First, an admission: comparing the statistics of college players on college teams against other college teams to the statistics of their professional counterparts is ludicrous. The talent disparity between the best and worst college teams is miles wider than the gap between the best and worst NFL teams. What’s more, there are many college teams who have adopted styles of play that drastically skew many offensive statistics.
But ignoring all that, we can highlight a smile-inducing fact regarding Wisconsin’s running back corps: they are hypothetical fantasy football monsters. Last year, as a team, the Badgers ranked second in the nation in rushing touchdowns with 48, and 12th in rushing yards with 3194. Wisconsin’s 5.47 yards per attempt was 7th best in the NCAA. Obviously Wisconsin boasts one of the top ground attacks in the country, year-in and year-out.
On an individual scale, that production is no less impressive. Despite no single Badger running back ranking in the top 30 nationally in terms of rushing attempts per game, the Badgers placed three backs in the top 50 yards per game standings. If we restrict the leaderboard to players with at least 100 rushing attempts, James White ranked fourth in yards/att at 6.74. Montee Ball’s 18 touchdown season was tied for 8th-best, even though five of the players ahead of him compiled at least 95 more attempts than him. And the big boy John Clay tied for 21st in total touchdowns despite playing in 11 games–most of the players ahead of him played in at least 13.
For fun, I’ve compared the fantasy scoring numbers for each of Wisconsin’s running backs to the leaderboard from the last NFL season. I scaled up each players’ production to 16 games proportionately to adjust for the longer season (that is, adjusting for the percentage of games missed in a season–White and Ball were adjusted to 14.77 games, Clay was adjusted to 13.54).
Using standard rules, the scoring breaks down as follows (note that averages are calculated over 16 total games):
Montee Ball: 255 points, 15.9 avg.
James White: 233 points, 14.6 avg.
John Clay: 228 points, 14.3 avg.
Ball, White, and Clay would rank 2nd, 3rd, and 5th on the ESPN running backs fantasy leaderboard, respectively. Montee Ball gets a huge boost from his late-season touchdown binge, when he scored 11 times in the final three games of the regular season. Only Arian Foster’s spectacular campaign exhibited as much dominance of the competition across the board as the Wisconsin backfield.
Of course, there were other collegiate rushers who had even more productive seasons than any of the Badgers–Oregon’s LaMichael James was the top RB by a huge margin with a stunning 23.0 adjusted scoring average. So for as good as they were, Wisconsin’s running backs obviously weren’t the top individual performers. But the real takeaway from this little experiment, contrived as it may be, is how impressive the production was for each of the Badgers’ three backs despite their shared workload. Timeshares in the backfield are a fantasy football nightmare in the NFL; Wisconsin’s three 2010 RBs barely missed a step. With John Clay moving on, Montee Ball and James White both have the potential to put up truly monstrous individual seasons in 2011 if they prove capable of splitting the workload between only each other.