Ranking the Top 25 running backs in college football this fall
Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Top 25 week continues with the ranking of the best running backs in the country.
What would be more refreshing after the year we’ve had than watching the running back for your favorite team truck a defender on his way to the end zone? Sadly, fans from the Big Ten and Pac-12 won’t have that chance this fall.
But here are 25 backs to keep an eye on. We ranked them using a formula that incorporated yards per rush, touchdowns, receiving and strength of competition, then pitted that against what we know about these guys esoterically — both what they’re capable of and what NFL scouts are saying.
Players whose conferences postponed fall sports weren’t eligible. Neither are guys who opted out — Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks and Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, for example, likely would have been in or near the top 10.
25. C.J. Marable, Coastal Carolina
Never heard of Marable? Not even sure how to pronounce his last name? That could change in the coming months. Multiple outlets have Marable as one of the Sun Belt’s top running backs this season, and with him coming off a 1,000-yard, 11-touchdown junior year, that’s not much of a stretch.
24. Bijan Robinson, Texas
With the addition of Robinson, a 5-star and top running back in the class of 2020 according to 247Sports, the Longhorns will have one of the most electrifying backfields in the Power “3” this fall.
23. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech
The transfer from Kansas has a lot to prove after abruptly and somewhat mysteriously leaving the Jayhawks 4 games into last season and redshirting. But his 8.9 yards per carry in those 4 games give the Hokies a tantalizing option in the backfield.
22. Sincere McCormick, University of Texas at San Antonio
No, we didn’t pick Sincere just because of his name. The 5-9, 200-pound do-it-all back was name Conference-USA’s Freshman of the Year in 2019 and is capable of breaking off a big run every time he touches the ball.
21. DK Billingsley, Troy
Billingsley doesn’t jump off the stat sheet, partially because he took over as the Trojans’ starter midway through last season. But catch a Troy game this fall and he’ll stand out all the same.
20. Asim Rose, Kentucky
Isn’t it just fun when Kentucky is a threat? (Fans of SEC East teams are probably saying “no” and “you spelled ‘pest’ wrong.”). We know Kentucky wants to run the football. Converted QB Lynn Bowden led the SEC with 1,468 rushing yards last season. Rose will lead the way this season after averaging 5.5 yards on 149 carries as a redshirt junior.
19. Chris Curry, LSU
Curry showed what he’s capable of in the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinals (89 yards, 16 carries). He’s now the heir apparent to Clyde Edwards-Helaire and hopes to continue the trend of big-time backs coming out of Baton Rouge.
18. Eric Gray, Tennessee
Expectations for Gray are sky high after he tallied 366 total yards and 4 touchdowns in his final two games as a freshman. Even splitting reps with Ty Chandler in the backfield, Gray will likely shoulder a much bigger load on Rocky Top for the next 2 seasons if he can stay healthy.
17. Zamir White, Georgia
Noticing a theme here? The SEC is rife with backs taking over for departed stars, and White might be the best of the bunch. The redshirt sophomore was reliable last year in limited action behind D’Andre Swift. Word out of Athens is White should be more than just dependable — try explosive — this fall.
16. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
After averaging almost 7 yards per carry last year, Ealy was named a Freshman All-American by 247Sports and Pro Football Focus. How much will he improve as a sophomore in Lane Kiffin’s system?
15. Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana-Lafayette
The Ragin’ Cajuns set school records for rushing yards and touchdowns last season, and Mitchell led the way with 1,147 and 16. Now he has his eyes on an NFL career depending how his senior campaign shakes out.
14. Jordan Mason, Georgia Tech
The former 3-star prospect from Tennessee is bursting with potential heading into his redshirt junior season. This season should be his second year as a full-time starter, which means loads of experience and a bigger frame to go with make-’em-miss ability in the open field.
13. Javian Hawkins, Louisville
Lamar Jackson changed the perception of how dynamic a Cardinals offense can be. Hawkins, a redshirt sophomore, continues to reap the fruits of it — try 117 yards per game last season, good for 7th nationally, en route to 1,525 yards and 9 TDs.
12. Breece Hall, Iowa State
Hall led the Cyclones with 897 yards on the ground as a true freshman. His role is expected to increase even more this season, and lining up behind a potential All-American quarterback in Brock Purdy doesn’t hurt, either.
11. Michael Carter, North Carolina
Carter started 12 of 13 games last season and partnered with fellow back Javonte Williams to form a potent ground attack. Carter finished with 1,003 yards, 5th in the ACC. Both guys are back this season.
10. Larry Rountree III, Missouri
It’s the Raleigh, North Carolina, product’s last go-round in Columbia. While he was slightly better in 2018 — the SEC’s No. 4 rusher — than last year, Rountree should be remembered as a 4-year standout for a long time to come in the Show-Me State.
9. Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas
Williams has been one of the main highlights of the Les Miles era in Lawrence. The junior from New Orleans is an electric playmaker who topped 1,000 yards in each of his first 2 college seasons.
8. Keaontay Ingram, Texas
Love, hate or couldn’t care less about the Burnt Orange, Texas’ offense should be an entertaining spectacle this season. Ingram saw limited action last year but averaged close to 6 yards per carry and, on paper, is one of the most talented backs in the land.
7. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
Since when is UNC known as RBU? Williams and Carter form one of the best 1-2 punches in NCAA Division I, but Williams is the better all-around back. Both would have bigger numbers if it weren’t for the other carrying half the water.
6. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
Hard to catch and even harder to bring down, Spiller’s relatively modest 2019 numbers don’t fully encapsulate how dangerous he is. Jimbo Fisher and the rest of the Aggies staff expect big things from Spiller as a sophomore, and there’s no reason outside observers shouldn’t do the same.
5. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
No one’s picking the Razorbacks to win many games in an all-SEC schedule, but Boyd is as close to appointment viewing as you’ll find in Fayetteville these days. The “Last Chance U” star topped 1,110 yards last year as a junior.
4. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
It’ll be interesting to see how Hill fares in new coach Mike Leach’s pass-happy offense. But he should be elite even in limited action, seeing as he averaged more than 100 yards per game in 2019, his junior campaign.
3. Najee Harris, Alabama
He probably could have gone pro following his junior season, but Harris returned to Tuscaloosa to try and up his stock while competing for a national championship. After tabulating over 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall, he has a chance to do both should 1) he decide not to opt out and 2) the SEC and what’s left of college football are able to get through a season.
2. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
On talent alone, the gap between Hubbard and No. 1 is miniscule. Hubbard, of course, led the nation with 161.08 yards per game last season. But that was against Big 12 defenses, so by the slimmest of margins …
1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
… Etienne gets our No. 1 nod. The best back in the country on the best team in the country — scary. Etienne’s 7.8 yards per carry last year boggle the mind, and he’s also a lethal pass catcher (432 yards receiving in 2019). With Trevor Lawrence and Etienne in the backfield, the Tigers might be even tougher to stop than they were last year.