Projecting Every Conference's Best RB Groups for the 2021 CFB Season
Every college football team hopes to put an elite running back on the field. However, having a deep group at the position is a coveted outcome.
In 2021, national title contenders Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma headline the teams with a backfield that can assert itself as the class of their respective conferences. This recognition is a product of past performance, depth of returning production—including linemen—and a subjective projection.
Earlier in the offseason, we ranked the best backfields entering the 2021 campaign. The following order is a projection of how we anticipate the upcoming season will play out.
B/R's Best-of-the-Conference Series
AAC: SMU Mustangs
Something that cannot be repeated enough in offseason analysis is that experience isn't a perfect measure of future success. Nevertheless, it's a decent starting point.
And the SMU rushing attack is loaded in that department.
Ulysses Bentley IV rushed for 913 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman, posting an AAC-best 28 carries of 10-plus yards. Tyler Lavine (310 yards) and TJ McDaniel (297) both had quality years as backups in 2020. And this season, the Mustangs add North Texas transfer Tre Siggers, who tallied 1,311 yards over the last two years.
Behind an offensive line returning all five starters and two key reserves, SMU's backfield is primed for an excellent year.
ACC: Clemson Tigers
The boring answer is nonetheless a reasonable one.
Miami has an immensely talented group, but the offensive line is concerning. North Carolina and North Carolina State both return much of their blocking unit. But UNC has a new backfield, and NC State had poor efficiency last season (108th out of 127 FBS teams in yards per attempt).
Clemson, meanwhile, brings back three linemen, with 2020 4-star recruit Walker Parks in line to start too. Even a steady group should be enough for the Tigers to stand atop the ACC at the position.
Three-year backup Lyn-J Dixon will finally get his chance to lead the backfield after Travis Etienne's departure to the NFL. Dixon has rushed for 6.6 yards per carry over 208 career attempts.
Clemson's depth includes Kobe Pace, Darien Rencher, Phil Mafah and 2021 5-star Will Shipley.
Big 12: Oklahoma Sooners
T.J. Pledger transferred to Utah, and Oklahoma dismissed Seth McGowan, yet the Sooners remain stacked at running back.
Primarily, that's a product of Kennedy Brooks' return. He opted out of the 2020 season but boasts two 1,000-yard campaigns. The Sooners also added Tennessee transfer Eric Gray, who rushed for 772 yards and caught 30 passes for 254 yards last season.
For good measure, Oklahoma picked up Tre Bradford from LSU, and his arrival bolsters OU's depth alongside Marcus Major. He scampered for 110 yards in the Peach Bowl dismantling of Florida.
Oklahoma paced the Big 12 in yards per carry from 2016 to '19 and is looking to reclaim the spot after a No. 5 finish last year.
Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
Iowa's Tyler Goodson and Minnesota's Mohamed Ibrahim have a claim as the Big Ten's best individual running back. As a collective unit, though, Ohio State's backfield may be difficult to match.
Over the last two seasons, Master Teague III has rushed for 1,303 yards and 12 touchdowns. While he's the Buckeyes' most experienced back, it's likely that someone else will emerge as the lead runner because Teague is more of a straight-line bruiser.
Considering his production, that's a heck of a luxury.
Ohio State's top breakout options are Miyan Williams, Marcus Crowley and 2021 5-star TreVeyon Henderson. The Buckeyes have too much talent to not identify a star runner for Teague to complement.
C-USA: UTSA Roadrunners
Due to schedule differences in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, stat comparisons need context. Sincere McCormick rushed for 1,467 yards last season, but UTSA (12) and Western Kentucky (12) were the only Conference USA teams that played more than 10 games.
At 133.4 yards per appearance, though, McCormick alone sets a high production bar for the rest of the league to chase.
In fairness, UTSA doesn't have a ton of proven depth. Brenden Brady has rushed for 221-284 yards in each of the last three seasons, and B.J. Daniels has totaled 566 since 2017. But no other C-USA challenger, such as Florida International or Southern Mississippi, has an overwhelming edge among the reserves.
Throw in five returning starters up front, and the Roadrunners are built to have a strong running game.
MAC: Western Michigan Broncos
Even after losing Jaret Patterson to the NFL as an undrafted free agent, Buffalo would've had an excellent case. But when head coach Lance Leipold left for Kansas and center Mike Novitsky followed, the Bulls' appeal diminished.
And it's a chance for Western Michigan to steal the spotlight.
While the Broncos must replace fifth-round NFL draft pick Jaylon Moore, the other four starters on the O-line are back. They'll be clearing a path for La'Darius Jefferson—a Michigan State transfer who rushed for 624 yards in six games for Western Michigan last year—and Sean Tyler. Since 2019, Tyler has collected 653 yards on just 108 carries.
Jaxson Kincaide picked up 218 yards in 2020 after transferring from Nevada and gives the Broncos three quality options.
Mountain West: Wyoming Cowboys
During each of the last three seasons, Wyoming has boasted the most prolific runner in the Mountain West. And in both 2019 and 2020, that honor went to Xazavian Valladay.
Two years ago, he scampered for 105.4 yards per game and totaled an MWC-high 1,265 yards. Valladay posted 110.0 yards per contest last season. He's capable of handling a heavy workload, but Wyoming's depth makes it unnecessary.
Yes, the return of dual-threat quarterback Sean Chambers should improve the rushing attack, but that's not even considered. Trey Smith has notched 715 yards over the last two seasons. Plus, Titus Swen rushed for 337 yards in six games in 2019 before missing the final seven games of his freshman year and opting out in 2020.
Returning four starting linemen, including first-team All-MWC center Keegan Cryder, is simply a bonus for this run-first offense.
Pac-12: Oregon Ducks
Arizona State has a compelling case with Rachaad White, Chip Trayanum and 2020 key recruit Daniyel Ngata. They deservedly drew a bunch of praise in a shortened 2020 season.
Oregon's duo, though, has sustained high-level production for several years.
CJ Verdell, who topped the 1,000-yard mark as a freshman and sophomore, enters 2021 with 2,523 career rushing yards. Travis Dye paced the offense with 443 yards in 2020 and has notched 5.9 yards per attempt over 310 total carries at Oregon.
All six of the Ducks' key linemen return in 2021, which should set up both Verdell and Dye for another efficient year.
SEC: Georgia Bulldogs
Entering the season, Texas A&M has a backfield with more returning production. Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane are undoubtedly two of the best runners in the SEC.
By December, however, Georgia should stand atop the conference.
Similar to Ohio State, the Dawgs have an overflow of talent that feels destined to break out. Zamir White posted 779 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, while James Cook has gathered 1,221 scrimmage yards as a backup since 2018. They're expected to lead the rotation in front of several highly recruited youngsters.
Georgia also has the advantage of returning four of the six linemen who held significant roles in 2020.
Sun Belt: Appalachian State Mountaineers
The bad news for Appalachian State is the offensive line needs to replace three starters. The good news is that, thanks to these running backs, the retooled unit should look pretty darn good.
Camerun Peoples paced the Mountaineers with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last year. Three reserves crossed the 500-yard mark in 2020, and both Daetrick Harrington and Nate Noel are back. Together, they provided 1,105 yards and 10 scores.
Notre Dame transfer Jahmir Smith rushed for 180 yards for the Irish in 2019 and rounds out the rotation.
Driven primarily by this rushing attack, Appalachian State is aiming for its fifth Sun Belt title in the last six years.