Signing day is just around the corner, and that means most minds are currently on players who will be the stars of their teams in 3-4 years.
As compelling as the recruiting battles are, for a change of pace I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at some of the players currently on college rosters who have a high-percentage chance of having a breakout season in 2012. This was done with quarterbacks in December, so this time around the focus will be on running backs.
We started by defining what the term "breakout player" means (we ruled out anyone who was a first- or second-team all-conference selection, or combined more than 200 carries and 1,000 yards last season). We then put together five guidelines that serve as good identifiers for potential upside: 2012 schedule strength; the number of returning starting offensive linemen on the running back's team; his season-long yards per carry (YPC) total; his good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) mark against his 5-6 toughest run defense opponents in 2011 (the GBYPA metric is a tape-based statistic that gauges how productive a running back is when given good blocking); and his team's run-blocking win rate against those same foes.
Taking into account all these factors, we created this list of the top five breakout running back candidates (ranked in order of the likelihood that they'll have strong 2012 seasons):
Schedule strength: Moderate
Returning starting offensive linemen: 4
Team run-blocking win rate: 50.9 percent
Just about every indicator says that McNeal will have a fantastic 2012 season. His GBYPA and the Trojans' run-blocking win rate were both the best of this group, and McNeal's 6.9 YPC were the 10th-best in FBS last season among running backs with 100 or more carries.