By Justin Ferguson ,
If star running backs made their big return to the forefront of college football in 2014, consider the 2015 season a victory lap for the nation’s best rushers.
In 2015, Alabama’s Derrick Henry became only the second running back in the past decade to win the Heisman Trophy, and he would go on to lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship. The Heisman runner-up was a running back—Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey—and so were three others in the Top 10 of voting.
The balance of power in college football’s collective backfield is shifting toward the running backs, and the 2016 season could be another one dominated by rushing talent. Henry and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott are off to the NFL, but college football still has a massive number of elite running backs coming back this fall.
Case in point: Narrowing down the returning talent at running back to a list of just 10 names was somewhat of a challenge. The following Top 10 was ultimately selected based on their production from 2015 and their potential for 2016.
Does your Top 10 look different? Have some other names you think will push their way into the awards picture in 2016? Tell us in the comments below.
10. Jalen Hurd (Tennessee)
2015: 277 carries for 1,288 yards (4.65 YPC) and 12 TDs
The “Chain-Moving Gang” of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara will return completely intact at Tennessee for 2016 as the Volunteers eye a long-awaited return to the SEC Championship Game. With Kamara providing a nice change of pace as the secondary runner, Hurd is a consistent, physical force out of the backfield.
The 6’4″, 240-pound Hurd had at least 60 yards in every game he played in last season, and he had 120 yards or more in his final three games of the campaign. As Matt Slovin of the Tennessean notes, Hurd needs just 892 yards—a mark he surpassed as a freshman—to become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher.
Though he splits carries for the Volunteers, Hurd is a dark-horse Heisman candidate for 2016 thanks to his physically imposing frame and explosive speed. With Tennessee returning almost every starter on offense this fall, Hurd has a great chance to put up monster numbers on a title-contending team.
9. Shock Linwood (Baylor)
Although he wasn’t able to play in Baylor’s record-breaking bowl rushing performance against North Carolina, Shock Linwood still got plenty of yards and scoring opportunities in the Bears’ video-game offense last season.
Linwood had more yards in 2015 than he did in 2014 on 55 fewer carries as Baylor had four different 500-yard rushers. His 6.78 yards per carry average was fourth-best in the FBS last season among running backs that carried the ball at least 15 times per game. Although he cooled off late in the season, half of Linwood’s 12 games in 2015 featured more than 100 rushing yards.
The Baylor star decided to return for his senior season, and he’s in reach of the school’s all-time rushing record. While he’ll have to play behind a new-look offensive line, he’ll be expected to make big play after big play in Art Briles’ plug-and-play scheme.
8. Wayne Gallman (Clemson)
2015: 283 carries for 1,527 yards (5.40 YPC) and 13 TDs
Perhaps the most underrated running back in college football last season, Wayne Gallman decided to return to Clemson in 2016 to be a crucial part of what could be the nation’s most-loaded offense. In 2015, he rushed for more than 1,500 yards despite being overshadowed in his own backfield by Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson.
“Maybe he hasn’t gotten the national attention that he deserves,” Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said, per Zac Ellis of Sports Illustrated. “But I think that’s good for him. He keeps that chip on his shoulder. He just keeps going out there and proving people wrong each and every week.”
Gallman is a strong and speedy threat for defenses that want to focus too much of their efforts on slowing down Watson at quarterback. This back grinds his way to plenty of the tough yards for the title-contending Tigers, and he also has the ability to tear off a huge run. He shouldn’t be much of a secret anymore in 2016.
7. Elijah Hood (North Carolina)
2015: 219 carries for 1,463 yards (6.68 YPC) and 17 TDs
Another often-overlooked back out of the ACC, Elijah Hood was a tremendous big-play threat for a North Carolina offense that led the country in yards per play last season. As Jared Shanker of ESPN.com noted, Hood was only one of two players who averaged more than 100 yards per game last season while getting less than 16 carries per contest.
Hood rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of the 14 games of his breakout sophomore campaign. He only had four games without a touchdown and averaged more than 10 yards per carry against South Carolina, Wake Forest and NC State. UNC relied on him to cap scoring drives, too, with 17 touchdowns in 2015.
The Tar Heel back should have more responsibility in Carolina’s explosive offense in 2016 as Mitch Trubisky is set to take over at quarterback for the veteran Marquise Williams. Hood will have most of his offensive line from last season in front of him, and he’ll be one to keep an eye on in awards races this fall.
6. Samaje Perine (Oklahoma)
2015: 226 carries for 1,349 yards (5.97 YPC) and 16 TDs
His production dipped a bit in a new offensive scheme, but Samaje Perine was still a remarkable playmaker for Big 12 champion Oklahoma in 2015. He averaged nearly six yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns in an offense that had two other players carry the ball more than 100 times.
Perine exploded onto the national scene as a freshman in 2014 when he broke the all-time FBS record for rushing yards in a game and scored 21 times for an Oklahoma team that fell short of high expectations. Last season, he was highly effective in an adjusted role as the Sooners made a run all the way to the College Football Playoff.
The rising junior was held out of the end zone in just two games last season and averaged at least seven yards per carry in five of his last seven games. Perine will miss spring practice for Oklahoma while recovering from ankle surgery, but there’s no reason to doubt his elite skill set when he returns to the field this fall.
5. Nick Chubb (Georgia)
2015: 92 carries for 747 yards (8.12 YPC) and seven TDs
Nick Chubb is a difficult running back to rank because we haven’t seen what he’s capable of in a full season as Georgia’s No. 1 running back. As a freshman, he had at least 100 yards and a touchdown in eight straight games in place of the suspended and later injured Todd Gurley.
Last season, Chubb averaged more than seven yards per carry in each of his first five games of the season, which included SEC opponents Vanderbilt, South Carolina and eventual national champion Alabama. But a devastating knee injury against Tennessee cost him the rest of his sophomore campaign.
When healthy and receiving a consistent amount of carries, Chub has been virtually unstoppable. He’ll have to get back to his old ways in 2016 under a new coaching staff, next to a new quarterback and behind a couple of new offensive linemen—but Chubb has the potential to be a Heisman contender if he returns to full strength.
4. Royce Freeman (Oregon)
2015: 283 carries for 1,886 yards (6.49 YPC) and 17 TDs
Most of the attention on Oregon’s offense in 2015 centered on the quarterback position and the health of the deadly efficient Vernon Adams Jr. But in somewhat quiet fashion, Ducks running back Royce Freeman averaged the fourth-most rushing yards of anyone in the country and scored 17 times.
While other running backs received more spotlight in the awards races, Freeman rushed for at least 100 yards in all but two games in 2015—Michigan State (92) and Utah (77). He scored multiple touchdowns in six games, giving him 13 of those in just the first two seasons of his college career.
Freeman should get even more work in the Oregon offense this fall as the Ducks make the switch to another new quarterback from the FCS ranks. With excellent speed and agility in a 230-pound frame, Freeman is a player you just can’t ignore in 2016.
3. Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
2015: 337 carries for 2,019 yards (5.99 YPC) and eight TDs
Putting a player who came in second in Heisman voting as the third-best returning running back in college football might seem strange. But while Christian McCaffrey is a no-brainer pick for the best all-around player in college football, his rushing statistics lagged somewhat behind the top two backs here.
That’s not to say his rushing work isn’t some of the best among returning backs. He had three 200-yard games last season and had rushed for more than nine yards per carry against Arizona, UCLA and Iowa. Even with the huge volume of touches he was getting on offense and special teams, McCaffrey burned several teams down the stretch of 2015 with his running game.
The pressure will be on McCaffrey to produce even more on the ground—especially in the touchdown category—in 2016 as Stanford replaces three of its starting offensive linemen and veteran quarterback Kevin Hogan. His receiving and returning make him the best all-around player in college football, and his workhorse rushing is fantastic in its own right.
2. Dalvin Cook (Florida State)
2015: 229 carries for 1,691 yards (7.38 YPC) and 19 TDs
How incredible was Dalvin Cook on the ground in 2016? Even though he missed an entire game and was held to less than 100 yards in three others because of a nagging hamstring injury, he still averaged the fifth-most rushing yards per game in the FBS.
Cook’s unreal explosiveness is what made him such an elite running back in 2015, even when he played at less than 100 percent. He had his best performances against the best competition on Florida State’s schedule, too. Christian D’Andrea of SB Nation noted Cook averaged 194 yards per game, 8.15 yards per carry and two touchdowns per game against bowl-eligible opponents ahead of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
His 19 rushing touchdowns on the season ranked second-best among Power Five rushers who will be back in 2016. He averaged nearly a yard more per carry than Freeman and had just 328 fewer yards than McCaffrey on 108 fewer carries. A full season of good health in an offense that returns every single starter should lead to staggering statistics from the nation’s most explosive running back.
1. Leonard Fournette (LSU)
2015: 300 carries for 1,953 yards (6.51 YPC) and 22 TDs
The man who seemingly had the Heisman Trophy already locked into his personal trophy case through the first half of the 2015 season, Leonard Fournette will be back in 2016 as the nation’s best running back. He averaged 15 more yards per game than Derrick Henry and had the most rushing touchdowns of anyone returning this fall.
A rough patch in November ended what looked like an unstoppable Heisman campaign in 2015, but Fournette still finished with some of the best statistics of anyone in college football. He only had one game with fewer than 90 yards and only one game without a rushing touchdown. Fournette’s 2015 began, mind you, with him rushing for 150 yards or more in seven straight games and a three-game mini-streak of 225-plus yards.
Fournette’s supporting cast should be stronger in 2016 and the two defense that gave him the most trouble last season—Alabama and Ole Miss—have to come to Baton Rouge this fall. If he can tap back into the overwhelming talent that made him a runaway Heisman favorite at the beginning of 2015, Fournette will be the one to beat in what looks like another “Year of the Running Back.”