March is here, which means around the country college football teams have either already begun spring practice or will do so soon. Each team enters spring practice with the optimism that they can improve on their 2014 campaign and the hope that they will contend for a bowl, their conference title, or even the College Football Playoff.
With spring practice starting, we’re going to take a look at the top five groups at each position. We’ve already looked at the top quarterback groups in the country, and now we move on to the the five teams with the best running back groups in the nation, led by a pair of Hogs in Fayetteville. (Note: this isn’t the best rushing attacks, just running backs, so teams that rely on a quarterback to rush for the majority of their rushing yards did not make the list)
Arkansas Razorbacks – Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins
Arkansas is the only team that returns a pair of 1,000 yard backs from last season, and they figure to have one of the nation’s most formidable rushing attacks again in 2015. Williams led the team with 1,190 yards and 12 TDs, while Collins was just behind with 1,100 yards and 12 TDs on the ground. Both are physical, downhill backs that fit perfectly into of Bret Bielema’s power running attack. It doesn’t hurt that the offensive line in front of Williams and Collins is the largest in all of football — including the NFL — and with these two talented backs behind those road graders, the Razorbacks are a trendy darkhorse pick in the SEC West.
Georgia Bulldogs – Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Keith Marshall
Georgia has been loaded at running back for what feels like decades and this season is no different. After losing one-time Heisman front-runner Todd Gurley to suspension and then an ACL injury, the Dawgs just turned the rushing attack over to freshman Nick Chubb who proceeded to run for 1,547 yards and 14 TDs on 7.06 yards per carry (which is just absurd). Chubb is a physical freak — like Gurley — who runs with bad intentions. Georgia has QB questions for 2015, but with Chubb and backups Sony Michel and Keith Marshall (yes, he’s still in Athens) the main job for whoever takes that QB job will be to turn around and hand it off without fumbling.
Ohio State Buckeyes – Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel
The reigning national champs’ quarterback trio will get the headlines this offseason, but let’s not forget about their tremendous running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 TDs on 6.88 yards per carry (also crazy), and, unlike the other four backs on this list, he has the protection of a quality passing attack to keep defenses honest. Behind Elliott on the depth chart is sophomore Curtis Samuel, who ran for 383 yards and six TDs last year. Ohio State’s balance on offense is scary and Elliott could have another huge season because defenses have to respect the passing game and can’t load up the box.
Pittsburgh Panthers – James Conner, Chris James
James Conner was overshadowed last year by the likes of Gurley and Melvin Gordon, but he quietly put up monster numbers for Pitt and is back for his junior year. Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 TDs in 2014 on 5.92 yards per carry. He was the workhorse for the Panthers’ offense that was almost extremely reliant on the rushing game to move the ball. Conner regularly faces eight in the box and still gets almost six a carry, and Pitt will look to him to carry the load again in 2015.
LSU Tigers – Leonard Fournette, Darrel Williams, Derrius Guice
I know, another SEC group, but they’re just crazy deep at running back (as opposed to QB, where it’s slim pickins). LSU has a dismal quarterback situation, but they may have the most talented running back in the country in rising sophomore Leonard Fournette. Fournette took a few weeks to really get going — part of that was because LSU’s offensive line struggled early on — but once he and the O-Line got acclimated, he tore up the SEC rushing for 1,034 yards and 10 TDs on 5.34 yards per carry. Fournette is a physical specimen and an absolute monster with the ball in his hands, so you can expect the LSU offense to run through him. With Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee graduating, the backup duties will fall on fellow sophomore Darrel Williams who rushed for 302 yards and three TDs in 2014. And don’t forget freshman Derrius Guice, who will look to make an impact in his first year with the Tigers.
Oklahoma Sooners – Another of the super freshmen running backs from last season is Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. He finished the season with 1,713 rushing yards and 21 TDs on 6.51 yards per carry and broke the single-game rushing record with 427 yards against Kansas — breaking a week-old record. Perine is a terrific talent, but was inconsistent, struggling against the top teams (averaged just 3.64 ypc against ranked opponents in 2014). If he and the Oklahoma rushing attack can be more productive against top competition in 2015, that would go a long way towards competing for the Big 12.
Oregon Ducks – Royce Freeman was terrific as a freshman in 2014 rushing for 1,365 yards and 15 TDs, and Thomas Tyner was solid when healthy and had a breakout performance in the Rose Bowl. With Marcus Mariota gone, we might see a bigger emphasis on the run game for Oregon, so expect Freeman, Tyner, and company to get plenty of touches for the Ducks.
Utah Utes – Utah’s offense plays at a slow, grinding pace and doesn’t put up flashy numbers, but the reason they can be successful in that style is the play of RB Devontae Booker. Booker returns for his senior season after rushing for 1,512 yards and 10 TDs in 2014.
Georgia Southern Eagles – The nation’s top rushing offense from 2014 returns its four top leading rushers (two of which are QBs) and I would be remissed if I did not include them somewhere in this post. The Eagles’ top RBs Matt Breida and Alfred Ramsby are back after combining for 2,176 yards and 29 TDs on the ground last year in their option attack.
Wisconsin Badgers – Look, I know Melvin Gordon is gone after one of the greatest seasons ever by a running back, but if you don’t think the Badgers will find themselves near the top of the nation in rushing again this year you’re crazy. They do this year in and year out, churning out terrific running backs behind a terrific offensive line. Corey Clement quietly rushed for 949 yards and nine TDs as the backup last year, and with the majority of the carries in the 2015 season should easily top 1,500 yards.