to around four yards per carry. Virginia, on the other hand, brings back nothing of note in the backfield. Both of last year’s top runners -- from a poorly ranked attack — are gone. There’s no one proven to pick up that slack just yet.

Top five running backs in ACC

  1. Mark Walton, Miami
  2. Dedrick Mills, Georgia Tech
  3. Cam Akers, Florida State
  4. Jacques Patrick, Florida State
  5. Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh

Where does Syracuse rank?

Discussed above. Syracuse’s rushing attack was a disaster, and that actively harmed the effectiveness of the top-10 passing game. The ceiling of this year’s run game is probably top-80ish? That’s not amazing, but it’s positive progress that could mean more wins. Whats the floor? See last year.