Ranking the Best Backfields for 2021 College Football Season
The running game has become less attractive in the modern era, but many college football teams still receive huge production from their backfield.
At a handful (or two!) of programs, there is an unquestioned top runner. Standouts like Iowa State's Breece Hall and UTSA's Sincere McCormick are tasked with carrying a heavy load.
More often than not, though, a collection of backs share the work. And because of it, they don't always land the headlines.
The order is subjective but considers depth of returning talent, measuring past performance in both efficiency and total production. Additionally, this is a pre-2021 season ranking; the order will undoubtedly be different after the 2021 campaign ends.
Note: Quarterback rushing stats are not factored into the list.
Less Proven, Talent-Filled Units
- Alabama Crimson Tide
- Arizona State Sun Devils
- Auburn Tigers
- Clemson Tigers
- Florida Gators
- Miami Hurricanes
- Michigan Wolverines
- Ohio State Buckeyes
- Utah Utes
- Buffalo Bulls (Kevin Marks Jr.)
- Colorado Buffaloes (Jarek Broussard)
- Iowa State Cyclones (Breece Hall)
- Kansas State Wildcats (Deuce Vaughn)
- Kentucky Wildcats (Chris Rodriguez Jr.)
- Minnesota Golden Gophers (Mohamed Ibrahim)
- South Carolina Gamecocks (Kevin Harris)
- UTSA Roadrunners (Sincere McCormick)
- West Virginia Mountaineers (Leddie Brown)
More to Know
- Mississippi Rebels
- North Carolina State Wolfpack
- SMU Mustangs
- Southern Miss Golden Eagles
- Washington State Cougars
- Wyoming Cowboys
8. Texas Longhorns
Even after Keaontay Ingram transferred to USC, Texas still has a dynamic pair for new head coach and play-caller Steve Sarkisian.
It starts with Bijan Robinson, who piled up 703 rushing yards, 15 catches for 196 yards and six total touchdowns last season. The prized prospect of the 2020 class should be the lead runner in the fall, yet his backup is very experienced.
Roschon Johnson, a converted quarterback, has tallied 1,067 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground in the last two seasons. He's also corralled 31 passes for 209 yards.
Plus, the Longhorns will return Daniel Young in the fall. He opted out of the 2020 season but has 748 career scrimmage yards.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
Considering the college-to-pro pipeline Georgia has established in the last 10 years, it's no surprise that top-ranked running backs have flocked to Athens.
The level of talent in this position room is absurd, really.
Over the last two seasons, Zamir White has rushed for 1,187 yards and 14 touchdowns. James Cook has posted 300-plus yards from scrimmage in each of the last three seasons, including a career-best 528 last year. Kenny McIntosh added 362 scrimmage yards, and Daijun Edwards ripped off a 100-yard game late in 2020, too. For good measure, Kendall Milton tallied 193 yards on just 35 carries.
All five players are expected to return in 2021, giving Georgia a near-unending supply of upside in the backfield.
6. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M fell just shy of the College Football Playoff in 2020, so expectations are high despite losing quarterback Kellen Mond and a bulk of the offensive line.
As a result, the Aggies are hoping to build from the backfield.
Isaiah Spiller posted a team-high 946 yards in 2019 and 1,036 last season, catching a combined 49 passes in those two years. Devon Achane joined the rotation midway through 2020 and shredded North Carolina for 140 yards and two scores in the Orange Bowl. Overall, he posted 461 scrimmage yards as a freshman.
Along with returning lineman Kenyon Green, they'll be the foundation of Texas A&M's offense in 2021.
Ainias Smith deserves a mention, considering he rushed for 293 yards and four touchdowns last season. As of now, though, it appears he'll be a full-time receiver in 2021.
5. BYU Cougars
How well the Cougars respond to losing quarterback Zach Wilson will define their season, but at least the offense has weapons.
Star running back Tyler Allgeier returns after racking up 1,130 yards and 13 touchdowns at a scorching 7.5 yards per carry. Allgeier topped the 100-yard mark six times in 2020, including a career-best 173 tally in BYU's bowl victory over UCF.
Behind him is the versatile Lopini Katoa, who scampered for 444 yards while catching 23 passes for 293 yards. Katoa has 1,920 scrimmage yards and 22 total touchdowns in his three seasons.
Returns from injury will further boost the position. Sione Finau paced BYU in 2019 prior to an ACL injury and played in just six games last season. Jackson McChesney rushed for 56 yards in his only 2020 appearance; a foot injury ended his year.
4. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last season, few offenses had a more productive duo than Notre Dame with Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree. Given that Williams took 26 career rushing yards into 2020 and Tyree was a true freshman, it wasn't entirely expected, either.
Williams turned heads immediately with 205 scrimmage yards in the opener, and he remained a huge factor for the Irish. While helping them reach the College Football Playoff, he amassed 1,125 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground and caught 35 passes for 313 yards and another score.
Tyree notched a pair of 100-yard performances against Florida State and Syracuse, ending his debut season with 496 yards and four scores as a runner. (He also served as the primary kick returner.)
Notre Dame also had C'Bo Flemister, who picked up 299 yards and five touchdowns as the third-stringer in 2020.
3. Oregon Ducks
Since 2018, Oregon has leaned on CJ Verdell and Travis Dye.
Verdell has surpassed the 1,000-yard barrier in both full seasons, maxing out at 1,220 yards in 2019. He's accounted for 3,059 yards and 23 touchdowns in 32 career appearances.
Dye, meanwhile, has thrived as the explosive counterpart. After consecutive years of 800-plus scrimmage yards, he amassed 682 on just 73 touches―and Oregon played only seven games―in 2020. Dye had four touchdown receptions last season.
"I believe that we are the best one-two punch in the Pac-12, if not the nation," Dye said, per Erik Skopil of 247Sports. "Of course we're going to say that, but we're going to show that this year for sure."
2. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Focused on production alone, there isn't a more impressive backfield than Appalachian State's stable of runners.
Camerun Peoples paced the Mountaineers with 1,124 yards and 12 scores last year. Daetrich Harrington provided 595 yards and seven touchdowns with Nate Noel (510 yards, three TDs) and Marcus Williams Jr. (503, three) close behind.
Peoples, Harrington and Noel all return in 2021. Notre Dame transfer Jahmir Smith, who rushed for 180 yards as a backup in 2019, provides a little more depth as well.
As long as App State―which brought in former Clemson/Duke quarterback Chase Brice―settles three open spots on the offensive line, the backfield will be capable of another prolific year.
1. Oklahoma Sooners
Interestingly enough, Oklahoma's expected top-two players at the position gave the Sooners exactly zero yards last season. But there's a whole lot more to this story.
Kennedy Brooks put together 1,000-yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore, but he opted out of the 2020 season. He'll return alongside transfer Eric Gray, who totaled 1,680 yards from scrimmage and 11 scores in two seasons at Tennessee.
Even after losing T.J. Pledger to Utah and dismissing Seth McGowan, the Sooners still have talent. Marcus Major rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown against Florida in the Cotton Bowl last year.
The trio of Brooks, Gray and Major solidify yet another elite backfield for OU in its pursuit of a seventh straight Big 12 crown and first national title since 2000.