While every college footballteam would prefer to have an established, superstar No. 1 running back, using a committee of options is the preferred approach to save wear and tear on the starter. Some teams prefer to split the carry workload close to a 50-50 split or use certain players in situational roles. Regardless of the usage, more teams are looking to a committee of players to establish a rushing attack. And with that in mind, it's not easy to rank the best backfields in college football. Weighing a team with a clear superstar but little depth, as opposed to a team with three proven options and no standout No. 1 option is a tough assignment.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2015 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2016, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2015. Additionally, we tried to weigh having one standout player without much depth, as opposed to teams with multiple proven options.
College Football's Top 50 RB Units for 2016
Leonard Fournette and the LSU ground attack were rarely held in check last season. Fournette — the nation’s most talented running back — rushed for a school-record 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns on 300 carries in 2015. Only two opponents held Fournette under 100 yards, and his 162.8-yards-per-game average was the best in the nation. Derrius Guice was a four-star prospect in the 2015 signing class and rushed for 436 yards and three scores as Fournette’s backup last year. Guice would be the primary ball carrier at almost every other school. There's plenty of depth behind Guice and Fournette, as sophomore Nick Brossette is on track in his recovery from a torn ACL last season, and 233-pound junior Darrel Williams is another option for coordinator Cam Cameron.
The nation’s best running back tandem resides in Norman, as Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon anchor the Oklahoma ground attack for 2016. Perine has back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns to start his career and has averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per carry on 489 attempts. Mixon accumulated 1,119 yards from scrimmage in his first season with the Sooners and could take on an even bigger role with the offense in 2016. Rodney Anderson and Daniel Brooks provide solid depth. Freshman Abdul Adams is another option to watch this fall for coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big 12 Preview
3. Florida State
Dalvin Cook battled hamstring and ankle injuries throughout the 2015 season but still managed to rank first in the ACC and sixth nationally in rushing yards. As evidenced by his 7.4 yards per carry and four rushing plays of 70 yards or more last year, Cook is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The junior has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and should reach that mark once again in 2016. Cook will have plenty of help from backups Jacques Patrick, Johnathan Vickers, Mario Pender and Ryan Green. The Seminoles also added four-star recruit Amir Rasul to the mix in the 2016 signing class.
Even after Christian McCaffrey recorded 437 combined touches on offense and special teams last season, Stanford could lean even more on its Heisman Trophy candidate in 2016. A revamped offensive line and the departure of quarterback Kevin Hogan will test the Cardinal’s ability to reload, but McCaffrey can certainly ease the transition. McCaffrey set a new FBS single-season record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015 and finished second in the Heisman voting. Bryce Love showed big-play potential (7.8 ypc) on just 29 carries last season and is slated to fill the No. 2 role in 2016. Fullback Daniel Marx is an underrated cog in Stanford's ground attack.
Lost in McCaffrey’s prolific season at Stanford was another standout year in the Pac-12 by Oregon’s Royce Freeman. After leading the team with 1,365 yards and 18 rushing scores in 2014, Freeman once again paced the Ducks’ ground attack with 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015. The junior is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2016. Speedy sophomore Taj Griffin returns as the top backup after rushing for 570 yards as a true freshman last season. Additionally, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James will push for snaps after both players averaged more than seven yards per carry in 2015.
Podcast: Official 2016 Pac-12 Preview
If Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are healthy, Georgia has a strong case to be one of the top-five backfields in the nation. Chubb is on track in his recovery from last year’s season-ending knee injury, but Michel’s status for the opener is in doubt after an arm injury this summer. Redshirt freshman Tae Crowder and true freshman Elijah Holyfield join senior Brendan Douglas as other options for coordinator Jim Chaney.
Jalen Hurd has recorded 2,187 rushing yards through his first two seasons on campus and needs just 891 yards in 2016 to set a new school record for most yards in a career. Hurd should see plenty of opportunities behind an improving Tennessee offensive line to eclipse 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year. Alvin Kamara rushed for 698 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season on campus last fall. The former Alabama signee is also a valuable weapon in the passing game (34 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns) for quarterback Joshua Dobbs. With Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs leading the way on the ground last season, Tennessee ranked second among SEC teams by averaging 223.7 rushing yards per game.
Baylor is the only FBS team returning two 1,000-yard rushers from the 2015 season. Shock Linwood rushed for 1,329 yards and 10 scores as the lead back last year, while Johnny Jefferson used a 299-yard performance against North Carolina in the Russell Athletic Bowl to reach 1,000 yards. Linwood and Jefferson will handle the bulk of the carries, but redshirt freshman JaMycal Hasty and sophomore Terence Williams provide two other capable options.
New coach Clay Helton plans to build his offense around a power rushing attack. That’s good news for the Trojans, as there’s plenty of talented options at running back to pair with a new quarterback (likely Max Browne). Ronald Jones is one of college football’s top rising stars at running back and returns to anchor the backfield after recording 987 yards and eight touchdowns in 2015. Justin Davis ranked second on the team with 902 yards and will be heavily involved once again. Tre Madden departs, but USC can lean on Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware for the No. 3 and No. 4 roles.
It’s no secret Clemson’s offense revolves around quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the production of Wayne Gallman shouldn’t be overlooked. Gallman rushed for 1,527 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and ranked third among ACC running backs with 15 rushes of 20 yards or more. Junior Tyshon Dye and sophomore C.J. Fuller return after combining for 262 yards in 2015, while Adam Choice is back after missing all of last season due to injury. True freshman Tavien Feaster was regarded as the No. 1 all-purpose back in the 2016 247Sports Composite.
Podcast: Official 2016 ACC Preview
11. Michigan State
Three players eclipsed the 500-yard mark for coach Mark Dantonio last fall, with rising star LJ Scott leading the way (699 yards). Look for Scott to take on a bigger role in 2016, with Gerald Holmes and Madre London likely to share the backup role.
Derrick Henry leaves big shoes to fill in Tuscaloosa, but the combination of former five-star prospects Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris should keep Alabama’s ground attack performing at a high level.
James Conner’s return to the gridiron is one of the best storylines for the 2016 season. In 2014, Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 scores and should quickly regain the form that placed him among the nation’s best at running back. After Conner was lost for the 2015 season with a knee injury, Pitt’s ground attack didn’t miss a beat with Qadree Ollison leading the way. Ollison rushed for 1,121 yards and 11 scores and was one of the nation’s top freshman running backs last year. Sophomore Darrin Hall should fill the No. 3 role for coordinator Matt Canada.
14. North Carolina
Elijah Hood had a breakout campaign in his first year as North Carolina’s starter last fall. And the bar is set even higher for Hood in 2016 after recording 1,463 yards and 17 scores in 14 contests last year. T.J. Logan (400 yards in 2015) is slated to fill the No. 2 role, while Khris Francis is penciled in as the third back for coach Larry Fedora.
It’s rare to see the Badgers struggle to establish a consistent ground attack, but that’s exactly what happened in 2015. Wisconsin ranked 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. Expect big improvement in this department in 2016, as this unit is bolstered by the return of Corey Clement from hernia surgery. Clement was limited by the injury last season and managed only 221 yards and five scores on 48 carries. If healthy, Clement is among the Big Ten’s best at running back. Dare Ogunbowale rushed for 819 yards as the feature back last season and is slated for a major role in the ground game once again.
Podcast: Official 2016 Big Ten Preview
16. Arizona State
19. Notre Dame
20. Penn State
21. Georgia Southern
23. Appalachian State
27. San Diego State
28. South Florida
29. Ohio State
30. Air Force
32. NC State
33. Western Michigan
37. Virginia Tech
38. Iowa State
40. Georgia Tech
41. West Virginia
46. Northern Illinois
48. Boston College
49. Boise State
50. New Mexico State