Power Ranking College Football's 25 Best Backfields of 2013
College football has quite a few positions that can make the difference between a good game and a blowout. A weak secondary is no match for a great quarterback, and a weak linebacking corps is no match for a stellar running back.
No matter what your team's roster looks like, the most important positions make up the backfield: the quarterback and running backs. Without solid play from these folks, your offensive line is useless.
You can protect someone all day long, but he eventually has to run, pass or hand the ball off in order to make a play. Whether it's a tailback or the quarterback who is making the play, someone from the backfield needs to keep the defense on its heels.
From stellar quarterbacks to quarterback/tailback tandems, here are the nation's 25 best backfields entering 2013. Our criteria:
- The equation used here was (quarterback rating + rusher ranking points + Final AP position points) times the conference strength multiplier.
- The top 50 rushers from 2012 that are returning in 2013 were given points: 50 to the No. 1 rusher all the way down to one point awarded to the No. 50 rusher.
- All player rankings were obtained from the "Complete Leaders" links on this ESPN stats page.
- The final AP rankings were treated the same, with 25 points going to No. 1 and one point going to the No. 25.
- Conference power rankings were taken from here, which led to these conference strength multipliers: SEC = 1.3, Big 12 = 1.25, Pac-12 = 1.2, ACC = 1.15, Big Ten = 1.1, Big East = 1.05 and all other conferences received a multiplier of 1.
25. North Carolina Tar Heels
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Total Points: 173.42
In 2012, Bryn Renner had the luxury of Giovani Bernard, who will not be returning to the collegiate field in 2013.
Renner finished 15th in passer efficiency among quarterbacks returning in 2013, and that efficiency will help UNC attempt to repeat his 2012 performance.
The Tar Heels finished the season 8-4 with a postseason ban that prevented a 13th game from happening. While Bernard won't be back, the backfield will still have a couple of guys worth watching.
Both A.J. Blue and Romar Morris came out of the 2012 season averaging over five yards per carry. If that tandem can even make up for two-thirds of Bernard's production, then the Tar Heels will be back in the postseason in 2013.
24. Oregon State Beavers
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Total Points: 173.76
Storm Woods gave everyone a sneak peek of his capabilities in 2012, and the Beavers' quarterbacks did the same.
Statistically speaking, Sean Mannion was a better quarterback than Cody Vaz, though that may have been different if Vaz were left in while he was winning games for the Beavers.
Mannion finished 32nd in the class of returning quarterbacks, and he will likely lead the Beavers against the rest of the Pac-12 in 2013.
Woods, the breakout tailback, will return as one of the most lethal ball-carriers in the Pac-12. He will be up against the likes of De'Anthony Thomas (Oregon) and Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona).
That shouldn't scare him too much though, as he finished 2012 with 940 yards on 192 carries for 13 touchdowns. That's not too shabby for a freshman.
23. Ball State Cardinals
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Total Points: 173.8
Jahwan Edwards terrorized opposing defenses for 1,410 yards and 14 touchdowns via 232 carries for the Cardinals in 2012.
Ball State tore through its schedule to a nine-win finish last season. Quarterback Keith Wenning finished 37th in quarterback rating for returning signal-callers.
Just with Wenning and Edwards, Ball State has all it needs to contend for the MAC title in 2013. The Cardinals definitely field talent in the backfield; the question is whether the offensive line can protect the backfield long enough to get the ball up the field.
22. San Jose State Spartans
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Total Points: 175.8
David Fales led San Jose State to an 11-2 record that included a loss to the Stanford Cardinal by only three points. While the rushing attack was terrible, part of that was due to the Spartans' sixth-ranked passing offense.
You don't need to rush for much more than 100 yards if you're passing for over 330 every time you take the field. The Spartans lose senior De'Leon Eskridge this offseason, but they will return a backfield that's threatening enough to command respect.
As Fales leads the Spartans again in 2013, watch out for the unsung heroes that can emerge as serious threats: Blake Jurich and Tyler Ervin.
Both those players were used in rushing situations throughout the 2012 season, and they both averaged four or more yards per carry. Neither is a true tailback, but that could (and should) change before 2013 kicks off.
21. UCLA Bruins
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Total Points: 177.24
Brett Hundley took UCLA all the way to the Pac-12 title game in 2012, and the Bruins are on the way up the conference's rankings.
In fact, they just landed the country's 12th-best recruiting class (according to ESPN) and the best signing class in the Pac-12. The Bruins will miss Johnathan Franklin in 2013, but Hundley was the second-leading rusher on the 2012 squad.
Hundley will be back, and this time he won't be a freshman. If the Pac-12 isn't afraid of UCLA, the Bruins will be thrilled to make every team pay for its lack of respect.
Replacing Franklin won't be easy, but Damien Thigpen and Steven Manfro are great candidates to try. Especially Manfro, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry on eight carries. (His long was 18, so the numbers aren't as inflated as you might think.)
20. Northwestern Wildcats
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Total Points: 178.86
Venric Mark rushed for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns on 226 carries during the Wildcats' 10-3 season in 2012. Kain Colter, the backup quarterback, backed him up with another 12 touchdowns on the ground as well.
Trevor Siemian will return to lead the 2013 Northwestern offense, and the Colter/Mark combo will be in the backfield with him.
This trio of men formed the nation's 19th-best rushing offense in the country, and any Big Ten team that doesn't take them seriously will simply be another victim for the Wildcats.
This is one of the few squads on the list that actually returns every one of its major contributors.
19. Toledo Rockets
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Total Points: 181
David Fluellen finished fifth out of all the returning tailbacks with 1,498 yards and 13 touchdowns via 259 carries. Fluellen was responsible for almost 60 percent of the Rockets' rushing offense.
When Toledo takes the field again in 2013, Fluellen will be on the field with the 36th-most efficient returning quarterback.
Terrance Owens will lead Toledo once again. If any other tailback steps up to help lighten Fluellen's workload, then Toledo's rushing attack will only improve over its nine-win performance in 2012.
Toledo's backfield was already fun to watch in 2012, and it will bring another year of experience to the table in 2013.
18. Louisville Cardinals
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Total Points: 182.18
Bridgewater didn't have a headliner running the football for him, but Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry both averaged 3.9 yards per carry or better.
Bridgewater, Wright and Perry may not pose the most formidable pure rushing attack, but they certainly combine to form one of the most lethal backfields in the country.
If Wright and Perry aren't running over opponents, Bridgewater is slicing them up through the air. Either way, you don't want to give that backfield time to execute...because they will execute you.
17. LSU Tigers
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Total Points: 182.39
Zach Mettenberger showed flashes of greatness last season, but the Tigers couldn't convert that to a conference title or a BCS bowl game.
The good news is that Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill are both another year wiser heading into 2013. If LSU's line can hold up, then the backfield is ready and able to capitalize on the protection.
Hilliard and Hill both averaged over five yards per carry in 2012, and LSU was in a rebuilding season at the time. Though LSU loses a lot of juniors to the draft this April, the Tigers' backfield is ready to go.
LSU is one of the premier programs in the SEC, and it's in the better division as well. (The SEC West has produced the last four national champions.)
16. Ole Miss Rebels
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Total Points: 185.51
Quarterback Bo Wallace led the Ole Miss Rebels to a 7-6 season in Hugh Freeze's first year. Freeze backed that on-field performance up with a monster recruiting class that ranked No. 5 according to ESPN.
Wallace didn't just throw for those wins, either; he was the second-place rusher when the dust settled from the 2012 season. Ole Miss is preparing an assault on the traditional powers of the SEC, and preparations began in 2012.
The Rebels finished a middle-of-the-pack 50th in rushing offense last season, and the future holds much more than that.
The Rebels' presence on this list may surprise you, but the 2013 season will speak for itself. Ole Miss is ready to make a move, and the SEC had better be ready for the lunge.
15. Ohio Bobcats
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Total Points: 188.2
Quarterback Tyler Tettleton and tailback Beau Blankenship led the Ohio Bobcats to a 7-0 start in 2012, beginning with a monster win over the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The Bobcats averaged over 200 yards per game on the ground, and Tettleton and Blankenship led the way. They finished No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in number of carries.
Blankenship racked up 1,604 yards and 15 touchdowns on his 312 carries. He is one of the nation's best running backs, and he ranked fourth on the list of returning ball-carriers.
If your team isn't scared of Blankenship, he will be more than happy to alter your perception of MAC football.
14. Arizona State Sun Devils
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Total Points: 191.88
Kelly wasn't just the quarterback; he came in third on the team in rushing yards. He averaged 3.9 yards per carry, and that's one of the better marks of the signal-callers on this list.
Arizona State's rushing attack is underrated, especially with Ka'Deem Carey playing for the other team in the state. The bottom line is that the Sun Devils have a more complete backfield returning in 2013. (Arizona's quarterback, Matt Scott, is a senior, so he will not be back.)
The Pac-12 powerhouses had Arizona State's number in 2012, but a nine- or 10-win season is not out of the question for the Devils next year. The backfield certainly won't be interfering with that potential.
13. Florida Gators
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Total Points: 193.96
Jeff Driskel certainly didn't put on a stellar performance in 2012 as a passer. On top of that, his biggest offensive weapon, senior Mike Gillislee, is leaving the program.
Florida's passing attack finished 118th (out of 124) in 2012, and the rushing attack finished 39th. The entire reason that Florida was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country was the No. 5 scoring defense and the above-average backfield.
So why should any of this make Florida fans happy? The hope lies in running backs Trey Burton (a junior in 2012) and Matt Jones (a freshman in 2012).
Both running backs averaged over five yards per carry, but neither had significant touches throughout the season. That will all change in 2013.
Gillislee, the team's No. 1 rusher, will be gone. Driskel, the quarterback, will be looking to make his name as a talented quarterback as opposed to running for his life on every other play.
Driskel is agile enough to make something out of nothing, but the backfield in general was talented enough to win 11 games with the 118th-ranked passing attack.
Even with Gillislee gone, Florida returns one of the better backfields in the SEC.
12. Northern Illinois Huskies
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Total Points: 197.9
In 2012, Jordan Lynch and the Northern Illinois Huskies proved that an outstanding backfield is only one part of the offensive equation.
Lynch will return in 2013 as the Huskies' most potent passer and their leading rusher, and they will be attempting to get into the final round of BCS bowls before the playoff comes in 2014.
The Huskies were two games short of a perfect season, and the development that will take place this spring and summer should be enough to erase at least one of those losses.
If you could put him on any team from any major conference, he would be competing with Johnny Manziel for every Heisman until he left college football.
11. Texas Longhorns
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Total Points: 200.38
Johnathan Gray and David Ash combined to form a threatening backfield in 2012 that finished the season ranked 54th in rushing yards. Ash finished 14th in passing efficiency amongst returning quarterbacks with a completion percentage of at least 67.3.
Gray led the Longhorns with 701 yards and three touchdowns on 149 carries, and he was only a freshman last season. Gray will break the 1,000-yard barrier next season with little problem.
The Longhorns will have to bring more than just a great backfield to the table to contend for the Big 12 title, but it's definitely a great start.
10. Mississippi State Bulldogs
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Total Points: 204.62
Tyler Russell and the Mississippi State Bulldogs finished the 2012 season 8-5 after a 7-0 start. The final game of the season was a horrible showing against the Northwestern Wildcats in which the Bulldogs lost the football five times in the 14-point loss.
Running back LaDarius Perkins amassed 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns on a team-leading 205 carries. He was Mississippi State's go-to tailback, and he crossed the 100-yard barrier on four separate occasions last year.
Perkins and Russell will return to the field in 2013 for yet another shot at surpassing the eight-win mark during the regular season.
That will require the Bulldogs to defeat either Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU or Ole Miss. That's a tall order, but if anyone on the roster can do it from the backfield, it's Perkins.
9. Clemson Tigers
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Total Points: 207.69
Tajh Boyd returns in 2013 to attempt to blaze a trail through the ACC that leads to the Orange Bowl or better. Boyd's efficiency ranked fourth on the list of returning signal-callers, and his supporting cast is among the best in the country.
Boyd finished second on the team with 514 rushing yards, which makes him about half the threat that Andre Ellington was in 2012.
In 2013, Roderick McDowell (who averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2012) will return as the Tigers' go-to back. He will team up with Boyd to make that last run for another ACC title before their eligibility runs out.
While an 11-2 finish is more than just good, missing out on a conference title does sting a little.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
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Total Points: 211.86
Nebraska finished the season ranked eighth in rushing yards. That's one of the most lethal backfields in the nation, regardless of what angle you look at it from.
Even in the Big Ten title game, which Nebraska lost 70-31, Martinez ripped off a 76-yard touchdown run against the Wisconsin Badgers. Nebraska is lethal if you take your eyes off the backfield for a second.
Martinez and Abdullah will be back in 2013, but don't expect them to fall apart like they did against Ohio State, Wisconsin (the second time) and Georgia. These ball-carriers are nothing to joke about, no matter how bad they may have looked on rare occasion last year.
7. Oregon Ducks
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Total Points: 224.64
The Oregon Ducks lose Kenjon Barner this offseason, but that's just more of the usual. Oregon lost LaMichael James after the 2011 run, and the Ducks did just fine in 2012. The major difference this season is that they don't also lose their quarterback.
Marcus Mariota and De'Anthony Thomas will return in 2013, and they assisted the Ducks to a third-place national finish in terms of rushing yardage in 2012. Thomas and Mariota each rushed for more than 700 yards last season.
The Ducks capped the season off with a monster win over the Kansas State Wildcats in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl as well.
The Ducks earned this spot on the backs of the returning starters. Oregon's reputation is to reload, not rebuild. The 2012 season proved that.
In 2013, expect the Ducks to prove yet again that they can lose any one running back and be just fine. They certainly aren't hurting for talent.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
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Total Points: 228.93
Connor Shaw led the Gamecocks to an 11-2 season punctuated by a win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Outback Bowl.
Shaw had the luxury of Marcus Lattimore over the past two seasons, but he also lost the tailback to injury in both 2011 and 2012. The Gamecocks are used to operating without the star running back, regardless of how disappointing the situation becomes.
Shaw collected the second-most rushing yards of anyone on the team in 2012, and Mike Davis was not too far behind him. Davis had fewer than half the carries Shaw did, but he was a freshman behind senior Kenny Miles and Lattimore, who has declared for the NFL draft.
Shaw and the newly starting tailbacks will be back and ready to challenge some of the best in the SEC. If the backfield can perform to its potential, a berth in the conference championship will be waiting in December.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
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Total Points: 232.65
Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde led the Buckeyes from the backfield to 10th place nationally in rushing yards per game during the undefeated run through 2012.
Ohio State was sitting on the sidelines during the postseason under Urban Meyer for his first season last year, and he hadn't even landed his first full recruiting class. Now that he's landed the No. 3 recruiting class, he can get to work on taking Ohio State back to the lofty ranks it enjoyed not so long ago.
After a 12-0 run through the Big Ten regular season, expectations are high in the Horseshoe. Miller and Hyde are capable of meeting those expectations, and Meyer's spread will make things even easier for them as he implements it further.
They rushed for over 2,000 yards in his first season. In 2013, you can expect more from both of them. If you are not afraid of what Ohio State has in the backfield, you're either delusional or an Ohio State fan.
4. Oklahoma State Cowboys
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Total Points: 234
The calculation here was based on Clint Chelf's performance throughout 2012, but J.W. Walsh certainly made a great case for the starting job through the first half of the season.
Walsh had a much higher efficiency rating in 2012 than Chelf, but 2013 will show us whether he's ready to return at full strength.
Either way, Randle will be the biggest threat in the backfield for the Cowboys. Oklahoma State fans can't wait for 2013. The Cowboys could contend for the Big 12 title again.
Oklahoma State has a great mix of talent behind the offensive line, and whichever quarterback wins the job could take the Cowboys to a 10-win season in 2013.
3. Texas A&M Aggies
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Total Points: 278.59
Johnny Manziel is the first freshman to have won the Heisman after what he did in 2012. Manziel didn't just lead A&M to a good first season in the SEC; he obliterated all but two of the teams on the Aggies' schedule.
Manziel may have been the highlight of the season for A&M, SEC and just plain football fans, but he had a major backfield contributor at his side along the way: Ben Malena.
Malena finished second on the squad to Manziel in rushing yards with 808 yards and eight touchdowns on 138 carries. That's an average of 5.9 yards every time he touched the ball.
A&M will return both players and field one of the three most lethal backfields in the country.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
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Total Points: 294.19
Alabama loses junior running back Eddie Lacy to the draft this April, but the Tide fall into the same category as Oregon. They don't rebuild, they reload. T.J. Yeldon, Jalston Fowler and many other players will be more than ready to fill Lacy's shoes.
After landing the consensus No. 1 recruiting class, the Tide are even more heavily laden with stellar running backs to compete for the few on-field slots.
Since the Tide are led by the nation's most efficient quarterback, A.J. McCarron, defenses will be on their toes on every play. McCarron can pull the trigger on a deep ball, a screen or a simple swing pass to gouge defenses for scores.
With a quarterback like that, it's no wonder the tailbacks had such a great year in 2012.
Yeldon, as the backup tailback, finished 2012 with 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on 175 carries. After a 13-1 season that ended in a repeat national title, Alabama's backfield finished 16th nationally in average rushing yards with 227.5 yards per game.
With running backs like Alabama has to choose from, there is little reason to believe that the Tide won't roll over defensive lines and linebacking units throughout 2013 as well.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
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Total Points: 302.64
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall showed up and made instant impacts at Georgia as freshmen in 2012. Gurley finished the season with 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns on 222 carries.
Marshall had 117 attempts for 759 yards and eight touchdowns. Both tailbacks earned more than six yards per carry. The other formidable man in the Georgia backfield is quarterback Aaron Murray.
He finished behind only A.J. McCarron of Alabama in quarterback rating, and he led the Bulldogs within four yards of a probable national championship.
Georgia finished 12-2 for the 2012 season and ended the run on a 14-point win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Capital One Bowl.
Georgia will bring Murray, Marshall and Gurley back in 2013 for another run at nothing less than a conference title. After last season's finish in the conference championship, it's easy to believe that Georgia would win the game this time around if it gets to Atlanta.