Ranking the Best Backfields for the 2018 College Football Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 5, 2018

Ranking the Best Backfields for the 2018 College Football Season

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    Mike Weber
    Mike WeberJay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Ohio State Buckeyes have a pair of former 1,000-yard rushers in Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, making them an easy choice as one of the best backfields for the 2018 college football season.

    Factor in H-backs Demario McCall and Parris Campbell, incoming freshman Jaelen Gill and QB Dwayne Haskins, and it's hard to argue that any team is better equipped to run the ball this year.

    Before you start griping about this list, be sure to note that we're ranking the best backfields and not just the best individual running backs. Bryce Love may be the best back in the nation, but Stanford just barely made it into our top 10 because of the lack of established talent behind him on the depth chart.

    Also take note that this isn't intended to be a projection of teams that will rack up the most rushing yards in 2018. Rather than dissecting schedules to come to that conclusion, this was approached as a schoolyard draft. In other words, which collection of running backs would you choose if starting a team from scratch?

    And one final note: Where appropriate, dual-threat quarterbacks are considered part of the backfield. Arizona's Khalil Tate led the nation in yards per carry last season, and we're not about to disregard him as a rushing threat just because he also throws the ball on a regular basis.

    Without further ado, let's dive in with a few groups that just missed the cut.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jonathan Taylor
    Jonathan TaylorKim Raff/Associated Press

    Wisconsin Badgers

    Jonathan Taylor (299 carries, 1,977 yards, 13 TDs) should be one of the five best running backs in the nation once again, but what does Wisconsin have behind him? Bradrick Shaw and Chris James didn't do much last season, which is a big reason why the Badgers only ranked 30th in yards per carry in 2017.


    Georgia Bulldogs

    Led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia was the king of this list last season. With that duo out of the picture, though, we had to drop the Bulldogs to an honorable mention. But they should still be in great shape with D'Andre Swift highlighting a group that also includes Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and incoming freshmen Zamir White and James Cook.


    Oklahoma State Cowboys

    Mike Gundy has a potential three-headed monster in Justice Hill, J.D. King and Louis Brown, but what is Oklahoma State going to look like on offense after losing QB Mason Rudolph, WR James Washington and WR Marcell Ateman? Will the Cowboys' rushing attack become its bread and butter, or will it suffer now that the deep ball isn't as much of an ever-present threat?


    The Triple-Option Offenses

    Army, Air Force, Navy and Georgia Tech always run a ton and should remain four of the national leaders in rushing yards per game. But we're looking for individuals who form a great group of rushing options rather than an offensive system that thrives regardless of its individuals, if that makes sense.

    Put it this way: Between these four teams, the only player you might find on a list of the 50 best running backs for 2018 is GT's KirVonte Benson, and even that's no guarantee, given his struggles last November. Meanwhile, every team in our top 11 has at least one running back (often two) who is regarded among the best in the nation at his position.

11. Washington Huskies

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    Myles Gaskin
    Myles GaskinMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Star: Myles Gaskin (222 CAR, 1,380 YDS, 21 TD)

    Gaskin is the only returning player in the country who has rushed for at least 1,150 yards in each of the last two seasons, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. This rising senior has amassed at least 1,300 rushing yards in three consecutive years and should hit the 5,000-yard mark for his career by mid-November. With conference foes like Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Lovenot to mention playmaking teammates like John Ross and Dante PettisGaskin has flown a bit below the national radar through it all. But this should be the year more people finally take notice.


    The Backup: Salvon Ahmed (61 CAR, 388 YDS, 3 TD)

    Ahmed didn't get a ton of touches as a true freshman, but he impressed when he did get the ball. Over his final six games, he averaged 8.9 yards per carry, made at least one reception in each contest and became the primary kick returner. He isn't the most noteworthy backup on this list, but he should make a significant impact for the Huskies.


    The Wild Card: Sean McGrew (17 CAR, 59 YDS, 2 TD)

    We expanded the list to a top 11 to make sure Gaskin made the cut, but this is the main reason Washington was almost left out. QB Jake Browning is about as mobile as a landline, and McGrew is the only other player on the RB depth chart who had at least six touches or a touchdown last year. And if we take out the non-FBS game played against Montana, McGrew had just 11 carries, none of which went for more than seven yards. The top nine teams on this list have at least three legitimate rushing options, but Washington doesn't appear to be there yet. 

10. Stanford Cardinal

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    Bryce Love
    Bryce LoveEric Gay/Associated Press

    The Star: Bryce Love (263 CAR, 2,118 YDS, 19 TD)

    If there's one man on the list who needs no introduction, you're looking at him. Love took the world by storm last year, averaging better than 11 yards per carry through his first five games. A high ankle sprain (not to mention four Stanford losses during the regular season) kept him from running away with the Heisman trophy, but he was one of the three finalists for the honor. Good luck finding any publication that doesn't have him at or near the top of its ranking of this year's Heisman candidates.


    The Backup: Cameron Scarlett (91 CAR, 389 YDS, 8 TD)

    Scarlett has carried the ball 129 times in his collegiate career, only two of which went for more than 18 yards. But this bruiser is the perfect complement for Love, as he will handle most of the goal-line and third-and-short touches throughout the course of the season. That leaves Love fresh for all the 50-yard scampers.


    The Wild Card: Trevor Speights (36 CAR, 142 YDS)

    Just like Washington, Stanford doesn't have much of a scrambler at QB, nor does it have a third backfield option worth mentioning. Speights is as good as it gets, and it wasn't until Love suffered his ankle injury that Speights started seeing legitimate playing time. Through Stanford's first six games, he had two carries for one yard. He got a little more action the rest of the way, but none of it suggested he's destined for a breakout campaign.

9. Clemson Tigers

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    Travis Etienne
    Travis EtienneRainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    The Star: Travis Etienne (107 CAR, 766 YDS, 13 TD)

    In its first year after Wayne Gallman, Clemson took a "running back by committee" approach. Four backs averaged at least three carries per game, but none received eight or more. Of the bunch, true freshman Etienne was the clear star. He led the Tigers in touchdowns and yards per carry (7.2). If anyone is going to emerge as a workhorse back this year, Etienne is the obvious choice. 


    The Backup: Tavien Feaster (107 CAR, 669 YDS, 7 TD)

    Feaster was one of Clemson's top recruits in the 2016 class, and he has averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his two seasons to date. He and Etienne split the lion's share of the backfield touches, each rushing for more than 100 yards in a game just once but combining for at least 118 yards in eight of 14 games. This should remain a 1A and 1B type of arrangement.


    The Wild Card: Kelly Bryant (192 CAR, 665 YDS, 11 TD) 

    The wild card here is: Will Bryant still have a job? Excluding the loss to Syracuse, which he left before halftime with an injury, Clemson's dual-threat QB averaged 14.5 carries* per game last year, registering at least 18 carries seven times. But if Trevor Lawrencewho averaged fewer than three carries per game in high schoolcomes in and becomes the starter, it will change the dynamic of this offense, putting more emphasis on the true running backs.

    *Sacks count as rushing attempts for the QB, and Clemson allowed a total of 31 sacks in 2017. Thus, Bryant's number of legitimate carries was probably more like 12 per game. But that's still significantly more than any of the running backs were given.

8. UCF Knights

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    Adrian Killins Jr.
    Adrian Killins Jr.Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    The Star: Adrian Killins Jr. (123 CAR, 790 YDS, 10 TD)

    UCF (along with Clemson) is one of the two teams on the list without a returning 1,000-yard rusher, but Killins would have gotten there if given the opportunity. Despite leading the Knights in rushing attempts, he averaged fewer than 10 per game. At 6.4 yards per tote, though, it's a little surprising they didn't call his number more often. With stud receiver Tre'Quan Smith out of the picture and a new head coach calling the shots, perhaps Killins will take on a heavier workload in 2018. 


    The Backup: Taj McGowan (69 CAR, 235 YDS, 8 TD)

    This was supposed to be Jawon Hamilton's job, returning from an injury that cost him almost the entire 2017 season. But he recently decided to transfer to James Madison, so McGowan should once again play a significant role as the thunder to Killins' lightning. This 6'1", 210-pound backcompared to Killins at 5'8" and 158 pounds—will remain the primary ball-carrier in short-yardage situations.


    The Wild Card: Otis Anderson (69 CAR, 494 YDS, 4 TD)

    The real wild card is dual-threat QB McKenzie Milton, who—in addition to averaging better than 310 passing yards per game—put up rushing stats of 106 carries, 613 yards and eight touchdowns. But Anderson has proven himself to be a valuable and versatile weapon in the ilk of a Percy Harvin or a Dexter McCluster. He's listed as a wide receiver and racked up 30 catches for 351 yards and three touchdowns last year as a freshman, but he also played a huge role in the running game, averaging a team-best 7.2 yards per carry.

    The Knights also have Cordarrian Richardson and Greg McCrae at their disposal, giving them six returning players who ran for at least 10 yards per game last year.

7. Florida Atlantic Owls

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    Devin Singletary
    Devin SingletaryRob Foldy/Getty Images

    The Star: Devin Singletary (301 CAR, 1,918 YDS, 32 TD)

    After rushing for 1,021 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman, Singletary kicked it into overdrive as a sophomore. He gained at least 100 yards and scored at least one touchdown (usually three or four) in each of his final 12 games last year. He led the nation in carries that went for at least 10 yards with 63 of them, and no one came close to matching his total in touchdowns.


    The Backup: B.J. Emmons (incoming transfer)

    Emmons was one of the highlights of Alabama's 2016 recruiting class. However, he barely saw the field as a freshman, and he wasn't happy about it. Given the fact that it was all freshmen and sophomores ahead of him on the depth chart, Emmons opted to transfer to Hutchinson Community College for one year before rejoining Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic. Despite seven fumbles, he was the top rushing option for the Blue Dragons last year. He shouldn't have any trouble settling in as the No. 2 rusher for the Owls.


    The Wild Card: Kerrith Whyte (55 CAR, 347 YDS, 2 TD) 

    Kiffin called so many running plays last year that even this fourth option saw plenty of action. The speedy Whyte ripped off an 82-yard touchdown against North Texas and was also the primary kick returner for the Owls for the second straight year. His workload probably won't increase, but a repeat of last year's stats would help FAU remain one of the top rushing attacks in the nation.

6. Memphis Tigers

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    Darrell Henderson
    Darrell HendersonMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Star: Darrell Henderson (130 CAR, 1,154 YDS, 9 TD)

    The offense is going to look a lot different for Memphis without the standout QB-WR combo of Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller. But the Tigers are still loaded in the backfield, starting with Henderson. The sophomore averaged just shy of 9.0 yards per carry and wrapped up the year with one heck of a five-game flourish. During that stretch, Henderson rushed 59 times for 613 yards (10.4 YPC) and six touchdowns. He had at least 109 yards in each game, even though he didn't carry more than 15 times in any of them. 


    The Backup: Patrick Taylor Jr. (157 CAR, 866 YDS, 13 TD)

    Though not quite as explosive as Henderson, Taylor finished last year with even more carries and touchdowns than his teammate. There were four games in which each back rushed for at least 100 yards, including three in a row to end the regular season. Thus, if you prefer to consider Taylor the star and Henderson the backup, have at it. Either way, we're talking about a duo that combined for more than 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, and that should be headed for an increase in touches.


    The Wild Card: Tony Pollard (30 CAR, 230 YDS, 2 TD)

    Similar to UCF's Otis Anderson, Pollard is an all-around X-factor who is dynamite with the ball in his hands. In addition to averaging 7.7 yards per carry as a sophomore, he had 14.9 yards per reception and 40.0 yards per kick return. Maybe he'll develop into more of a go-to wide receiver and less of a gadget running back, but he should still get at least a couple of carries per game.

5. Arizona Wildcats

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    Khalil Tate
    Khalil TateMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Star: Khalil Tate (153 CAR, 1,411 YDS, 12 TD)

    At an average of 9.22 yards per carry, Tate became one of just two players in the past decade to average at least 9.0 YPC while rushing 100 or more times in a season. (The other was New Mexico's Jhurell Pressley in 2014.) Tate sputtered to the finish line, but there was a six-week stretch in which he averaged 201.2 yards per game and 11.95 yards per carry. Sure, he's Arizona's quarterback, but he's still arguably the most dangerous rushing threat in the country.


    The Backup: J.J. Taylor (146 CAR, 847 YDS, 5 TD)

    Taylor isn't actually the backup. He's the starting tailback for the Wildcats. As long as Tate's on the field, though, Taylor is their No. 2 rushing option. And what a great Plan B to have. Taylor was one of six freshmen to rush for more than 820 yards last season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. He was shut down in Arizona's bowl loss to Purdue, but prior to that dud, Taylor gained 8.2 yards per carry over his final six regular-season contests.


    The Wild Card: Nathan Tilford (13 CAR, 121 YDS, 2 TD)

    Between Nick Wilson, Brandon Dawkins and Zach Green, the Wildcats lost 263 carries, 1,385 yards and 25 touchdowns from last year's roster. Expect Taylor to pick up some of that slack, but the next man up to benefit from that opportunity should be Tilford. He barely saw the field as a freshman and did almost all of his work in blowout wins over Northern Arizona and UTEP. Still, big things are expected from the man who was Arizona's top-rated recruit (by a wide margin) in 2017.

4. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Rodney Anderson
    Rodney AndersonDoug Benc/Associated Press

    The Star: Rodney Anderson (188 CAR, 1,161 YDS, 13 TD)

    Even with the incredible aerial connection of Baker Mayfield to Mark Andrews, Oklahoma was already averaging 39.0 carries, 217.8 yards and 2.4 rushing touchdowns per game. The leader of that charge was this redshirt sophomore who barely touched the ball in the Sooners' first six games. Over the final eight, though, Anderson was unstoppable, averaging 134.9 yards per game and 6.5 per carry. He rushed for at least 77 yards in each game and topped 100 in six of eight, including a 201-yard performance in the College Football Playoff against Georgia. 


    The Backup: Trey Sermon (121 CAR, 744 YDS, 5 TD)

    Sermon was the main back until Anderson took over, but it's not like he lost the No. 1 job due to ineffectiveness. The freshman averaged 6.1 yards per carry over the course of the full season and had gained at least 90 yards in each of the three games before Anderson became the go-to guy. Lincoln Riley simply opted to ride the hotter hand for the final two months, but both backs should be expected to shoulder a heavy load in 2018.


    The Wild Card: T.J. Pledger (incoming freshman)

    As with UCF earlier, the real wild card is dual-threat QB Kyler Murray, who averaged 10.1 yards per carry in limited playing time as Mayfield's backup, as well as 6.3 YPC in his freshman season at Texas A&M. Don't be surprised if he calls his own number close to 10 times per game.

    But Pledger could be a real factor as a true freshman, if only as a shiftier option than the two main bruisers. At 5'9", Pledger pales in comparison to Anderson (6'1") and Sermon (6'0"), but the all-purpose back could settle into a Darren Sproles (in the NFL) type of role.

3. Florida State Seminoles

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    Cam Akers
    Cam AkersChuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Star: Cam Akers (194 CAR, 1,025 YDS, 7 TD)

    Akers wasted little time in showing why recruiting sites were torn between him and Najee Harris as the top running back in the 2017 class. He didn't do much in the opener against Alabama—who does?—and he was just OK in the next two games as Florida State's offense attempted to adjust to life without Deondre Francois. But Akers rushed for at least 90 yards in five of his final 10 games, including a 199-yard, two-touchdown explosion in a close win over Syracuse. He should be in the mix with Boston College's AJ Dillon and Miami's Travis Homer for the title of best ACC RB.


    The Backup: Jacques Patrick (134 CAR, 748 YDS, 7 TD) 

    Despite the debate over which ACC school has the top running back, Patrick is the reason Florida State features prominently on this list, while Boston College and Miami missed the cut. The rising senior has averaged better than 4.9 yards per carry in each of his three seasons with the Seminoles. Last year, he did so while receiving more than 12 carries per game. It's not quite a Nick Chubb and Sony Michel dynamic duo, but no one would be surprised if both of these 'Noles top the 1,000-yard mark in 2018.


    The Wild Card: Khalan Laborn (redshirt freshman)

    Laborn is probably the most noteworthy wild card on the list. The redshirt freshman was rated as the No. 29 overall recruit last year, per 247 Sports' composite rankings. And he put on a show in FSU's spring game this past April, including a 91-yard touchdown run. He'll probably be No. 3 on the depth chart, but there's a good chance that head coach Willie Taggart finds him enough touches to flirt with 500 yards.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Damien Harris
    Damien HarrisRogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    The Star: Damien Harris (135 CAR, 1,000 YDS, 11 TD)

    There were only two players who averaged at least 7.0 yards, per carry while rushing for at least 1,000 yards, in each of the last two seasons: Damien Harris and San Diego State's Rashaad Penny. Harris' dominance has gone underappreciated, though, because he didn't even average 10 carries per game in either season, due to the sheer number of mouths that need to be fed in this backfield. With Bo Scarbrough out of the pictureand perhaps fewer QB draws if Tua Tagovailoa wins the starting job—perhaps Harris will get a number of touches more in line with his ability this year.


    The Backup: Najee Harris (61 CAR, 370 YDS, 3 TD)

    Then again, this Harris might keep the other Harris from becoming anything close to an every-down back. Najee Harris was regarded by many as the best overall player in the 2017 recruiting class. Samples of that talent were sprinkled throughout the season, even though he has yet to rush for more than 70 yards, in a game. He made a big impact in the national championship game, averaging better than 10 yards, per carry. Consider that a sign of things to come.


    The Wild Card: Josh Jacobs (46 CAR, 284 YDS, 1 TD)

    A testament to the amount of talent Alabama brings in every year, its third-string running back has averaged 6.5 yards, per carry in his career. The Crimson Tide will also have Brian Robinson in the mix, who accounted for 6.9 YPC last year as a true freshman. Whoever wins the QB battle will feature prominently in the run game. And even wide receiver Devonta Smith will likely get involved with a few trick plays. Long story short, Alabama should have almost no difficulty running the ball, per usual.  

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    J.K. Dobbins
    J.K. DobbinsPaul Vernon/Associated Press

    The Star: J.K. Dobbins (194 CAR, 1,403 YDS, 7 TD)

    It's only because of a Mike Weber hamstring injury that Dobbins was given an opportunity to shine as a true freshman, but he didn't let it slip away. Dobbins burst onto the scene with a 181-yard game in the season opener. Though he split carries with Weber (and J.T. Barrett) from that point forward, he rushed for at least 50 yards in every game prior to a dud against USC in the Cotton Bowl. If we exclude that last game, Dobbins averaged 7.5 yards per carry.


    The Backup: Mike Weber (101 CAR, 626 YDS, 10 TD) 

    Though he lost his starting job because of the aforementioned injury, Weber was even more impressive last year than when he ran for 1,096 yards as a freshman. His yards per carry increased slightly from 6.0 to 6.2, and he found the end zone more than twice as often, averaging 10.1 carries per TD compared to 20.22 in 2016. A lot of depth charts have a great one-two punch, but none quite as good as this.


    The Wild Card: Jaelen Gill (incoming freshman)

    Ohio State has had a freshman rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. While we certainly can't anticipate Gill joining that club with Dobbins and Weber still on the roster, he at least bears mentioning as one of the nation's top incoming running backs.

    If Gill opts to redshirt to preserve a later year of eligibility in which he'll get a bigger piece of the pie, look for Demario McCall to become Ohio State's third rushing optionexcluding QB Dwayne Haskins, who will run a fair amount, though likely not as much as Barrett did. McCall should do most of his damage as a receiver, but he could be a lite version of Curtis Samuel, who had 771 rushing yards and 865 receiving yards in his final season.


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


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