Ranking the Best Backfields for 2019 College Football Season
Despite the overall pass-heavy approach of modern offenses, the variety of schemes in the 130-team Football Bowl Subdivision still puts running backs on full display.
Elite quarterbacks remain the most important asset, but a dynamic running back can overshadow issues behind center, too.
Looking ahead to the 2019 season, some of the nation's most impressive backfields are actually found at programs that don't have a top-tier signal-caller overseeing the offense.
While quarterbacks who add a mobile element are important and valuable, the list is strictly focused on star power and depth of a team's running backs―not the overall running game. Previous production is the major factor, though 2019 projection is mentioned.
Alabama Crimson Tide: Nick Saban should feel comfortable about this backfield, which is set to feature 700-yard runner Najee Harris. Nevertheless, it's thin on proven contributors. Only 15 of Brian Robinson Jr.'s 87 career carries have come prior to the fourth quarter. And while 5-star Trey Sanders has enormous goals, he's a freshman.
Appalachian State Mountaineers: Though the team loses a talented runner in Jalin Moore, he managed only five appearances last season. App State returns Darrynton Evans and Marcus Williams Jr., who combined for 1,748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Arizona State Sun Devils: Eno Benjamin is a bit of a one-man show. On the bright side, it's a spectacular one! He handled 300 carries last season, finishing with 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns. Isaiah Floyd is the Sun Devils' top backup.
Boston College Eagles: After racking up 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman, AJ Dillon posted 1,108 and 10, respectively, despite a nagging ankle injury. Ben Glines, David Bailey and Travis Levy give Boston College fine depth, but the backfield must improve its efficiency to merit a top-10 ranking.
Florida Gators: Leading rusher Lamical Perine is back, and freshman Dameon Pierce should move into a more regular role. Together, they scampered for 1,250 yards and nine scores last season. Kadarius Toney, though technically a receiver, is highly effective when running the ball as the Wildcat quarterback.
Miami Hurricanes: DeeJay Dallas tallied 617 yards as a backup in 2018, and Cam'Ron Harris―formerly Davis―offered a dynamic element when he cracked the lineup. Throw in 5-star Lorenzo Lingard, who is returning from injury, and Miami has an intriguing rotation.
Ohio State Buckeyes: There's an evident path for J.K. Dobbins and Ohio State to reach the top 10. Last season, though, his efficiency plummeted from 7.2 yards per carry to 4.6. The Buckeyes have plenty of backups with potential, but Master Teague is the leading returning reserve with just 106 yards.
Utah Utes: Kyle Whittingham's club would've had a decent argument if Armand Shyne stayed on the roster. Instead, he took his 512 rushing yards to Texas Tech as a grad transfer. Zack Moss has cracked the 1,000-yard barrier in consecutive seasons.
Vanderbilt Commodores: If Jamauri Wakefield emerges as a real complement to Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the 'Dores will join the top-10 conversation. Vaughn's late-season explosion ended with 1,244 yards and 12 scores, while Wakefield managed an inefficient 353 yards.
10. Arizona Wildcats
One of the biggest questions for 2019 is whether Arizona―and a healthy ankle―will afford quarterback Khalil Tate more chances to show off his explosiveness as a runner.
Either way, though, the Wildcats have two experienced backs.
J.J. Taylor ranked seventh nationally with 1,434 yards last season and scored six touchdowns. Gary Brightwell added 525 yards―featuring two 100-yard games―and three scores in his reserve role.
Arizona has serious concerns to address up front, but the backfield boasts one of the Pac-12's most productive duos.
9. Oregon State Beavers
In the first two games of 2018, Artavis Pierce scampered for 259 yards and three touchdowns on just 22 carries. Unfortunately for the junior, an elbow injury sidelined him for three weeks.
And his absence allowed Jermar Jefferson to shine.
The breakout back sprinted to 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors. Jefferson also caught 25 passes for 147 yards.
Oregon State will likely feature Jefferson, but Pierce figures to have a regular role. After all, he's rushed for 1,256 career yards and was 13th nationally with 7.6 per carry in 2018. Even if the Beavers only win a couple of games, the running backs can be a bright spot.
8. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Rodney Smith has 2,962 yards and 21 touchdowns in his college career. Shannon Brooks has 1,882 yards and 18 scores. And neither one is the focus of this conversation.
ACL injuries caused both players to miss the 2018 season, creating an opportunity for a couple of freshmen. Mohamed Ibrahim took full advantage with 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns, and Bryce Williams chipped in 502 yards and four trips to the end zone.
Well, who gets the ball in 2019?
Given that Smith and Brooks are returning from serious injuries, they shouldn't be rushed into game action. In their absences, Ibrahim and Williams proved more than capable anyway. So, while it's a real question, the possibility of a bad answer seems low.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats
Last season, Michael Warren II set a school record with 19 rushing scores, and his 1,329 yards finished just 32 shy of the single-season mark. Not bad for a first-year starter.
The Bearcats also received major contributions from freshmen, too. Tavion Thomas and Charles McClelland both topped the 100-yard plateau twice, combining for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns.
All three players return, and so does 2017 leading rusher Gerrid Doaks. He posted 513 yards that season but missed the entire 2018 campaign because of a groin injury.
Cincinnati must retool the offensive line after losing three starters. But if the blocks are there, the Bearcats should thrive.
6. Central Florida Knights
Greg McCrae had a brilliant end to the 2018 season, rushing for 897 yards in UCF's final seven games. His 8.9-yard average for the year ranked third nationally among qualifying players.
And he wasn't even the starter; Adrian Killins turned in personal-best numbers, too. The speedster ran for 715 yards and caught 19 passes for 377 yards, scoring a total of eight touchdowns.
Otis Anderson provided a similar brand of versatility, collecting 505 yards from scrimmage and seven scores.
No matter whether Darriel Mack Jr. or Brandon Wimbush wins the competition, UCF will have a mobile threat at quarterback, too. This offense will be immensely difficult to stop on the ground.
5. Oregon Ducks
Oregon has a potential first-round pick in quarterback Justin Herbert. He'll be asked to elevate an inexperienced receiving group, and that's no simple task. But if defenses must respect the pass-catching corps, the Ducks' running backs could run wild.
As a freshman, CJ Verdell tallied 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns as a runner and gained 315 yards on 27 catches. Travis Dye contributed 739 rushing yards and four scores, too.
They'll headline a unit that returns a short-yardage machine in Cyrus Habibi-Likio. He logged just 18 carries yet had seven touchdowns.
Since Oregon brings back every starter on the offensive line, expectations are understandably high for the rushing attack.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia has a hugely appealing depth chart.
D'Andre Swift registered 1,346 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns last season, and he wasn't even particularly explosive until late October. That followed a freshman year in which he gathered 618 yards on 7.6 per carry as a third-stringer.
Similar to Robinson at Alabama, Brian Herrien has waited behind NFL-bound backs for multiple years. But with 923 career rushing yards, he seems ready for a regular spot in the rotation. The Bulldogs also have James Cook (284 yards in 2018) and Zamir White, who missed 2018 because of a torn left ACL.
Swift―a returning All-SEC choice―keeps Georgia near the top. Herrien, Cook and White can make this a special unit.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
Losing a player of Rodney Anderson's ability is supposed to hurt offenses a lot more than it did, Oklahoma.
In 2017, he amassed 1,442 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns. But in the second game of 2018, a right knee injury sidelined Anderson for the rest of the season. Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon proceeded to thrash opponents anyway.
Brooks posted a team-high 1,056 yards, Sermon scampered for 947, and they combined for 25 rushing scores.
Although the Sooners must rebuild the blocking unit, Lincoln Riley and offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh have earned full benefit of the doubt. Throw in the mobile threat Jalen Hurts will present, and Oklahoma's ground game should continue excelling.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
You probably know 2,194 rushing yards is a lot. Consider this, though: 68 FBS programs notched fewer rushing yards in 2018.
Jonathan Taylor is pretty, pretty, pretty good.
The two-time All-American enters his junior season with 4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns. Taylor doesn't often leave the field, but the Badgers have a quality replacement when he does. Garrett Groshek has powered his way to 722 yards over the last two years.
Nakia Watson is expected to join the lineup this fall, but any depth alongside Groshek and behind Taylor is simply a bonus.
1. Clemson Tigers
Total yardage is valuable, but a high average is critical to team success. The only player who topped Travis Etienne's combination of volume and efficiency (Memphis, Darrell Henderson) is now in the NFL.
Etienne sped his way to 1,658 yards―the fourth-most in the FBS―while gaining 8.1 per carry. Most impressively, he only carried the ball 32 times in the fourth quarter. In other words, Etienne was a key reason Clemson kept demolishing teams; his stats aren't merely a product of garbage-time stat-padding.
What should annoy defenses, though, is the reigning national champs have another high-efficiency runner. Lyn-J Dixon amassed 547 yards on just 62 attempts for 8.8 per carry.
As if having Trevor Lawrence―the best freshman QB in history―isn't enough, Clemson boasts the nation's most potent backfield.