Ranking the Best Backfields for 2020 College Football Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 8, 2020

Ranking the Best Backfields for 2020 College Football Season

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    Clemson's Travis Etienne
    Clemson's Travis EtienneChris Seward/Associated Press

    With star running backs like Clemson's Travis Etienne, Alabama's Najee Harris and Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard all returning for another year, there are quite a few backfields poised for greatness in 2020.

    Before you start griping about this list, note that we're ranking the best backfields and not just the best individual running backs. Quality depth is critical. For instance, Kenneth Gainwell might lead the nation in rushing this year, but Memphis didn't even crack our top 10 because of the lack of established talent behind him.

    Also take note that this isn't intended to be a projection of teams that will rack up the most rushing yards in 2020. 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. Ole Miss' John Rhys Plumlee tallied more than 1,000 rushing yards in just nine games last season, and we're not about to disregard him as a rushing threat just because he also throws the ball on a semiregular basis.

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

Honorable Mentions

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    Oklahoma's Kennedy Brooks
    Oklahoma's Kennedy BrooksSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns

    Louisiana-Lafayette ranked sixth in rushing yards per game and third in yards per carry last year, and the Ragin' Cajuns should remain solid with Elijah Mitchell and Trey Ragas back in the fold. The former has 2,132 yards and 29 touchdowns over the last two seasons; the latter has marks of 2,001 and 19, respectively. But the loss of Raymond Calais (8.3 yards per carry over last two seasons) kept ULL from cracking our top 10.

                                   

    Memphis Tigers

    If we were just ranking the best starting running backs in the nation, Kenneth Gainwell (1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns last year) would have been a lock for the top 10. Memphis doesn't have much behind him, though.

                                     

    Mississippi State Bulldogs

    Kylin Hill is an exceptional talent who ran for 1,350 yards last year. However, "Mike Leach" and "top backfield" go together like oil and water. 

                            

    North Carolina Tar Heels

    Michael Carter and Javonte Williams combined for nearly 2,000 yards last year. But QB Sam Howell rarely runs, and the Tar Heels have no established depth beyond that duo. UNC should still have one of the three best backfields in the ACC, though.

                              

    Oklahoma Sooners

    Jalen Hurts is in the NFL. Trey Sermon transferred to Ohio State. And Rhamondre Stevenson is expected to miss the first five games of the season because of a suspension that began with last year's Peach Bowl. But Kennedy Brooks is so talented and head coach Lincoln Riley is such an offensive mastermind that Oklahoma still received serious consideration for the top 10.

                            

    Texas Longhorns

    Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson give Texas a solid one-two punch at running back, and quarterback Sam Ehlinger has rushed for 1,526 yards and 25 touchdowns over the last three years. True freshman Bijan Robinson could push the Longhorns over the top.

                             

    The Triple-Option Offenses (Air Force, Army, Georgia Southern and Navy)

    It's pretty much a given that each of these teams will rush for at least 250 yards per game. However, we're looking for individuals who form a great group of rushing options rather than an offensive system that thrives regardless of its individuals.

    It was tempting to put Georgia Southern in the top 10, though, as J.D. King (804 yards), Shai Werts (733 yards) and Wesley Kennedy III (824 yards) are all returning as seniors.    

10. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Zamir White
    Zamir WhiteSteve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images

    The Star: Zamir White (78 carries, 408 yards, 3 touchdowns)

    Try not to focus too much on the mediocre yardage total here. After all, D'Andre Swift and Brian Herrien accounted for 299 carries, with White only occasionally getting touches after missing the entire 2018 season with his second torn ACL. Instead, focus on the 92 yards he had against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl and the fact that he was the highest-rated running back in the 2018 recruiting class. A breakout year is in the cards as White becomes Georgia's featured back.

                        

    The Backup: James Cook (31 carries, 188 yards, 2 touchdowns)

    White was the No. 1 RB in the 2018 class, but Cook was no slouch at No. 5 on that list. And he has averaged 6.6 yards per carry in his first two seasons in Athens. It's time to find out if he can shoulder a heavier workload as he catapults up the depth chart. If nothing else, Cook figures to be the primary pass-catching back. He made 16 receptions last year and should inherit most of the 40 that went to Swift and Herrien in their final campaign with the Dawgs.

                

    The Wild Card: Who Starts at Quarterback?

    If newly acquired USC transfer JT Daniels is ruled eligible to play right away and becomes Georgia's starting QB, he's even less of a rushing threat than Jake Fromm was, which is really saying something. But if Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman gets the job, now you're talking about a dual-threat option who ran for 574 yards and six touchdowns last year. Prior to last week's news about Daniels, it was tempting to put a Newman-led Georgia in the top five.   

9. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Jerrion Ealy
    Jerrion EalyVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    The Star: Jerrion Ealy (104 carries, 722 yards, 6 touchdowns)

    Ealy was one of three 5-star running backs in the 2019 class. But while Alabama's Trey Sanders missed the season with an injury and LSU's John Emery Jr. got limited reps on a ridiculously talented offense, Ealy made a nice splash, averaging 6.9 yards per carry as a true freshman. That included a 141-yard game against LSU in mid-November.

    The Rebels didn't work him too hard in year No. 1, but let's not forget that new Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin turned Devin Singletary loose for 301 carries, 1,918 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2017, his first year calling the shots at Florida Atlantic.

                               

    The Backup: Snoop Conner (81 carries, 512 yards, 5 touchdowns)

    Conner's true freshman season wasn't quite as prolific as Ealy's, but 6.3 yards per carry is damn impressive for a team in the loaded SEC West. This Rebels backfield appears to be set up beautifully for at least the next two seasons. They'll need to make drastic improvements on defense in order for this running game to amount to winning seasons, though.

                                   

    The Wild Card: Who Starts at Quarterback, Part II?

    Just like at Georgia, the QB competition will play a massive role in just how potent this rushing attack is. John Rhys Plumlee actually had more rushing attempts (154) than passing attempts (150) last season while leading the Rebels in both rushing yards (1,023) and touchdowns (12). Redshirt freshman Grant Tisdale also has serious dual-threat potential. But if Kiffin opts for the more pro-style Matt Corral, the overall rushing threat diminishes.

8. Oregon Ducks

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    CJ Verdell
    CJ VerdellTony Avelar/Associated Press

    The Star: CJ Verdell (197 carries, 1,220 yards, 8 touchdowns)

    The Backup: Travis Dye (106 carries, 658 yards, 0 touchdowns)

    Oregon's rushing attack is a far cry from what it used to be. The Ducks averaged at least 226 rushing yards per game in each season from 2007 to '17 before checking in a bit below 180 each of the last two years. But that was more a product of wanting to utilize a pro-style quarterback (Justin Herbert) than a sudden inability to run the ball.

    In fact, both Verdell and Dye averaged 6.2 yards per carry, making Oregon the only Power Five school with at least two players who received at least 105 touches and averaged at least 6.0 yards per carry.

    With Herbert out of the picture, look for the Ducks to lean more heavily on this pair of junior running backs. In particular, Verdell could be poised for a Pac-12 Player of the Year type of campaign after opening his career with back-to-back seasons of at least 1,300 yards from scrimmage.

               

    The Wild Card: A new offensive line

    As far as running backs go, the wild card is Sean Dollars. The freshman only received seven carries before utilizing a redshirt, but one of those touches went for 63 yards. He was a top-150 overall recruit last year and could put up solid numbers if he can work his way into the rotation.

    But the bigger question mark is how well the O-line will hold up after losing four of five starters. The one the Ducks kept (Penei Sewell) might be the No. 1 overall pick next April. Creating running lanes takes more than just one elite left tackle, though.    

7. Louisville Cardinals

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    Javian Hawkins
    Javian HawkinsAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Star: Javian Hawkins (264 carries, 1,525 yards, 9 touchdowns)

    Hawkins was an unexpected breakout sensation. He carried the ball just twice in 2018 before taking a redshirt year and then ranked seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game last season while eclipsing the century mark in eight outings. He only scored nine touchdowns, but he is an ever-present threat to break loose for a huge gain. Hawkins had at least one run of 19 yards or more in 12 of 13 games.

            

    The Backup: Hassan Hall (108 carries, 501 yards, 5 touchdowns)

    Hall was probably in line to become the starter last year prior to a minor injury during fall camp that opened the door for Hawkins to ascend to the top of the depth chart. Even as the backup, Hall got at least 11 touches in each of Louisville's first six games last year before suffering another minor leg injury and assuming a lesser role the rest of the way. If Hall can stay healthy in 2020, Louisville might have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers.

                    

    The Wild Card: Aidan Robbins (redshirt freshman)

    With an honorable mention to dual-threat quarterback Micale Cunningham (122 carries, 482 yards, six touchdowns), Robbins is the true wild card here. He was already a big dude when he got to Louisville, but now he's listed at 6'3" and 230 pounds. Even if the Cardinals only use him in goal-line or short-yardage situations, he could be an X-factor in this offense.            

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Master Teague
    Master TeagueNati Harnik/Associated Press

    The Star: Master Teague (135 carries, 789 yards, 4 touchdowns)

    Teague sputtered to the finish line last year, with Ohio State leaning much more heavily on J.K. Dobbins down the stretch against a murderers' row on the schedule, but he averaged 6.7 yards per carry and 77.7 rushing yards per game in the first nine contests. His touches should at least double with Dobbins out of the picture, provided he's able to recover from the Achilles injury he suffered in early March.

    If Teague is unable to go from Week 1, though, at least the Buckeyes have a litany of options with the addition of Trey Sermon and the return of Marcus Crowley, Steele Chambers and Demario McCall. All four of those guys averaged at least 6.8 yards per attempt last year, albeit while only combining for 116 carries.

                           

    The Backup: Trey Sermon (54 carries, 385 yards, 4 touchdowns with Oklahoma)

    Most transfer running backs don't make that much of an impact at their new schools, but Sermon might be a major exception to that rule. His 2019 numbers at Oklahoma took a huge hit when Kennedy Brooks became the featured back and JUCO transfer Rhamondre Stevenson inherited a significant piece of the rushing pie, but Sermon ran for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018. And Ohio State's backup running back has received at least 90 carries in each of the last four years.

                                                              

    The Wild Card: Justin Fields (137 carries, 484 yards, 10 touchdowns)

    Ohio State signed four of the top 16 wide receivers in the 2020 class, so perhaps Fields will become more of a pocket passer in what figures to be his final collegiate season. But there's no question he remains a serious threat to do damage with his legs. Had the Buckeyes needed him to play into the second half of any of their first 10 games last year, his numbers would have been even better.

5. Buffalo Bulls

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    Jaret Patterson
    Jaret PattersonSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    The Star: Jaret Patterson (312 carries, 1,799 yards, 19 touchdowns)

    Patterson's full-year numbers were great, but what he did over Buffalo's final six games last year was just plain silly. He averaged 30.2 carries for 185.5 yards per game with 15 touchdowns, and he had at least 141 yards in each of those contests. Aside from the Week 3 game against Ohio State, every FBS opponent on the 2020 schedule allowed at least 160 rushing yards per game in 2019. I'm not much of a prop-bet guy, but if you're going to bet on anyone to lead the nation in rushing this season, Patterson would be a great choice.

          

    The Backup: Kevin Marks (227 carries, 1,035 yards, 8 touchdowns)

    Buffalo, Central Michigan and Oklahoma were the only teams with multiple 1,000-yard rushers last season, and Buffalo is the only one bringing both of those guys back. Marks isn't a speedster by any means. He only averaged 4.6 yards per carry, this after getting 4.7 yards per tote en route to 845 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018. But he is a workhorse who received at least a dozen carries in every game last year. Given Buffalo's anemic passing attack, it wouldn't be a surprise if Marks get even more touches in 2020 as part of a tandem that eclipses 3,000 yards.

            

    The Wild Card: Dylan McDuffie (23 carries, 150 yards)

    Patterson and Marks combined for 41.5 carries per game, so there wasn't much else to go around. But McDuffie did average 6.5 yards per carry when the Bulls ventured a bit further into their depth chart, and six of his 23 carries went for at least 10 yards. He might be more of a factor this year.

4. Penn State Nittany Lions

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    Journey Brown
    Journey BrownBarry Reeger/Associated Press

    The Star: Journey Brown (129 carries, 890 yards, 12 touchdowns)

    Penn State took quite the "running back by committee" approach to the 2019 season. A different player led the Nittany Lions in rushing yards in each of their first three games. By the end of the regular season, six players held that honor at least once.

    But late in the year, it finally became clear that Brown was their guy moving forward. In his final five contestswhich included brutal road games against undefeated Minnesota and Ohio Statehe racked up 593 yards and nine touchdowns. He's no Saquon Barkley, but who is? He could still be one of the nation's best running backs in 2020.

             

    The Backup: Noah Cain (84 carries, 443 yards, 8 touchdowns)

    James Franklin secured two running backs ranked in the top 100 overall of the 2019 recruiting class. Of the two, Cain seems more likely to have a big role in 2020 than Devyn Ford does. Both should be heavily involved in the offense, but it was Cain who had back-to-back 100-yard performances against Purdue and Iowa in October before resurfacing in a big way for 92 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis.

              

    The Wild Card: Sean Clifford (116 carries, 402 yards, 5 touchdowns) and Will Levis (51 carries, 213 yards, 3 touchdowns)

    Clifford figures to retain the role of starting quarterback, but either way, Penn State is going to have a legitimate rushing threat behind center for a fifth consecutive season. Trace McSorley averaged 551.3 yards and 10 touchdowns per year from 2016 to '18, and the combined force of Clifford and Levis kept that trend alive and well in 2019.

3. Oklahoma State Cowboys

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    Chuba Hubbard
    Chuba HubbardChris Jackson/Associated Press

    The Star: Chuba Hubbard (328 carries, 2,094 yards, 21 touchdowns)

    Hubbard led the nation in rushing yards last season and had at least 100 yards on the ground in 15 of his last 17 games, dating back to November 2018. He didn't get as much national acclaim as the likes of Jonathan Taylor, Travis Etienne or J.K. Dobbins since Oklahoma State was nowhere near as relevant as the schools those guys played for, but Hubbard is going to enter the 2020 campaign with some much-deserved Heisman hype.

             

    The Backup: Spencer Sanders (139 carries, 628 yards, 2 touchdowns)

    LD Brown (40 carries, 221 yards, 2 touchdowns) is technically Hubbard's backup, but he barely averaged three carries per game while spelling the every-down backwhich is largely why this backfield only ranks No. 3. The real secondary rusher was the redshirt freshman quarterback who ran the ball about 13 times per game. Sanders rushed for 109 yards in his collegiate debut against Oregon State and proceeded to account for at least 31 yards in each of his 10 games prior to a season-ending thumb injury.

              

    The Wild Card: Dezmon Jackson (no carries in 2019)

    Jackson barely saw the field last year, but this now-edshirt junior rushed for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns with Hutchinson Community College in 2018. Don't expect a ton here, but it wouldn't be that much of a surprise if he more or less matched Brown's 2019 numbers.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Najee Harris
    Najee HarrisJohn Raoux/Associated Press

    The Star: Najee Harris (209 carries, 1,224 yards, 13 touchdowns)

    Over the final 10 games of last season, Harris averaged 106.9 rushing yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry. Good numbers, but we're still waiting on him to really explode.

    A dearth of chunk gains is what held his averages back. Per CFB Stats, Harris had 46 carries of at least 10 yards, good for sixth-most in the nation. However, only nine of those went for 20 or more, and his longest run of the year was just 31 yards. In fact, his career-long rush is 35 yards. If he busts out a couple of 50-yard sprints this year, he'll be in the Heisman conversation.

             

    The Backup: Trey Sanders (redshirt freshman)

    If you think either Brian Robinson Jr. (441 yards) or Keilan Robinson (254 yards) will be the primary backup, you might be right. That quality depth at the position is why Alabama ranks this high on the list. But our guess is that Sandersthe highest-rated running back and the No. 6 overall recruit in the 2019 class—will quickly emerge as a guy Nick Saban tries to work into the mix as often as possible. He was probably going to play second fiddle to Harris last year had it not been for a foot injury that ended his season three weeks before it could begin.

             

    The Wild Card: Bryce Young (true freshman)

    If Mac Jones locks down the starting job, there won't be many rushing yards coming from the quarterback in Tuscaloosa. He has 28 rushing yards in his career, and 26 of those came unexpectedly on Alabama's final possession of last year's Iron Bowl. But if Young gets the job, expect a little more mobility. He's nowhere near as run-happy as some dual-threat quarterbacks are in high school, but Young did account for more than 1,000 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns over the course of the last four years.

1. Clemson Tigers

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    Travis Etienne
    Travis EtienneKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    The Star: Travis Etienne (207 carries, 1,614 yards, 19 touchdowns)

    Among returning players, only Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and Buffalo's Jaret Patterson had more rushing yards than Etienne in 2020. And among returning players who rushed at least 50 times, only Oklahoma's Rhamondre Stevenson averaged more yards per carry (8.05) than Etienne (7.80). Factor in the 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns and Clemson's backfield boasts the most potent all-around difference-maker. Etienne is well on his way toward finishing top 10 in FBS career rushing yards and touchdowns.

           

    The Backup: Lyn-J Dixon (104 carries, 635 yards, 6 touchdowns)

    Even if Etienne had left for the NFL draft, Clemson would have been in capable hands with Dixon becoming the featured back. In two seasons as the backup, he has averaged 7.1 yards per carry. He also made 14 receptions last year, so he's even a potential menace in passing situations. Not much of a relief for the defense when Etienne leaves the field.

             

    The Wild Card: Trevor Lawrence (103 carries, 563 yards, 9 touchdowns)

    Lawrence wasn't much of a rushing threat as a freshman, only accounting for 30 or more yards with his legs once in 15 contests. Last year was a much different story, though. He eclipsed 30 yards 10 times, including that Herculean 107-yard performance in the Fiesta Bowl victory over Ohio State. He's not exactly Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts, but Lawrence can make you pay if you forget how much of a mobile threat he is.

             

    The Second Wild Card: Demarkcus Bowman (true freshman)

    The rich got even richer when Dabo Swinney landed one of the three 5-star running backs in the 2020 class. The Tigers still also have Chez Mellusi (276 yards), Michel Dukes (150 yards) and Darien Rencher (135 yards) on their backfield depth chart, and Bowman wasn't an early enrollee in January. Odds are he'll be a limited contributor in the upcoming season and may well take a redshirt. But as far as "break glass in case of emergency" options go, Bowman is quite the ace in the hole.