Ranking college football's Top 25 running backs in 2021
The Sermon is over. Mr. Harris has left the building. And Jaret jetted for D.C.
For all the craziness of 2020, elite-level running back play in major college football brought us a sense of normalcy. Trey Sermon carried Ohio State down the stretch until the Buckeyes ran into Najee Harris and Alabama. Jaret Patterson wowed the entire country with a ridiculous 178 yards per game for Buffalo before continuing his career with the Washington Football Team.
Who are the next great running backs in this great game of ours? Some, you’ve heard of. Others, perhaps not. Not yet.
We rank the Top 25 of ’em heading into 2021.
25. De’Montre Tuggle, Ohio
Times are changing in (the other) Athens with longtime coach Frank Solich retiring, but Tuggle should provide some continuity between the white lines. Tuggle and the Bobcats only got 3 games last year, but the former JUCO star is eyeing a breakout redshirt 5th-year season.
24. D’Vonte Price, Florida International
Watch out for the dreadlocks. And FBS’ No. 10 rusher in terms of yards per game (116.2) in 2020. The Panthers only played 5 contests last season; can Price extrapolate his performance across a full campaign?
23. Ty Chandler, UNC
The Tennessee transfer has a golden opportunity after the Tar Heels lost a pair of star-studded running backs.
22. Rachaad White, Arizona State
The Sun Devils sure could use some positive headlines these days. White is primed to provide plenty. In 4 games during a COVID-shortened season, he averaged a nation-leading 10 yards per carry.
21. Xazavian Valladay, Wyoming
A Mountain West Player of the Year candidate and already a lock to make the all-name team. Valladay averaged 110 yards per game in an abbreviated 2020 season. He enters his redshirt junior season with 2 years of starting experience and 3 years in the rotation, so the experience is there to match the speed and elusiveness.
20. Kevin Marks Jr., Buffalo
Yes, there are other backs in Buffalo. In fact, the Bulls had 2 of FBS’ top 20 rushers last season. Patterson’s gone, and there’s a new coaching staff in town, but Marks is no slouch. He averaged 105.6 yard per game last season.
19. Tyler Goodson, Iowa
Goodson’s numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping. But that’s because he’s been sharing time with the likes of Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young the past couple of years. But this is Goodson’s show now, and with one of the country’s best offensive lines in front of him, he’s poised for a gigantic junior season.
18. Sincere McCormick, UTSA
A dream prospect for both a kitschy headline writer and a running backs coach. McCormick earned second-team All-America honors after finishing No. 2 nationally in rushing yards (1,467) last year as a true sophomore. He should turn even more heads during a full fall season.
16. Kevin Harris, South Carolina
Harris was a breakout star last season. It’s always an adventure in Columbia, S.C., these days, but Harris is Mr. Reliable after leading the SEC in rushing yards per game last season (113.8).
16. Master Teague, Ohio State
A prime candidate to move up this list considerably if we did it again after the season. Between injury and sharing the backfield with guys like Sermon, Teague has sometimes been a man of the shadows. No longer.
15. Bijan Robinson, Texas
We’ll save the realignment-related jokes for another time. This is a pick based on potential. The 2020 5-star recruit was a man-child down the stretch last season, breaking tackles, catching passes and grading high per Pro Football Focus’ advanced analysis. A full offseason of work with the Longhorns’ vast array of resources renders Robinson a real threat this fall. He’s exactly what new coach Steve Sarkisian needs.
14. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
Spiller already projects as a 1st-round pick in 2022 heading into his junior season. A foot injury limited him last season, but the son of former Aggies tight end Fred Spiller has all the makings of a successful NFL running back. He topped 1,000 yards last season in just 10 games.
13. Zamir White, Georgia
Is White too low? Maybe. He’s been injured but the talent is undeniable.
12. Jarek Broussard, Colorado
Broussard was right there with Jefferson last season; the pair ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in FBS in rushing yards per game. If you’re a fan of the underdog, keep an eye on Broussard — he was 3-star recruit out of Dallas and has rebounded nicely from a knee injury that caused him to miss all of the 2019 season.
11. Frank Gore Jr., Southern Mississippi
Yes. There’s an active NFL running back whose son is a top-15 collegiate athlete playing the same position. Pro Football Focus ranks Frank Jr. as the No. 10 returning back in FBS.
10. Max Borghi, Washington State
This is an interesting one, as Borghi was limited to 1 game in 2020 due to injury. Before that, he was catching passes out of the backfield in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. New coach Nick Rolovich likes to throw to backs, too, which means Borghi could be one of the most effective dual-threat RBs in the country this fall.
9. Tyler Allgeier, BYU
Perhaps the biggest sleeper on this list, Allgeier walked on at BYU in 2018 and was a linebacker till last season. But playing behind one of the country’s best offensive lines, he earned Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 rushing grade last year.
8. Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky
The Wildcats love the inside zone, and the inside zone appears to love Rodriguez. His career has been more about quality than quantity to this point, but expect plenty of both during Rodriguez’s redshirt junior season.
7. Jerrion Ealy, Ole Miss
The Rebels’ offense should be one of the most entertaining once again, and Ealy is a big reason. His overall stats should better match his speed and shiftiness as Ole Miss’ top back for an entire 12-game slate.
6. Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama
The heir apparent to Najee Harris has waited his turn. Kind of. It’s easy to overlook that in 4 seasons, the COVID senior from Tuscaloosa has averaged almost 5 yards per carry and been brilliant when called upon. He’ll be called upon a lot more as the feature back for Bama this year.
5. Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma
The “rich get richer” cliche has become so overused because it’s true. Good luck finding a better backfield in FBS this fall. Brooks opted out of last season but was Pro Football Focus’ No. 3-graded ball-carrier from 2018-19. And he’ll be playing with Heisman candidate Spencer Rattler and Tennessee transfer Eric Gray (772 yards for the Vols in 2020). Yikes.
4. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
K-State sure loves it some perceivably undersized backs. At 5-5 but sometimes impossible to bring down, Vaughn conjures images of Darren Sproles and John Hubert in Manhattan, Kansas. He and Borghi will duke it out for the title of college football’s best dual-threat running back in 2021.
3. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
One of the sport’s top freshmen a year ago, Bigsby ranks No. 1 in Pro Football Focus’ rankings. The Tigers entered the SEC coaching carousel and are in a time of transition. But Bigsby is as solid an option as they come.
2. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
You can say he’s way too high. Go ahead. Say it. Then look at his numbers. He had 153 yards per game last year, 2nd in the land behind Patterson. He eclipsed 1,000 yards in just 7 games. Minnesota was one of the sports’ hardest-hit teams by COVID, but Ibrahim did it all while playing behind a makeshift offensive line. The B1G Running Back of the Year might not score the highest on advanced analytics charts, but he’s the real deal.
1. Breece Hall, Iowa State
These are fun times in Ames at the moment, and the country’s leading rusher in 2020 is a big reason. Hall finished with 1,572 yards and his 21 TDs were topped only by Najee Harris’ 26. Hall proved his durability as well as his skill, carrying the ball 28 more times than any other back last season.