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Ohio State vs. Wisconsin: Which program develops a better running back?

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Antonio Williams ditched Wisconsin for Ohio State, but should he have trusted his first choice?

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The critique that Wisconsin doesn’t develop running backs who can succeed as pros has been floating around for some time, referenced as recently as Sept. 15 in this article from LostLettermen.com.

Around that same time, Antonio Williams—the one-time Wisconsin commit who eventually signed with Ohio State and has been the subject of some conversation this week—posted this note on his Twitter account:

Williams then fed that narrative about Wisconsin’s inability to develop running backs 10 months later in a Cleveland.com article:

“Isn’t that crazy?” Williams asked. “To this day, it hits me every now and then like, ‘This is Ohio State. I play for the top running back university in the country right now.’ That’s how I feel. Being in this position, it’s amazing.”

While Ohio State did produce the highest-drafted running back last year in Ezekiel Elliott, the notion that Ohio State is the best running back university is absurd. Take a look at where the active all-time rushing leaders are from and you will see a couple from Texas and Oklahoma, but after that it is all over the place: Tulane, Eastern Carolina and Arkansas, to name a few. In recent history, the Miami Hurricanes—the team of Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Lamar Miller and Edgerrin James—probably have the strongest claim to the the “Running Back U” moniker.

But this is a Badger blog, and we don’t need to bother ourselves with places with silly names. Williams is essentially contending that the Buckeyes do a better job than the Badgers at developing running backs, so let’s examine that statement as it relates to the last 15 years.

When looking at which university develops running backs better, it is important to examine the type of talent coming into that program. According to sites like Rivals and 247Sports, the Buckeyes have a clear edge in this department, bringing in around the eighth-best running back in the nation while the Badgers average the 23rd-best running back in their recruiting classes. So Ohio State gets better recruits coming out of high school, but how well does it develop them compared to Wisconsin?

Short answer: Not well.

Long answer: There’s a lot of information that goes into answering this question, so check out the raw data we compiled below (information was pulled from Rivals.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com and Spotrac.com).

Also, please note: This is not meant to be an article that picks on a kid for making a decision. Williams saw Elliott and said, “I want that,” which is clear from another quote from the Cleveland.com article:

"I just felt like at Wisconsin I wouldn't reach my full potential for what I want to be overall," Williams said. "I want to be that Ezekiel Elliott type player. Zeke will catch it out of the backfield, he'll block, he'll line up at receiver and run routes, and he'll obviously run the ball tremendously.

Forty-one percent of the time, a draft-eligible Ohio State running back goes undrafted, but when they do get selected, they average a third-round draft selection. Compare that to Wisconsin, where draft-eligible running backs only go undrafted 22 percent of the time, and they average a selection in the late second round. As a running back recruit looking at which program is going to get him into the pros, Wisconsin is the clear winner here. Not only would the running back have a 77 percent chance of getting drafted, he’s likely to get drafted earlier, meaning some fat stacks for the wallet and checking account.

*When building the graphs below, I chose to use a value of 0 in categories such as career touchdowns and career yards per carry for players that did not play in the NFL. Had those numbers been excluded for figuring out averages, Ohio State’s numbers go up a bit, and in some cases eclipse Wisconsin’s numbers. However, the purpose of this article is to examine how well each university does at developing all of their running backs that become eligible for the draft and a career in the NFL. Excluding those numbers would only shine a light on the running backs that made it in the NFL. It seems like a small difference, but it is important to my point that Wisconsin does a better job at consistently developing running backs for the next level.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Ohio State running backs don’t consistently get drafted, but maybe they have more productive NFL careers. That would certainly reinforce the notion that Ohio State is a place that does a better job at developing running backs.

But the Buckeyes don’t, and it’s not even close.

The jury is still out on what will become of Melvin Gordon and Elliott, although the former is certainly going to get a chance to show what he is made of and the latter is off to a promising start behind a great offensive line. Carlos Hyde and James White also seem to have found roles with their respective NFL teams, but the history of the professional career of the Ohio State running back is still waiting for a successor to Eddie George. Since 2000, Ohio State running backs average a 1.5-year career, 437 career yards, 2.18 yards per carry and 3.5 touchdowns.

Wisconsin may not be churning out running backs that take the NFL by storm, but the Badger running back does typically have a solid career, averaging a 3.4-year career, 1,022 rushing yards, 3.03 yards per carry, and just over six touchdowns. The three-year career is arguably the most important number in this sequence, since only NFL players that are given credit for three seasons qualify for the NFL’s pension plan, so if you are a RB from Wisconsin, you’re likely going to be able to qualify for some more cash when you’re 55, while the Ohio State running backs will have to make sure their secondary career will set them up for retirement.

Things are looking pretty dire for the Ohio State running back in the pros at this point, but hey, maybe those Ohio State running backs make more money in the pros.

You know the answer to that.

The Ohio State running back earns an average of 3.2 million dollars over the course of their career (that number plunges to 1.4 million when you exclude Elliot’s 24 million dollar contract, easily the richest on the list for either school). The Badger Back nets 4.3 million dollars on average over their career, so again the Badger back wins, earning enough extra money over his Ohio State counterpart to purchase 1.1 million items from a dollar store or one item from this extravagant list.

When all is said and done, the Wisconsin running back is going to get drafted higher, have a longer career, accumulate better stats and make more money in the NFL than his Ohio State counterpart. It isn’t fair to pretend that there is a long, rich history from either university at producing NFL-level running back talent. Quick, name a running back from Ohio State that did anything in the pros other that Beanie Wells?

Wisconsin can point to Michael Bennett and Ron Dayne, but the running back position is uniquely brutal in the NFL, and the longer and more illustrious the college career, the more and more hits those running backs take before getting hit by the pros. However, considering that most NFL teams keep only three running backs on their roster, there are only 96 slots for the 30 or so college running backs who are trying to get drafted each year.

The fact that Wisconsin is able to get seven of its nine draft-eligible running backs at least two years in that competitive work environment speaks to Wisconsin’s ability to develop the talent it is seeks out and prepare those players for the rigors of the NFL. Ohio State can certainly point to Elliott’s success, but the fact remains that for every Elliott out there, there are several running backs who don’t even get on an active NFL roster. If you want to be the next Elliott, google Jordan Hall and Lydell Ross, or even better, take a look at how well Meyer’s running backs from his Florida days are doing. I hear one that was disguised as a quarterback is trying their hand at baseball right now.