Ranking the nation's top 20 running backs

It should surprise no one that Wisconsin's Montee Ball tops our list of the nation's top 20 running backs.

After all, Ball finished fourth in the Heisman voting last season after rushing for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns, which tied an NCAA single-season record.

But the other members of our top five might surprise some folks, considering that two are returning from serious injuries and the other two – who are teammates – weren't full-time starters last season. Who are they? Read on to find out.

This is the first part of our breakdown of the nation's best players at each position. "Best" doesn't necessarily mean the most pro potential or even the most talent. Instead, it's a mix of what the player has accomplished and how we think the player will do this season. But production does trump potential.

We will look at a position a day until Aug. 27, when we rank all 124 of the nation's quarterbacks. Friday, we will look at wide receivers and tight ends.

Here are the running back rankings.

20. Charles Sims, Houston

Particulars: 6-0/205, Jr.; Houston Westbury
Buzz: The explosive Sims should have a bigger role for the Cougars this season with QB Case Keenum and big-play WR Patrick Edwards gone. Sims is a powerful runner with good top-end speed. He ran for 821 yards and nine TDs on 110 carries (7.5 ypc); he also caught 51 passes for 575 yards and had 1,396 all-purpose yards. Sims had four rushes that covered at least 50 yards (tied for third-most nationally).

19. Cierre Wood, Notre Dame

Particulars: 6-0/215, Jr.; Oxnard (Calif.) Santa Clara
Buzz: Wood finished 2010 strong, and that carried over to last season. He rushed for 1,102 yards and nine

TDs in 2011. He had three 100-yard games, with his biggest a 191-yard effort against Purdue. He also had three other games with at least 94 yards. He's a capable receiver, too, and with the Irish looking at shaky quarterback play, Wood should be even busier this season.

18. Eddie Lacy, Alabama

Particulars: 6-0/220, Jr.; Geismar (La.) Dutchtown
Buzz: Lacy has rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 TDs in the past two seasons as a reserve; he was a third-teamer in 2010 and a second-teamer last fall, when he had 674 yards and seven scores. He's a burly guy (6-0/220) with good power, but he also has good speed. As with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, his two predecessors as Alabama's starting tailback, Lacy will make the jump from solid backup to star tailback. The Tide is deep at tailback, but Lacy still looks like a 1,200-yard guy. He was a high school teammate of LSU FS Eric Reid.

[Related: Former LSU star safety LaRon Landry, now with the New York Jets, calls out 'Honey Badger']

17. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State

Particulars: 6-2/244, Jr.; Groveport (Ohio) Groveport Madison
Buzz: Expect the Spartans' offense to revolve around Bell, a bruiser who came on strong down the stretch last season. He ran for a team-high 948 yards last season; he had 516 yards and seven TDs in the final six games, the only ones he started. Bell runs hard, and while he's not a blazer, he's plenty fast for a 244-pounder. He is a solid receiver as well.

16. Robbie Rouse, Fresno State

Particulars: 5-7/195, Sr.; San Diego Madison
Buzz: Rouse is a little guy who has put up big numbers. He ranked seventh nationally in rushing last season with 1,549 yards; he had four games with at least 150 yards. In three games against Big Six opponents last season (Cal, Nebraska and Ole Miss), he averaged 126.0 yards per game, including 169 yards and three TDs against the Huskers. Rouse has 3,157 career yards, which is third-most among active players. Rouse is a good receiver, and that facet of his game likely will come more into play this season with a new coaching staff.

15. Zach Line, SMU

Particulars: 6-1/230, Sr.; Oxford (Mich.) High
Buzz: Despite missing the last three games last season with a broken foot, Line still rushed for 1,224 yards and 17 TDs; he ranked seventh nationally in rushing at 122.4 yards per game. It was his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, and he has gained 2,718 yards and scored 27 TDs in the past two seasons. He has 15 100-yard games in the past two seasons. Line has 34 career rushing TDs, third-most among active players, behind only Montee Ball and Denard Robinson.

14. Ray Graham, Pittsburgh

Particulars: 5-9/195, Sr.; Elizabeth (N.J.) High
Buzz: Graham ran for 958 yards and nine TDs despite missing the final five games last season with a knee injury. He had four 100-yard games, including two with more than 200 yards. Assuming he is healthy, Graham should be a great fit in new coach Paul Chryst's pro-set offense. Graham is a rugged inside runner who also possesses a burst around the edge. He's also a dangerous receiver.

13. John White, Utah

Particulars: 5-8/188, Sr.; Los Angeles Harbor College, preceded by Torrance (Calif.) South
Buzz: White made a big impact last season with the Utes, his first after transferring from junior college.

He set a school single-season record with 1,519 yards, and was third in the nation with a school-record 316 carries (24 per game). White had eight 100-yard games, second-most in school history in a season. He also rushed for 15 touchdowns and caught two TD passes. White was known as "Wolfman" in high school because of his interest in wolves. Seriously.

12. Silas Redd, USC

Particulars: 5-10/200, Jr.; transfer from USC, preceded by Stamford (Conn.) King Low Heywood Thomas School
Buzz: Redd's transfer from Penn State to USC late last month gave USC another offensive weapon and made the Trojans the only team in the nation with two backs who rushed for 1,000 yards last season. Redd ran for 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns in 2011, on a team (unlike USC) that had a mediocre passing attack. He had six 100-yard games last fall. He won't get as many carries with the Trojans as he would've with the Nittany Lions, but he now plays for a team with a shot at the national title.

[Related: Sanctions at Ohio State, Penn State removes luster from Big Ten title race]

11. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

Particulars: 5-11/208, Sr.; Mansfield (Texas) High
Buzz: Taylor has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and should play an even bigger role for Stanford this season with the departure of Andrew Luck. He rushed for 1,330 yards and 10 touchdowns in 201 and had 1,137 yards and 15 TDs as a sophomore in 2010. He has 2,770 career yards, giving him a shot at breaking Stanford's career rushing record (4,003 yards, by Darrin Nelson from 1977-81). Taylor also is an effective receiver.

10. Andre Ellington, Clemson

Particulars: 5-10/190, Sr.; Moncks Corner (S.C.) Berkeley
Buzz: Ellington is coming off a season in which he ran for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns; he missed all of one game and most of another with injuries. He had five 100-yard games, including a 212-yard, two-TD effort against Maryland. He has nine 100-yard games in his career. He is able to effectively run between the tackles, but definitely has the speed to turn the corner.

9. Gio Bernard, North Carolina

Particulars: 5-10/205, Soph.; Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas
Buzz: He likely would've played as a true freshman in 2010, but tore his ACL during fall camp and redshirted. He rushed for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Bernard had seven 100-yard games and four games in which he scored at least two touchdowns. He also had 45 receptions for 362 yards, and his abilities will be even more on display in new coach Larry Fedora's high-powered offense. Bernard last season became the first UNC player to rush for 1,000 yards since Jonathan Linton in 1997.

8. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State

Particulars: 6-1/200, Jr.; Wichita (Kan.) Southeast
Buzz: Randle went from key reserve as a true freshman in 2010 to a highly productive starter last season.

He rushed for 1,216 yards and 24 touchdowns, and also had 43 receptions for 266 yards and two more TDs. He scored at least two touchdowns in eight games, including a four-score day in a rout of Baylor. Randle already is No. 6 on Oklahoma State's career list for rushing touchdowns with 26.

7. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska

Particulars: 5-11/210, Sr.; Plano (Texas) High
Buzz: Burkhead lacks breakaway speed, but he doesn't mind a heavy workload. He rushed for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, and added 21 receptions for 277 yards and two more scores. His rushing total was the most by a Huskers running back since 1997, and his 284 carries were two shy of the school record set by Lawrence Phillips in 1994. Burkhead scored at least once in 11 of 13 games, and reached the 100-yard plateau seven times. He has 2,654 career rushing yards, 12th in school history.

6. Christine Michael, Texas A&M

Particulars: 5-11/213, Sr.; Beaumont (Texas) West Brook
Buzz: It's all about staying healthy with Michael. But that has been a problem. As a sophomore in 2010, he ran for 631 yards and four TDs before suffering a broken leg in Game 8. Last season, he suffered a torn ACL in Game 9; before his injury, he had rushed for 899 yards and eight TDs. In both seasons, he shared time with Cyrus Gray. Gray has graduated, so the job is all Michael's now.

5. Kenjon Barner, Oregon

Particulars: 5-11/195, Sr.; Riverside (Calif.) Notre Dame
Buzz: Barner is a burner who will be a first-time starter. He was eighth in the Pac-12 in rushing last season (939 yards, with 11 TDs) backing up to LaMichael James. James turned pro early. Barner has rushed for 1,856 yards and 20 TDs in his career, and also is a capable receiver. Barner had four 100-yard games last season and has six in his career.

[Related: Reggie Bush finally returns vacated Heisman Trophy]

4. Knile Davis, Arkansas

Particulars: 6-0/226, Jr.; Missouri City (Texas) Thurgood Marshall
Buzz: Davis is returning from an ankle injury that caused him to miss the 2011 season. He had a big 2010, rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs despite getting just 20 total carries in the first four games. He had six 100-yard games. Davis is a big guy with a burst, and he can both run over linebackers and run past cornerbacks. He also is a good receiver.

3. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon

Particulars: 5-9/173, Soph.; Los Angeles Crenshaw
Buzz: Thomas is a hybrid runner/receiver, so we're listing him as a back. He's also the nation's most

explosive player. Thomas, nicknamed "The Black Mamba," had just 140 touches last season. But he scored 18 touchdowns (one every eight times he touched the ball) and averaged 15.96 yards on each touch. Thomas scored three times on plays covering at least 90 yards. Thomas did all that as a true freshman and as a complementary option to the now-departed LaMichael James.

2. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

Particulars: 6-0/218, Jr.; Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes
Buzz: Lattimore played in seven games last season before suffering a torn ACL; he still rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs. That gives Lattimore 2,015 yards and 27 TDs in his first two seasons. He will be the focal point of the Gamecocks' offense his season. Lattimore has been a workhorse, with five games of 25-plus carries and 10 games of 20-plus carries in his 20-game college career. He also has scored 30 total touchdowns in those 30 games. He is an effective receiver, too, with 48 career catches.

1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin

Particulars: 5-11/215, Sr.; Wentzville (Mo.) Timberland
Buzz: Ball is coming off a huge season in which he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He ran for 1,923 yards and scored 39 touchdowns, tying Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record. He has rushed for 3,310 yards and 55 TDs in his career, and also has six career TD receptions. Ball had 10 100-yard games last season and has scored a TD in 20 consecutive games. An amazing stat: He has not lost a fumble in 617 career touches.

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