Ranking the Best Running Games in College Football in 2017

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 18, 2017

Ranking the Best Running Games in College Football in 2017

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    The triple-option made Army a great option for our top spot.
    The triple-option made Army a great option for our top spot.Associated Press

    Army ranked second in the nation in rushing yards per game in 2016, but the Black Knights should be No. 1 this coming season as all five of their leading rushers return.

    That's without having a single player who rushed for 1,000 yards last year.

    One thing that became abundantly clear during this process is that the most unstoppable running games are the ones that feed many mouths. Among the 10 individuals who led the nation in rushing yards per game, only San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey and Tulsa's James Flanders played for teams that ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards per gameand that's because each had a teammate who also rushed for at least 1,000 yards.

    As a result, this isn't anything close to a ranking of the nation's best running backs. LSU and Derrius Guice only received an honorable mention. Penn State and Saquon Barkley didn't even get that.

    Rather, it's a ranking of schools with multiple established rushing threats and a proven commitment to running the ball. Teams that ranked in the top 25 in rushing yards per game last year and that return most of their top rushers and offensive linemen are the best candidates to lead the nation in rushing in 2017.

Honorable Mentions

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    Derrius Guice will be a star, but does he have enough of a supporting cast?
    Derrius Guice will be a star, but does he have enough of a supporting cast?Max Becherer/Associated Press

    LSU Tigers

    Derrius Guice is one of the nation's top non-QB candidates for the Heisman, but what else do the Tigers boast that will make their run game better than last year's mark of 233.0 yards per game (21st in the nation)? Danny Etling isn't a mobile QB, and replacing Leonard Fournette won't be a walk in the park.


    Georgia Bulldogs

    Big things are expected from this rushing attack since Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both opted to return for a senior season, but the Bulldogs only ranked 50th nationally in yards per game last year. With a quarterback who has as much passing potential as Jacob Eason, Georgia doesn't need a top-10 rushing attack to win the SEC East.


    Tulsa Golden Hurricane

    Only 19 players rushed for at least 1,400 yards last season, but Tulsa had two of them to rank in the top 10 in team rushing yards per game. However, losing leading rusher James Flanders (1,629 yards, 18 TD) will likely bring this team back to the pack.


    West Virginia Mountaineers

    Will Grier will give the Mountaineers some mobility at QB, but he isn't likely to scramble quite as much as Skyler Howard did over the past two seasons. Also, losing No. 2 RB Rushel Shell makes it tough to project WVU as a top rushing attack in 2017.


    Old Dominion Monarchs

    Leading rushers Ray Lawry and Jeremy Coxcombined 1,987 yards and 24 TDs in 2016will be back for another season, and Old Dominion will likely be more dependent on its running game after losing starting QB David Washington. If nothing else, the Monarchs should have the best rushing attack in Conference USA with room to spare.


    Louisville Cardinals

    In addition to B/R's Matt Hayes' recent piece about how Lamar Jackson is becoming more of a pro-style QB this year, the Cardinals fumbled too many times last season to be regarded as a top rushing attack.


    Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Navy Midshipmen and Air Force Falcons

    Each of these triple-option offenses has ranked top-10 in the nation in rushing yards per game in each of the past three seasons, but one other commonality is that each lost a bunch of key pieces. Air Force will be without three of last year's top five rushers, Navy lost four of its top five guys and Georgia Tech must adjust to life without two of its top three, including three-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas.

    Yes, these systems built on interchangeable parts are designed to withstand attrition, but that might be too much to replace. While they should remain top-25 rushing offenses, top-10 will be tough.

10. San Diego State Aztecs

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    Rashaad Penny
    Rashaad PennyTom R. Smedes/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 262.9 yards per game (7th), 5.79 yards per carry (7th), 34 TD (12th), 45 carries of 20-plus yards (2nd)

    MVP: Rashaad Penny

    Donnel Pumphrey was the star of the Aztecs rodeo last season, running for 2,133 yards in the process of becoming the FBS leader in career rushing yards. But opposing defenses weren't offered any relief when Pumphrey took a series off, as Rashaad Penny was even more lethal. En route to 1,018 yards of his own, Penny averaged 7.5 yards per carry and finished the year with 16 all-purpose touchdowns. In one November game against Nevada, he had 208 yards...on 10 carries!


    Other Contributors

    Juwan Washington (RB): 55 carries, 441 yards, 6 TD

    Chad Woolsey (RB): No carries in 2016


    Reason to Buy

    Granted, Pumphrey was a massive part of the equation, but San Diego State has now averaged at least 216 rushing yards per game in three consecutive seasons. The schedule isn't much to worry about either. Of SDSU's 12 opponents, only Air Force ranked in the top 35 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game last year. Three of the opponents (Nevada, Fresno State and San Jose State) ranked in the bottom seven.


    Area for Improvement

    Penny has a great yards-per-carry ratio in his career, but can he shoulder the load as the main guy? He hasn't yet received more than 20 touches in a game in his career. Moreover, starting QB Christian Chapman (71 carries for 63 yards last year) isn't the most fleet of foot.

9. Appalachian State Mountaineers

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    Jalin Moore and Taylor Lamb
    Jalin Moore and Taylor LambWade Payne/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 250.9 yards per game (10th), 5.64 yards per carry (10th), 29 TD (35th), 39 carries of 20-plus yards (6th)

    MVP: Jalin Moore

    Losing Marcus Cox (3,858 yards in three seasons) is a huge blow, but Jalin Moore has proved he's ready for the full-time job. Cox missed four games last season due to a leg injury, during which Moore averaged 156.5 yards per game and 6.02 yards per carry. Moore led the team with 1,402 rushing yards, thanks in large part to eclipsing the century mark eight times.


    Other Contributors

    Taylor Lamb (QB): 89 carries, 505 yards, 9 TD

    Darrynton Evans (ATH): 48 carries, 217 yards


    Reason to Buy

    Appalachian State has four returning starters on the offensive line, including All-Sun Belt first-team guard Colby Gossett. In addition to their 10th-place finish this past season, the Mountaineers ranked sixth in the nation in yards per game in 2015 and 18th the year before that. Since transitioning to FBS, they have run the ball nearly twice as often as they've passed it.


    Area for Improvement

    While the Mountaineers ran rampant against the bottom half of the Sun Belt, quality opponents were a problem. They averaged 323.3 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry in six games against non-bowl participants, but those numbers dropped to 188.9 and 4.4, respectively, against bowl teams. The season opener against Georgia could put App State in a massive early hole.

8. Western Michigan Broncos

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    Jarvion Franklin
    Jarvion FranklinDavid Dermer/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 228.9 yards per game (24th), 5.05 yards per carry (39th), 36 TD (9th), 26 carries of 20-plus yards (30th)

    MVP: Jarvion Franklin

    When both Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan are healthy, Western Michigan has had a strong, two-headed rushing attack. Each back has rushed for at least 1,900 yards over the course of the past two seasons. But Bogan was banged up for much of last year, opening the door for Franklin to run for 1,353 yards and 12 TDstwo years after putting up 1,551 yards and 24 TDs as a freshman. Expect both backs to eclipse 1,000 yards in 2017.


    Other Contributors

    Jamauri Bogan (RB): 179 carries, 923 yards, 8 TD

    Davon Tucker (RB): 44 carries, 210 yards, 4 TD

    LeVante Bellamy (RB): 20 carries, 133 yards, 1 TD (three games)


    Reason to Buy

    If you view the glass as half empty, you might think it's a major problem that Western Michigan is the only team in our top 10 that is replacing its starting quarterback. Without Zach Terrell (and Corey Davis) in the picture, perhaps opponents will be able to focus more exclusively on stopping the run.

    But we're taking the more optimistic point of view and seeing the roster changes as an opportunity for the Broncos to become more dependent on the run. And there's reason to believe that likely new starting QB Tom Flaccowho has 38 carries and 13 pass attempts thus far in his careerwill be more of a scrambler than Terrell was.


    Area for Improvement

    Big plays were few and far between for this rush game. The Broncos only had eight carries go for 30 or more yards, tied with Baylor for the fewest among teams in the top 35 in rushing yards per game. They also open the season with road games against USC and Michigan State, so it might be mid-September before the Broncos are able to establish the run.

7. South Florida Bulls

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    Quinton Flowers
    Quinton FlowersChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 285.3 yards per game (5th), 6.51 yards per carry (2nd), 47 TD (3rd), 37 carries of 20-plus yards (8th)

    MVP: Quinton Flowers

    Only San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey had more 20-yard carries in 2016 than Quinton Flowers. South Florida's quarterback ran the ball at least 20 yards 20 times, finishing his junior year with 1,530 rushing yards and 18 touchdownsbarely behind Lamar Jackson in both categories. Flowers ran for at least 105 yards in seven of his final eight games and should remain the featured piece of this rushing attack with Marlon Mack (1,187 yards and 15 TD) now out of the picture.


    Other Contributors

    D'Ernest Johnson (RB): 111 carries, 543 yards, 8 TD

    Darius Tice (RB): 30 carries, 169 yards, 1 TD (four games)


    Reason to Buy

    If anything, the coaching change from Willie Taggart to Charlie Strong will only make South Florida more dependent on the run. Texas averaged 49.8 carries per game last year under Strongthe seventh-highest mark in the country. Also, Darius Tice was granted a medical waiver for one more season, which is a nice plus for the Bulls. He averaged better than 5.0 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons and could be a big asset as the team's third rushing option.


    Area for Improvement

    Mack averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his three seasons with the Bulls, but D'Ernest Johnson's average is just 4.4. Can he bump that number up as the No. 1 RB, or is South Florida's team-wide average of 6.51 yards per carry destined for a precipitous drop?

6. Kansas State Wildcats

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    Jesse Ertz
    Jesse ErtzRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 231.8 yards per game (22nd), 5.27 yards per carry (24th), 39 TD (6th), 36 carries of 20-plus yards (9th)

    MVP: Jesse Ertz

    It's nothing new for Kansas State to be led in rushing by its quarterback. Collin Klein, Jake Waters and Joe Hubener each took the lion's share of the carries during the first half of the decade. But Jesse Ertz was most effective in that role, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and taking fewer than two sacks per game en route to 1,012 yards in 2016. Moreover, Ertz grew more dependent on his legs as the season progressed. He averaged 20.4 carries per game over the final five games, compared to 10.1 in the first eight.


    Other Contributors

    Justin Silmon (RB): 86 carries, 464 yards, 3 TD

    Alex Barnes (RB): 56 carries, 442 yards, 6 TD

    Dalvin Warmack (RB): 41 carries, 211 yards

    Winston Dimel (FB): 30 carries, 92 yards, 12 TD


    Reason to Buy

    Kansas State does not fumble. The Wildcats put the ball on the ground just 12 times last season and have not averaged more than one fumble per game since 2013. In 2016, they were the only team in the country with at least 100 rushes of 10 or more yards that didn't also fumble the ball at least 17 times. Also, every Wildcat who received at least 40 carries last season averaged better than 5.0 yards per touch.


    Area for Improvement

    It'd be nice to see the running backs get more involved in the running game. Even while Ertz was rushing more than usual, both Alex Barnes and Justin Silmon came on strong late in the year, helping pace Kansas State to an average of 295.6 yards and 4.0 touchdowns over its final five games. Spread the ball around, keep everyone fresh and reap the benefits.

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Mike Weber
    Mike WeberJay LaPrete/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 245.2 yards per game (11th), 5.47 yards per carry (17th), 33 TD (16th), 30 carries of 20-plus yards (22nd)

    MVP: Mike Weber

    The redshirt freshman hit the ground running, gaining 18 yards on the first touch of his career. Despite averaging just 14 carries per game, Mike Weber finished the season with 1,096 yards and nine scores. He'll still be sharing the backfield with dual-threat QB J.T. Barrett, but Weber should get more touches as a sophomore.


    Other Contributors

    J.T. Barrett (QB): 205 carries, 845 yards, 9 TD

    Demario McCall (RB): 49 carries, 270 yards, 3 TD


    Reason to Buy

    The Buckeyes bring back four starters on the offensive line, as well as tight end Marcus Baugh. Moreover, they lost all three of their leading receivers from last season, making an increased dependence on the running game a distinct possibility. They have also ranked top-11 in the nation in rushing yards per game for five consecutive years.


    Area for Improvement

    It's hard to complain about what Ohio State will bring to the table, but Curtis Samuel's 7.9 yards per carry will be a challenge to replace. Whether Parris Campbell can become that flex guy could determine if Ohio State has a good rushing attack or a great one.

4. Auburn Tigers

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    Kamryn Pettway
    Kamryn PettwayThomas Graning/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 271.3 yards per game (6th), 5.47 yards per carry (17th), 33 TD (16th), 30 carries of 20-plus yards (22nd)

    MVP: Kamryn Pettway

    A former fullback who had zero carries in 2015, Kamryn Pettway came out of nowhere to average 136.0 yards per game as a sophomore. He rushed for at least 150 yards five times, leading the Tigers to victory in each of those contests. Will he be able to stay healthy this season? He missed an early October game with a bruised quad muscle and missed two more games in November due to a leg injury.


    Other Contributors

    Kerryon Johnson (RB): 182 carries, 895 yards, 11 TD

    Kam Martin (RB): 44 carries, 320 yards, 3 TD

    Malik Miller (RB): Redshirt freshman


    Reason to Buy

    Few teams are afforded the luxury of bringing back both parts of a two-headed rushing attack, but Auburn is one of the exceptions to that rule. Both Pettway and Kerryon Johnson shouldered the load throughout the 2016 season, and they'll both be back in 2017. The scary thing (for other SEC teams) is that both guys still have two years of eligibility remaining. The Tigers also get back three of five starters on the offensive line and could get some blocking contributions from 5-star tackle Calvin Ashley.


    Area for Improvement

    Mobility at QB has been a huge part of Auburn's run game in recent years. John Franklin III, Jeremy Johnson and Sean White combined for 626 rushing yards and averaged about 12 attempts per game last season. But if Jarrett Stidham wins the job, will he be up to the task? He only averaged 3.6 carries and 7.0 yards per game as a freshman with Baylor, which could mean a significant drop in Auburn's numbers.

3. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Bo Scarbrough
    Bo ScarbroughJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 245.0 yards per game (12th), 5.75 yards per carry (8th), 33 TD (16th), 44 carries of 20-plus yards (3rd)

    MVP: Bo Scarbrough

    Though he only ranked third on the team with 812 rushing yards, the Bo Scarbrough experience was one heck of a ride at the end of last season. Prior to breaking his leg in the national championship game, he was averaging 7.9 yards per carry in must-win games against Florida, Washington and Clemsonotherwise read as three defenses that held opponents to 3.73 yards per carry over the course of the season. Provided he's fully healthy, he should be Alabama's featured back and a Heisman candidate.


    Other Contributors

    Jalen Hurts (QB): 191 carries, 954 yards, 13 TD

    Damien Harris (RB): 146 carries, 1,037 yards, 2 TD

    Joshua Jacobs (RB): 85 carries, 567 yards, 4 TD


    Reason to Buy

    Losing their three-year starter at left tackle (Cam Robinson) might hurt, but bringing back every other noteworthy piece of the running game should be more than enough for the Crimson Tide to be even better than last season. In addition to the four players noted above, Alabama gets back No. 4 RB B.J. Emmons and signed Najee Harristhe No. 1 RB in this year's recruiting class, according to Scout. Not one of them will get as many carries as his talent deserves, but Alabama has six rushers with 1,000-yard potential on this roster.


    Area for Improvement

    This isn't something Alabama needs to improve, but it's something to keep in mind: This defense is so good that the Crimson Tide aren't often in a position to gain 80 rushing yards on a possession. They also have a solid passing game and don't rely on the run nearly as much as most of the other teams on this list. Alabama arguably has the overall running game with the most NFL potential, but that doesn't mean it'll lead the nation in rushing yards per game.

2. New Mexico Lobos

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    Richard McQuarley
    Richard McQuarleyAndres Leighton/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 350.0 yards per game (1st), 6.61 yards per carry (1st), 48 TD (2nd), 48 carries of 20-plus yards (1st)

    MVP: Tyrone Owens

    Despite leading the nation in rushing yards, New Mexico didn't have a workhorse back. Four guys registered at least 110 carries, but not one had more than 145. Tyrone Owens put his 11.4 carries per game to good use, averaging 8.0 yards per touch in the process of racking up 1,097 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore.


    Other Contributors

    Richard McQuarley (RB): 143 carries, 656 yards, 18 TD

    Lamar Jordan (QB): 114 carries, 739 yards, 3 TD

    Daryl Chestnut (RB): 57 carries, 255 yards, 2 TD

    Diquon Woodhouse (RB): 27 carries, 232 yards, 2 TD


    Reason to Buy

    For every passing attempt in 2016, New Mexico ran the ball 3.8 times, and the passing situation hasn't gotten any better. Leading receiver Dameon Gamblin graduated. So did QB Austin Apodaca, who averaged 3.2 pass attempts for every rush attempt, as opposed to presumed now-full-time starting QB Lamar Jordan's ratio of 0.66 passes for every carry.


    Area for Improvement

    The Lobos had 17 carries go for at least 50 yards last year while no other team had more than 10. But is that a sustainable strategy, particularly when the one member of this rushing attack who graduatedTeriyon Gipsonwas responsible for seven of those big runs? New Mexico is still going to run a ton. However, expecting a repeat of last year's 6.61 yards per carry would be overly optimistic.

1. Army Black Knights

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    Ahmad Bradshaw
    Ahmad BradshawBrandon Wade/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 339.5 yards per game (2nd), 5.59 yards per carry (12th), 46 TD (4th), 36 carries of 20-plus yards (9th)

    MVP: Ahmad Bradshaw

    Though Ahmad Bradshaw didn't lead the team in rushing yards last season (826), he's the guy who sets this entire triple-option in motion. Army always runs the ball a ton, ranking top-five in the nation in rushing attempts per game in each of the last nine seasons. But whether the Black Knights average 4.0 or 5.5 yards per carry is primarily up to the man behind center who is making the reads. Last year, Bradshaw steered them to nearly 340 yards per game.


    Other Contributors

    Andy Davidson (RB): 190 carries, 961 yards, 12 TD

    Darnell Woolfolk (RB): 109 carries, 600 yards, 9 TD

    Jordan Asberry (RB): 57 carries, 421 yards, 5 TD

    Kell Walker (RB): 58 carries, 378 yards, 2 TD

    Chris Carter (QB): 43 carries, 263 yards, 2 TD


    Reason to Buy

    While the other triple-option offenses in our honorable mentions have attrition-related cause for concern, Army is getting back the vast majority of last year's rushing machine. The Black Knights did unexpectedly lose both Cole Macek (7.3 yards per carry) and Tyler Campbell (9.6 YPC) in the past several months, but those guys ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, on the team in carries last year. The top six guys in that category all return.


    Area for Improvement

    Army ran the ball at least 67 times more often than not last season, but it was also held to 43 carries or fewer on three occasions, averaging just 179.3 yards per game in those losses. When an opponent is able to establish its own run game and win the time-of-possession battle, Army's numbers suffer. Also, the Black Knights will only play one game against FCS competition this year as opposed to the two games against Lafayette and Morgan State in which they ran for a combined 1,041 yards and 13 TD.


    Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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