Last season the two divisional winners from the Southeastern Conference featured offenses sparked by a great duo of running backs. Alabama had Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon while the Georgia Bulldogs had Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Adding to their offensive potency were two highly efficient quarterbacks in A. J. McCarron for Alabama and Aaron Murray for the Bulldogs. This three-headed monster in the backfield brought back fond memories of the 2004 Auburn offense with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown at running back and one of the nation's most efficient passers in Jason Campbell.
Since 1980 there have been 42 combinations of running back duets in the Southeastern Conference that averaged at least 150 yards rushing per game with each back having at least a minimum of 400 yards for the year.
When the 2013 season begins look for the combination of Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne to make a run at becoming one of the SEC’s top pair of backs. Last season the combination of Mason and Onterio McCalebb averaged 131 yards rushing per contest, which means Mason and Payne need to average just 19 yards more per game to fall into the elite status of running back combinations.
Both are coming off 1,000-yard seasons during 2012, which raises their potential level in Gus Malzahn's run-oriented offense for 2013. Of the 42 prior running back combinations in the SEC, Auburn leads the conference with nine such duos. It was Auburn's rich tradition of fielding quality running backs, that helped attract Artis-Payne to the Plains from his junior college in California.
There are only four duets of running backs from the SEC to average better than 200 yards rushing per game since 1980. This cream of the crop group includes the combination of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas during 2006 and 2007.
Auburn's Bo Jackson and Brent Fullwood accomplished the feat during 1985 and the combination of Auburn’s James Brooks and Joe Cribbs became the first duo to both rush for more than 1,000 yards during the same season (1979).
Of the 42 combinations of running backs to net 150 yards per game since 1980, only 14 combined to average at least six yards per carry and that list includes three Auburn combinations. During 1983 Jackson and Lionel James averaged 6.88 yards per carry. In 1985 Jackson and Fullwood teamed up for 6.68 yards per rush and the combination of Brooks and Cribbs averaged 6.41 yards per attempt during 1979.
Only five sets of running back duos have featured both backs surpassing 1,000 yards rushing for the season. Auburn’s Brooks and Cribbs were the only combination to do so during an 11-game season. The other four sets of backs needed at least 13 games to reach the mark.
Tre Mason will be a junior this season for the Tigers.
If they can remain healthy, Mason and Artis Payne not only have the opportunity to average 150 yards rushing per game this year, but the twosome could be the next pair to each rush for 1,000-yards during the season. Auburn's offensive line should be improved from 2012 with four starters returning. The tailbacks will benefit from running behind powerful fullback Jay Prosch within an offense structured to be a north and south power running game.
Last season Mason proved he could be one of the Southeastern Conference’s top backs so now it is up to Artis-Payne to prove he is in that same category. As a senior school senior in Harrisburg, Pa., Artis-Payne rushed for 1,953 yards on 255 carries, including 31 rushing touchdowns.
After sitting out a year after high school, he attended Allan Hancock Community College where he rushed for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. He became a Junior College All-American last season by boosting his totals to 2,048 yards and 25 touchdowns.
During his two seasons of juco ball in California, Artis-Payne averaged 155.1 rushing yards per outing and nearly seven yards per carry. He initially verbally committed to Gene Chizik’s Auburn coaching staff and decided to stick with the Tigers despite the change in staffs when Malzahn took over in December.
“I chose Auburn because of the history of the school and because they put out a lot of great running backs," Artis-Payne said. “I've always wanted to play in the Southeastern Conference and I've achieved that. It's a dream come true for me.”
The juco transfer turned 23 this past June, making him a much needed mature player on the Auburn roster. "I definitely feel like this is the right time for me to be here in my life,” he said. “If it was a couple of years ago, I don't know if I would be as focused as I am now.”
He has been focused from day one since arriving on the Auburn campus, something that helped him earn Offensive MVP honors during the A-Day spring game after rushing for 117 yards while adding 47 yards on receptions.
At the collegiate level Malzahn has built his running attack around the combination of two productive backs. Over the past seven seasons his duets have averaged 146.1 yards rushing per game at 5.79 yards per carry. The primary rusher averaged 1,310 yards per season at 5.46 yards per pop and the secondary rusher averaged 672 yards at 5.79 yards per rush.
Expect the rushing numbers to be more balanced between Mason and Artis Payne during 2013. Both are self-motivated and team-oriented. They seem willing to share the payload within the same backfield for the good of the team. If Auburn can find the right quarterback to blend with its latest running back duo, this could be a much, much better year for the Auburn offense, a group that struggled last fall.
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