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 for the 2017 season. 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. Alabama takes the top spot in the rankings, but Georgia isn't far behind with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb back for one more year in Athens.
How did we come up with these rankings? Several factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2017 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. These rankings reflect projection for 2017, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2016. 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 2017
The 2017 Crimson Tide offense could feature the deepest backfield of Nick Saban’s Alabama tenure. Damien Harris (1,037 yards) led the team in rushing last season, but Bo Scarbrough was the Tide’s best back late in the year (he averaged 113.5 yards over the final four games). Harris and Scarbrough are back to lead the ground attack, with Josh Jacobs contributing as a change-of-pace or third-down option. True freshman and five-star recruit Najee Harris impressed during spring practice and is expected to have a prominent role. Fellow true freshman Brian Robinson ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2017 signing class and could find a role this season.
Now a full year removed from a devastating knee injury, Nick Chubb should resemble the player who rushed for 1,547 yards as a freshman in 2014. In his return to the lineup last season, Chubb led the Georgia ground attack with 1,130 yards and eight scores. Sony Michel is just as dangerous on the ground, as he ranked second on the team with 840 yards and four scores in 2016. The Chubb-Michel combination could be the nation’s best backfield tandem in 2017. Considering the depth at running back, Michel could see more work as a receiver. Brian Herrien (363 yards) impressed in his first action with the Bulldogs last season. Freshman D’Andre Swift and sophomore Elijah Holyfield round out this unit.
3. Penn State
The nation’s No. 1 running back resides in Happy Valley this year. Saquon Barkley returns for his junior campaign after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Barkley is the first player at Penn State since Evan Royster to accomplish that feat and has accumulated 2,572 yards over the last two years. He’s poised for a career season in 2017 thanks to an improved offensive line. Miles Sanders (184 yards) and Andre Robinson (141) are former top recruits who showed promise in limited snaps as freshmen in 2016.
4. Florida State
The Seminoles lose one of the nation’s top running backs (Dalvin Cook) yet won’t miss a beat on the ground in 2017. That’s due to the arrival of five-star recruit Cam Akers, who rushed for 5,103 yards and 71 scores in a standout Mississippi high school career. He’s due to play a major role in the backfield from the first snap, but junior Jacques Patrick — a 231-pound power back — is likely to share carries after working as Cook’s backup the last two seasons. Amir Rasul, Zaquandre White and Khalan Laborn are also in the mix for snaps.
Kamryn Pettway’s 2016 season was derailed by injuries late in the year, but the breakout star still finished with 1,224 yards and seven scores. He’s back to anchor the ground attack once again, and Kerryon Johnson (895 yards) returns to provide a big-play threat to complement Pettway’s power for coach Gus Malzahn. There’s depth behind Pettway and Johnson with redshirt freshman Malik Miller and sophomore Kam Martin. With the addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, this backfield may find increased running room thanks to a more balanced attack.
Leonard Fournette will be missed, but the next star running back is already in place in Baton Rouge. With Fournette limited due to injury last fall, Derrius Guice moved into the No. 1 role and led the team with 1,387 yards and 15 scores. Additionally, Guice averaged 7.6 yards per carry and posted two 200-yard games. The junior will take on an even bigger role in 2017 and is among the preseason favorites to contend for the Heisman Trophy. Senior Darrel Williams and junior Nick Brossette are next up for carries, while true freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a name to watch this fall.
The effective one-two punch of Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin is back to lead the Washington ground attack once again. Gaskin has led the team in rushing in each of the last two years, finishing 2016 with 1,373 yards and 10 scores. While Gaskin is more elusive and shifty in the open field, the 235-pound Coleman brings more power to the backfield. He rushed for 852 yards and seven scores last year but also averaged 7.5 yards per rush. Adding depth is promising redshirt freshman Sean McGrew and freshman Salvon Ahmed.
New coach Willie Taggart’s hopes of a quick turnaround in Eugene received a huge boost this offseason, as Royce Freeman decided to return for his senior year. Freeman is the nation’s active leading rusher with 4,146 career yards and has also scored 44 touchdowns on the ground. Injuries limited Freeman to just 945 yards in 2016, but with a full season of carries and an improving offensive line, the senior should eclipse 1,000 yards for the third time in his career. The Ducks are in great shape behind Freeman with Tony Brooks-James, Kani Benoit and Taj Griffin all returning. Griffin is recovering from a knee injury suffered at the end of 2016 and could see time at receiver this fall.
After rushing for 987 yards in a standout freshman campaign in Los Angeles, Ronald Jones handled the bulk of the carries in the USC backfield and finished with 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns on 177 attempts. Jones ended the year on a high note by posting over 100 yards in four out of his final six contests, including 171 against Oregon and 134 versus Notre Dame. Justin Davis expired his eligibility, which leaves junior Aca’Cedric Ware, Dominic Davis and true freshman Stephen Carr to battle for the No. 2 role behind Jones.
10. Ohio State
Mike Weber returns to Columbus to anchor the ground attack after leading the Buckeyes with 1,096 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2016. Weber averaged 6.02 yards per carry and scored nine times on the ground. New coordinator Kevin Wilson should get Weber more involved after he averaged only 14 carries a game last fall. Wilson is also working with talented options behind Weber, as freshman J.K. Dobbins is poised to see a significant role in 2017, while sophomores Demario McCall and Antonio Williams round out the rest of the key running backs. McCall could see time as a receiver this fall.
12. Western Michigan
13. West Virginia
15. Texas A&M