Ranking the Best Backfields for 2017 College Football Season

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2017

Ranking the Best Backfields for 2017 College Football Season

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    College football analysts regularly called the 2016 season "the year of the running back." But the quality of the position will remain high during the 2017 campaign.

    Rather than identifying the best individual running backs, though, we're looking at the nation's best tandems, trios and sometimes even quartets or more.

    We're rewarding depth, not just starpower.

    Granted, anticipated workload and timeshare affected the order. Some running backs, like Northwestern's Justin Jackson or Penn State's Saquon Barkley, don't leave many snaps for backups. Incoming freshmen were also considered.

    Most importantly, the list reflects the backfield rankings entering 2017. Teams like Florida State, Iowa, Miami and Stanford could end the year considerably higher than their current spot.

Honorable Mentions

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    Iowa: Akrum Wadley is a top-20 running back in the country. In 2016, he tallied 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground while finishing second on the team with 36 receptions. However, the Hawkeyes will have a revamped depth chart following the departures of LeShun Daniels Jr. and Derrick Mitchell Jr.

    Kentucky: Even after losing Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp, Kentucky's backfield remains in good hands. Benny Snell eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and scored 13 touchdowns during his first college season. Snell could be the next elite running back in a conference filled with them.

    Miami: The 'Canes have an outstanding starter but unproven depth. Mark Walton ran for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns, also catching 27 passes last season. His backup in 2017 will be Travis Homer, who starred on special teams as a freshman yet only handled seven carries while waiting behind Joe Yearby and Gus Edwards.

    New Mexico State: Larry Rose III was a wildly productive back in 2014 and 2015, collecting 2,759 yards and 23 touchdowns combined. However, he battled injury and a rough year as a junior. New Mexico State needs a bounce-back year from Rose.

    Oklahoma State: There's a lot to like about Oklahoma State's offense heading into 2017, and 1,000-yard rusher Justice Hill is an important part of that high-scoring attack. But the Pokes lost their top three backups from last year, so they're rebuilding that depth this season.

    Stanford: Consider this an expression of unwavering confidence in Bryce Love, despite a place outside the top 25. Christian McCaffrey's excellence limited Love's impact last season, but the rising junior seems destined for a breakout 2017. He's already topped 1,000 career yards on just 141 carries in two seasons.

    TCU: Kyle Hicks performed well during his first season as a starter, while both Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua averaged eight-plus yards on limited carries. TCU's depth looks promising, but it's better to take a wait-and-see approach behind Hicks.

    Troy: Among lesser-discussed "Group of Five" teams, Troy might create the biggest stir in 2017. But can Memphis transfer Jamarius Henderson give the Trojans a lethal one-two punch alongside Jordan Chunn? He's been a touchdown machine for the offense.

    Update (6/7)

    New Mexico: We all make mistakes, and leaving New Mexico off the initial list was a particularly large, regrettable error. Tyrone Owens edged the 1,000-yard mark last season, and Richard McQuarley racked up 18 touchdowns after scoring seven in 2015.

25. Maryland

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    The backs: Ty Johnson isn't a well-known player, but he sure is explosive. As a sophomore, Johnson posted 9.1 yards per carrywhich ranked second-best nationally among qualifying players. Lorenzo Harrison III averaged 7.2 yards on 88 attempts in 2016, and Maryland kept star in-state prospect Anthony McFarland at home. Jake Funk rounds out the depth chart.

    The breakdown: If the Terps continue to rotate backs like they did in 2016, Johnson and Harrison should have a relatively even split of snaps and touches. That should be on a larger scale, since Maryland lost three seniors. McFarland offers versatility as a situational piece, and Funk brings a bit of experience.

    Why they're here: Maryland should be confident both Johnson and Harrison can shoulder the majority of work. They both have big-play potential, and the duo should avoid sophomore slumps thanks to a veteran offensive line. McFarland and Funk are quality options in backup roles.

24. Old Dominion

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    The backs: Ray Lawry has quietly yet consistently been a terrific runner. In three seasons, he's never rushed for fewer than 947 yards and 11 touchdowns. For the last two years, Jeremy Cox has served as the primary backup. He posted 732 yards and 13 scores in 2016.

    The breakdown: With two starting-caliber backs, Old Dominion doesn't need to be stuck on titles. Lawry will probably receive the majority of carries, even if it's not a huge discrepancy. He's the go-to runner, but Cox is capable of filling that role if necessary.

    Why they're here: Especially as the Monarchs transition to a new quarterback, the running game will be a vital part of the scoring attack. ODU should boast one of Conference USA's best blocking units, so Lawry and Cox will continue leading a perennially under-the-radar but superb offense.

23. Baylor

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    The backs: Terence Williams finished the 2016 campaign with 1,048 yards and 11 touchdowns, solidifying himself as Baylor's No. 1 rusher. And despite inconsistent usage, JaMycal Hasty still managed 623 yards as a freshman. The speedster will have a larger presence on the offense after Shock Linwood's departure.

    The breakdown: Considering the previous system, a near-complete dearth of impact from running backs as pass-catchers isn't an issue. Williams and Hasty must adapt to increased responsibility in that department, but they'll be a dynamic pair running the ball for first-year head coach Matt Rhule, who had two 900-yard rushers at Temple last season.

    Why they're here: Filler depth is a concern following Abram Smith's ACL injury in the spring. However, no Big 12 program boasts a better combination of experienced runners atop the depth chart—and only one claims better depth in our rankings.

T-22. Tulsa

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    The backs: Unfortunately for Tulsa, the offense must replace 1,600-yard rusher James Flanders. Good thing the Golden Hurricane still have D'Angelo Brewer, who accumulated 1,435 yards last season. Ramadi Warren missed the 2016 campaign due to academic issues but had 475 yards in 2015. Rowdy Simon will compete with Warren for the second-string spot.

    The breakdown: Why is the backup role so important? It still might offer 150-plus carries. Brewer looks like a bellcow and may handle close to 300 touches, but Warren and Simon (or Corey Taylor or Javon Thomas) have plenty of opportunity to occupy a large role.

    Why they're here: Brewer's production is undeniable, and Warren previously proved himself as a solid backup. Although the offense as a whole will regress, the running game will be Tulsa's strengthespecially behind five returning linemen.

T-22. Colorado

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    The backs: Phillip Lindsay does a little of everything for Colorado. In addition to his 1,252 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground, Lindsay caught 53 passes for 493 yards last season. Kyle Evans, though he is recovering from hip surgery, notched 346 yards as a sophomore. The Buffs also have Beau Bisharat and Donovan Lee available.

    The breakdown: Because of his versatility, Lindsay rarely leaves the field. However, Sefo Liufau's departure should result in more chances for backups. As long as he's healthy, Evans is the top option. Otherwise, Bisharat and Lee will step in.

    Why they're here: Few running backs are able to contribute like Lindsay. He's a shifty runner who provides reliable hands and a propensity for making defenders miss after the catch. And when called upon, Evans and Lee have the experience of meaningful snaps.

21. Ohio State

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    The backs: Ezekiel Elliott left a massive hole in the Ohio State backfield, but Mike Weber admirably filled a portion of it. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and finished the season with 1,096 yards. Demario McCall was steady in limited action, and early enrollee J.K. Dobbins ascended the depth chart this spring. Parris Campbell is the front-runner to replace Curtis Samuel at H-back.

    The breakdown: Although Weber is the featured back, the Buckeyes may have a by-committee approach. J.T. Barrett's running ability also cuts into the sophomore's carries. McCall, Dobbins and Campbellwho is more of a receiverwill share whatever touches are left after Weber and Barrett.

    Why they're here: Ohio State seems to lack explosiveness, but there's no shortage of talent. While big plays are great, consistently picking up five yards is more than adequate. The Buckeyes should have a reliable, well-rounded backfield next to Barrett.

20. West Virginia

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    The backs: Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy surged onto the FBS scene last season. Crawford, a JUCO transfer, collected 1,184 yards while the freshman McKoy recorded 472 yards. Plus, Martell Pettaway ripped off a 181-yard performance late in the year, and Tevin Bush has a chance to earn regular snaps.

    The breakdown: West Virginia will lean on Crawford, particularly after Rushel Shell's graduation. But there's still ample room for McKoy and Pettaway on the explosive offense. Both backups could total 75-plus carries in 2017.

    Why they're here: In 2016, the backfield didn't provide much of a receiving threat, but that may change with quarterback Will Grier and new coordinator Jake Spavital. If that happens, this group should hold a higher place in the rankings. Even without that versatility, the 'Eers will have a productive trio running the ball.

19. Michigan State

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    The backs: LJ Scott, Gerald Holmes and Madre London all return for Michigan State. After a remarkably balanced 2015 season between this trio, Scott emerged as the position's top player last season. Though Holmes doesn't have great upside, he's been a steady presence while London shuffled in and out of the lineup.

    The breakdown: If it wasn't already clear by then, the final half of 2016 showed Scott deserves to be MSU's go-to runner. He tallied 122-plus yards during four of the last six games. And until London establishes himself as the No. 2 option, Holmes will be a low-risk reserve for the Spartans.

    Why they're here: Mark Dantonio has foregone by-committee approaches in the past, so there is a chance Scott rules the backfield in 2017. For now, though, he's a near-certain 1,000-yard rusher with two backups capable of sharing the spotlight if necessary.

18. Southern Miss

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    The backs: Another versatile star, Ito Smith has excelled as a runner and receiver over the last two years. He's racked up 3,561 yards from scrimmage and 32 total touchdowns. The competition for second-string duty is between George Payne and Tez Parks, a couple of familiar reserves behind Smith.

    The breakdown: Smith will rarely leave the field when healthy, evidenced by his 24.6 touches per game as a junior. Payne served as the primary backup in 2016, but Parkswho played through a knee injury last seasonmight snatch that role.

    Why they're here: It's certainly a luxury to have a talent like Smith easing the transition to a new quarterback. Payne and Parks give Southern Miss a couple of respectable options should Smith, a two-time second-team All-Conference USA runner, be slowed. That just doesn't happen often.

17. Vanderbilt

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    The backs: For three years, Ralph Webb has controlled the Vanderbilt running game. He's lifted season totals from 912 yards to 1,152 to 1,283 and lifted touchdown marks from four to five to 13. And last season, Webb finally received some help. Khari Blasingame added 449 yards and 10 scores. Dallas Rivers and Jamauri Wakefield will attempt to join them in 2017.

    The breakdown: Webb is the No. 1 option, and that's not changing. However, the Commodores may control his carries compared to previous years now that they've built better depth. Blasingame's workload might not change, so the new opportunities could go to a hopeful big-play producer like Wakefield.

    Why they're here: Considering the trouble Vanderbilt has endured on offense, Webb has been pretty consistent anyway. He scampered for at least 95 yards in nine of 13 games last season. Between Webb, a red-zone specialist in Blasingame and improved depth, the 'Dores shouldn't have any concerns at this position.

16. San Diego State

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    The backs: How do you replace Donnel Pumphrey, one of the Football Bowl Subdivision's all-time leading rushers? With a 1,000-yard back, of course. Rashaad Penny eclipsed the mark in 2016 while only logging 136 carries. Plus, Juwan Washington registered eight yards per carry and scored six touchdowns as the third-stringer, and fullback Nick Bawden is a solid blocker.

    The breakdown: No reasonable person will expect Penny to match Pumphrey's numbers, especially since San Diego State must retool the offensive line. However, a heavy run-first approach will allow ample opportunity for Penny and Washington to put up gaudy numbers.

    Why they're here: The running game has been a staple of the program's success since Ronnie Hillman starred at SDSU. Though Chase Jasmin and Tyler Wormhoudt should contribute in minor roles, Penny and Washington compose an electric one-two punch and can follow Bawden, perhaps the nation's best fullback.

15. Appalachian State

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    The backs: Marcus Cox's injury created an opportunity for Jalin Moore, and he didn't waste it. The then-sophomore topped 100 yards during eight of his final 10 appearances, amassing 1,432 yards on the season. Darrynton Evans chipped in 217 yards, snagging whatever carries didn't go to Moore or Cox. Terrence Upshaw returns after sitting out 2016 due to an academic issue.

    The breakdown: Now that Cox has exhausted his eligibility, it's Moore's show. App State will lean on the 2016 Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year even more. Upshaw, who had 442 yards in 2015, will slide into the backup role. Marcus Williams Jr. could creep into the rotation as Evans spends increased time at receiver.

    Why they're here: Moore is among the Group of Five's premier talents, and Upshaw will be a motivated backup. Though the Mountaineers must be careful not to overwork their featured player, having a mobile QB in Taylor Lamb will slightly reduce the pressure on Moore to excel. He should anyway.

14. Minnesota

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    The backs: Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks were a promising tandem as freshmen, and Smith separated himself in 2016. He posted 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns, besting Brooks' totals of 650 and five. Kobe McCrary demanded some attention with a 176-yard outburst early in the year.

    The breakdown: In fairness to Brooks, a foot injury contributed to his teammate's rise. But with a coaching staff that rewards versatility, Smith may retain the majority of snaps because of his upside as a receiver. Brooks still should safely average double-digit touches, and McCrary will clean up the rest.

    Why they're here: New head coach P.J. Fleck inherits a sturdy backfield around which to build his balanced offense. McCrary is somewhat of a wild card since nearly 73 percent of his yards came in one game. But with Smith and Brooks leading the way, Minnesota can be convinced one or both will have a productive game.

13. Notre Dame

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    The backs: Notre Dame needs to address several issues, but running back is not one. Josh Adams has consecutive seasons with 800-plus yards, and Dexter Williams is primed for a larger role following Tarean Folston's graduation. Additionally, redshirt freshman Tony Jones Jr. is expected to contribute in 2017.

    The breakdown: Adams will be the featured player on what should be a resurgent team. More leads on the scoreboard should result in a larger number of carries for Adams, whose usage dropped off sharply after the first quarter last season. Williams is a safe bet for 75-plus touches, and Jones will play because of his receiving ability.

    Why they're here: This is a well-rounded unit. Adams represents a happy medium between Williams' explosiveness and Jones' versatility. Adams won't break many big runs, but he'll regularly churn out six, seven and eight yards while Williams provides an ideal change of pace.

12. Florida State

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    The backs: Jacques Patrick spent two years as the backup for Dalvin Cook, tallying 664 yards and nine touchdowns in limited snaps. He'll be an important part of Florida State's offense in 2017, but Cam Akers might be even more so. Amir Rasul, Khalan Laborn and Zaquandre White fill out a young reserve corps.

    The breakdown: Akers is about as much of a "sure thing" as possible for a freshman running back. Will it happen this season, though? Patrick twice powered his way to 300-plus yards while waiting behind Cook. Rasul has great speed, but he'll need to fend off the freshman duo seeking playing time this fall.

    Why they're here: The Seminoles' primary concern should be whether the offensive line will block better for this backfield. Should that happen, Patrick and Akers should approach 2,000 combined yards as they potentially trade places on the depth chart.

11. Washington State

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    The backs: Washington State doesn't rely on the running game, but the roster is full of versatile options. James Williams, Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks each tallied at least 475 rushing yards and 29-plus receptions last season. The Cougs will get some reinforcements with Keith Harrington back in the fold for 2017.

    The breakdown: In reality, there's no clear-cut No. 1 player on the depth chart. All four players should see significant playing time this year. Williams, who is only a sophomore, seems to have the highest upside, but both Morrow and Harrington have proved themselves to be productive and reliable pass-catchers.

    Why they're here: The lack of superstar depth stings Wazzu in the rankings, but it's not necessarily a game-day problem. If head coach Mike Leach is more willing to run the ball, the Cougs have an offensive line built to help the backfield excel. Regardless, the quartet should put together an efficient campaign.

10. Northwestern

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    The backs: Welcome to the Justin Jackson show. During the last three seasons, he's finished no lower than 19th nationally in carries per game, and the powerful runner has turned that heavy workload into 4,129 yards and 30 touchdowns. But Northwestern also had its most promising backup in Jackson's tenure with John Moten IV, who collected 340 yards as a freshman.

    The breakdown: Unless the coaching staff plans to limit Jacksonand there's no evidence of thatMoten will be the only reserve running back to handle meaningful carries. Jeremy Larkin would be the next man up, but Jackson ideally doesn't let that matter.

    Why they're here: Just two returning players (Wyoming's Brian Hill and Oregon's Royce Freeman) have more career rushing yards than Jackson. Throw in Moten's contributions in a limited role plus Larkin's potential, and the Wildcats could hardly ask for a better backfield.

9. LSU

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    The backs: Derrius Guice hinted at his potential as a freshman, leading the SEC with 8.6 yards per carry. When an injury hampered Leonard Fournette in 2016, Guice showed that ability translated to a full-time role, notching 1,387 yards and 15 scores. Also, Darrel Williams has rumbled for at least 200 yards in three straight seasons and is ahead of Nick Brossette on the depth chart.

    The breakdown: Matt Canada's arrival as offensive coordinator brings a unique addition to LSU's offense with jet/fly sweeps, so a receiver might end up registering 25-plus carries. Guice will handle the majority of carries, but Canada probably won't shy away from using him and a backup in the same offensive package.

    Why they're here: Having usable depth and surviving an injury to Guice are different discussions. As long as he's healthy, the Tigers have a top-10 backfield because of his explosiveness. Williams and Brossette are quality complements to a superstar runner, even if they're probably not ready to lead a position.

8. Washington

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    The backs: The Jake Browning-John Ross III connection was lethal, but the Myles Gaskin-Lavon Coleman tandem shredded defenses, too. Gaskin gashed opponents for 1,373 yards, and Coleman slashed them for 852 on 7.5 yards per carry. Jomon Dotson's move to cornerback leaves Washington with a little less depth than expected, but Gaskin and Coleman are a tremendous pair.

    The breakdown: In terms of national recognition, Gaskin seems like a familiar name yet is someone most fans don't know about. While he barely offers any explosiveness, Gaskin is a reliable downhill runner and decent pass-catching option in a featured role. Coleman provides more of a big-play threat.

    Why they're here: The offense is in good hands with Coleman should anything happen to Gaskin. But hopefully, the Dawgs are never required to test that hypothesis. Though the absence of experienced reserves stopped Washington from rising the list, a No. 8 ranking is testament to the combined talent of that duo.

7. Western Michigan

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    The backs: P.J. Fleck bolted Kalamazoo before a year of major transition, but he didn't leave a barren program. Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan have traded team-high rushing marks for three years, including a combined 2,276 yards last season. Rounding out the unit is LeVante Bellamy, who missed most of 2016 due to an ACL tear, and rising sophomore Davon Tucker.

    The breakdown: Someone will have more carries. Does it matter whether it's Franklin or Bogan? Western Michigan will depend on the duo to carry the offense following the departures of Zach Terrell and Corey Davis. Bellamy will get involved as a receiver, potentially split wide with Franklin or Bogan in the backfield.

    Why they're here: Production? Check. Experience? Plenty. A retooled offensive line and revamped receiving corps may allow opponents to stack the box, but the Broncos are going to run effectively this season. While the offense's style might be "three yards and a cloud of dust," efficiency doesn't have to be pretty.

6. USC

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    The backs: Sam Darnold attracts the most attention, but Ronald Jones II is a dynamic runner. The rising junior topped the 2,000-yard mark over his first two seasons, averaging 6.3 yards per tote. USC has a four-way battle for the backup job between Aca'Cedric Ware, Vavae Malepeai, Dominic Davis and 5-star freshman Stephen Carr.

    The breakdown: Once Ware and Davis are healthy and Carr arrives on campus, the Trojans can start to make progress in settling the two-deep rotation. Nobody is touching Jones at No. 1, though. The roster's commendable depth may keep this from happening, but he's worthy of handling 200 carries this year.

    Why they're here: Jones is a strong breakout candidate, and he'll hold a similar role to recent seasons at worst. Even if that happens, USC won't need to panic thanks to this depth. Ware will probably begin the campaign as the backup, but he'll face a weekly competition to retain that spot, which is only a good thing for the Trojans.

5. Auburn

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    The backs: Auburn's offseason hype is largely a product of Jarrett Stidham taking over at quarterback. The attention wouldn't be as merited if the Tigers lacked a dangerous rushing attack, but they've got that covered with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Additionally, Kam Martin played well in limited snaps last year.

    The breakdown: When healthy, Pettway is an absolute bulldozer. When healthy, Johnson is relatively difficult to contain on the edge. There's a pattern here. Anyway, Pettway typically handles a much larger load than Johnson—until one of them isn't healthy, and that's when Martin will step in.

    Why they're here: Projections tend to assume best-case scenarios, but we've already seen Auburn overcome a rash of injuries. Despite the health problems last season, the Tigers boasted the country's No. 6 rushing offense. Their depth has been proved.

4. Penn State

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    The backs: Saquon Barkley is a versatile star. He rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, also posting 28 receptions, 402 yards and four more scores last season. Barkley is a one-man show, yet Penn State has quality backups in Miles Sanders (7.4 yards per carry as a freshman), Andre Robinson (five touchdowns) and Mark Allen.

    The breakdown: Sanders may earn a larger role, but it shouldn't come at Barkley's expense. The Nittany Lions will place their College Football Playoff dreams squarely on his shoulders. While that is an enormous burden, he's that talented a player. Barkley will command more than 20 touches each week.

    Why they're here: In case it wasn't already obvious, Barkley is the simple answer. However, in the disastrous scenario that something happens to him, Penn State has Sanders, a former 5-star prospect, prepared to take over alongside a pair of capable complements.

3. Oregon

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    The backs: Head coach Willie Taggart has some exciting toys. Royce Freeman had a disappointing 2016 but still boasts 4,000 career rushing yards. And in each of the last two seasons, Tony Brooks-James, Taj Griffin and Kani Benoit have combined for 1,000-plus yards behind the 2015 third-team AP All-America member.

    The breakdown: Oregon has a fantastic mix of power and speed. Though Freeman is safely the starter and will occupy the largest share of snaps, any of Brooks-James, Griffin and Benoit will have a season-long competition for the backup reps. Brooks-James held that role last year.

    Why they're here: Freeman's production is nearly unmatched among active players, while both Brooks-James and Griffin have put together quality campaigns as the second-stringer. Between Taggart's arrival plus a healthier and more experienced offensive line, the Ducks should again showcase an elite rushing attack.

2. Alabama

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    The backs: The trend of outstanding depth at Alabama isn't ending anytime soon. Damien Harris ran for 1,000 yards, Bo Scarbrough showed his All-American potential down the stretch and Josh Jacobs shredded defenses in garbage time last season. In addition to B.J. Emmons and Derrick Gore, the Crimson Tide just signed Najee Harris, the No. 1 overall player from the 2017 cycle.

    The breakdown: Scarbrough should be the starter, but the lingering question is if he can navigate a full season without an injury. Damien Harris is the next man up, though Alabama regularly gives its young running backs a chance to play. And although Josh Jacobs leads the next group, Emmons, Gore and Najee Harris aren't far behind.

    Why they're here: Najee Harris might open 2017 no higher than the fourth-string running back. Are you kidding? The primary reason Alabama isn't No. 1 on this list is because of Georgia's top-tier duo, but the Crimson Tide have an equally sensational backfield.

1. Georgia

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    The backs: This isn't simply a two-man show, but Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are two of the nation's best runners. Together, they've accumulated 5,835 yards in three years. Georgia also has Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and 4-star D'Andre Swift in reserve.

    The breakdown: Chubb deserves the plurality of carries, and the Bulldogs will be happy to oblige. However, they needn't overwork the senior. Michel should receive double-digit touches per game, and Herrien proved his merit last season. Holyfield might have a small role, though Swift is probably a year away from notable contributions.

    Why they're here: Two years ago, Chubb was a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy before an injury derailed his pursuit. Michel, a steady backup throughout his career, stepped in and crested the 1,000-yard mark. And then when he missed time in 2016, Herrien averaged 6.8 yards over a five-game sample. When one player goes down, Georgia has a star ready to take over.