Quarterbacks and wide receivers have all the fun, but especially in college football, a great running back can be the difference between a good season and a College Football Playoff run.
The NFL has firmly transitioned away from being a top running back league and instead, it’s all about the quarterbacks. With that said, a great running back in college football can still absolutely dominate and take over a game and do so over a long stretch of time.
Need examples? What would LSU have been without Leonard Fournette? Would Stanford have been half as good without Christian McCaffrey?
With that in mind, we’ve power ranked the Top Five running backs in college football heading into the 2017 season. Agree or disagree? Let us know.
5. Ronald Jones II, USC
Jones is going to have to compete for the spotlight at USC with quarterback Sam Darnold, but there’s nothing that should stop the 6-foot-1, 195 pound back from being one of the best in the nation in 2017 by the time all is said and done.
In 2015, Jones rushed for 987 yards and eight touchdowns. He followed that up with a 2016 season that saw him rush 177 times for 1,082 yards and 11 touchdowns. He can also help USC through the air, so look for him to be involved in the Trojans’ passing game as well. In 2016, he caught 11 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown.
4. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Northwestern’s Justin Jackson has quietly been one of the top running backs in college football over the past three seasons. He’s put up three consecutive 1,000-plus yard seasons for the Wildcats and should be on pace to go for the four-peat in 2017.
At 5-foot-11, 193 pounds, Jackson is tough to tackle but also extremely explosive. He can bust through the line on a power run or beat a defender to the edge with his speed. This one graph shows how tough he is to bring down.
He notched 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns last season against a bruising Big Ten schedule.
3. Derrius Guice, LSU
Guice was one of the more exciting and steady runners in college football last season, and he did that all as a backup to Fournette. To be fair, the recent No. 4 overall pick was hurt quite a bit in 2016, but the fact that Guice was able to make a name for himself in Fournette’s shadow says quite a bit about his talent.
He’s a stout 5-foot-11, 222 pounds and he runs like a bowling ball. He’s tough to take down because of his thick frame, but he doesn’t lack any explosion.
Last season for LSU, Guice racked up 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’ll be the featured back at LSU now, so look for more of the same if not better.
2. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Bo Scarbrough played a backup role last season for the Crimson Tide, but in 2017, look for him to be Alabama’s No. 1 option in the backfield. Having a dual-threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts may steal a few of his touches, and Alabama is always deep in the backfield, but Scarbrough is a special talent.
He has the size and build of a middle linebacker but the speed and agility of an elite wide receiver. Checking in at 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, Scarbrough looks like an NFL running back and he runs like one as well.
In only 125 touches last season, Scarbrough notched 812 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. Look for him to improve on those numbers and more in 2017.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley is one of the best overall players in college football and he should easily be a top Heisman Trophy contender heading into 2017.
Barkley is a true workhorse for Penn State, but he can do a little bit of everything. If you’re looking for a player to power through the line of scrimmage, he’s your guy. With that said, he has the speed and agility to break out huge runs, and he can even play a major role in the passing game.
In Penn State’s Big Ten Championship 2016, Barkley rushed 272 times for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also caught 28 receptions for 402 yards and four touchdowns.
Look for him to notch his third consecutive 1,000 yard rushing season for a CFP hungry Nittany Lions bunch.
Players To Watch:
Nick Chubb, Georgia
When healthy, Chubb could easily pass by all the other running backs on this list. He’s an amazing runner when he’s at 100-percent, but the problem over the course of his Georgia career has been health. Most notably, Chubb missed most of 2015 with a knee injury, but he was banged up a bit in 2016 as well.
Still, even while playing through injury, Chubb managed to play in 13 games in 2016, notching 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns. That was a bit off from the 14 touchdowns and 1,547 yards he put up in a dominant freshman campaign, but it goes to show you his potential.
If he can stay healthy in 2017, he should be among the best of the best.
Myles Gaskin, Washington
Gaskin has put up two very good seasons in a row for Washington and a third should vault him into first or second round draft pick talk if he decides to leave after his junior year. Gaskin, who’s only 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, rushed 237 times last season for the Huskies, putting up a very impressive 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He also played a role in Washington’s high-powered passing attack, catching 19 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Gaskin runs with low leverage and he consistently keeps his feet moving, which makes him hard to tackle. He has explosion off the edge, though, so he has the talent to be one of the best backs in college football in 2017.
Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
You’ll be hard-pressed to find NFL defenders who would have an easy time taking down Pettway, who checks in at an imposing 6-foot, 240 pounds. He’s built like a traditional fullback but runs with the agility of a true tailback.
That doesn’t mean he can’t lower his shoulder pads and barrel into the line of scrimmage, though, because even in Auburn’s option offense, he’s been known to bring the thunder.
Pettway rushed for 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns last season. If he stays healthy, he should replicate those numbers or even improve on them.
Honorable Mentions: Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt; Rodney Smith, Minnesota; Mike Weber, Ohio State; Royce Freeman, Oregon.