SQ's College Football Top Five: Running Backs

As winter turns to spring, college football starts a new chapter. A new season approaches, but it is still too far off for our liking. Therefore, we will fill these agonizing weeks with our position-by-position rankings of the top five players entering the 2015 season; this week we will name our top five running backs. The only thing we are certain of about next season is that these rankings are sure to be wrong, so let us know why we are full of it in the comments below. Enjoy!

No. 5: Derrick Henry, Alabama

2014 Stats: Rushing - 172 attempts, 990 yards, 5.8 YPC, 11 TDs

                    Receiving - 5 receptions, 133 yards, 2 TDs

Entering the 2014 season, the Alabama Crimson Tide boasted one of the deepest backfields in the country. T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Tyren Jones were all expected to contribute at the running back position. Early on, it appeared as though the multi-back approach was going to limit each individual's production. An injury to Kenyan Drake in Alabama's game against Ole Miss however, provided more carries for Yeldon and Henry. If Yeldon had returned for his senior season, he could have a strong case for this No. 5 spot, but Henry earned it down the stretch last year. Over the final four games of the season, including Alabama's loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, Henry averaged 9.1 YPC on 50 attempts. He scored six touchdowns during that stretch, leaving Crimson Tide fans to lament that Lane Kiffin did not hand the ball off more in that Sugar Bowl loss. If his late season production is any indication, Henry should be poised to have an outstanding junior campaign.

Our Thoughts

William McFadden - Derrick Henry has the ability to build upon his fantastic finish in 2014, but it all depends on how many touches he receives. It helps that Yeldon has moved on, but Kenyan Drake should be healthy again after a broken leg ended his season, and Tyren Jones will seek more touches as a sophomore. Henry is clearly the lead back in this system, and when he is fed the ball he is a true game-changer, but between Lane Kiffin's love affair with passing the football and Alabama's deep backfield, he may not have many 20-carry games.

Erik Weiss - The passing of the torch has occurred in Tuscaloosa, as Derrick Henry will look to establish himself as the next great back for the Crimson Tide. Dating back to Mark Ingram, Alabama has consistently had talent in the backfield: Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, TJ Yeldon, and now Henry. And to be honest, Henry may be the best one. He holds the high school national career rushing record, and last year, as a backup, he was able to gain 990 yards and 11 touchdowns. Now as the full time starter, he should be able to hit the ground running and prove why he was one of high school’s all-time best.

David Street - Henry is arguably the best high school rusher of all time, amassing a total of 12,124 rushing yards, a national record, during his four years playing for the Yulee Hornets. Alabama is known for its solid running backs, which have included guys like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon. Henry will now take his turn as the star running back for the Crimson Tide. It’s time to see if he lives up to his potential.

No. 4: Samaje Perine, Oklahoma

2014 Stats: Rushing - 263 attempts, 1,713 yards, 6.5 YPC, 21 TDs

                    Receiving - 15 receptions, 108 yards, 0 TDs

Many people consider Melvin Gordon to be the best running back of 2014, especially after a record-setting, 408-yard performance against Nebraska. Clearly Samaje Perine was not impressed. Perine, a freshman, rushed for 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries, breaking Gordon's week-old record in a rout of Kansas. That effort made Perine a household name, but only serves as one highlight of a fantastic first season. Perine rushed for over 100 yards six times last season, including five of his last six games, and topped the 200-yard mark three times. When fans spoke of talented freshman running backs last season, the conversation usually revolved around Georgia's Nick Chubb or LSU's Leonard Fournette, but Perine earned a spot alongside those two. The Big 12 is known for its quarterback play, but Perine may be the best player in the conference in 2015. 

Our Thoughts

William McFadden - Samaje Perine may be the best Oklahoma back since - gasp - Adrian Peterson. After what DeMarco Murray did this past season in the NFL, people will favor Murray over Perine in Oklahoma lore, but Perine's freshman season overshadows anything that Murray did for the Sooners. In 2014, Sa maje "Optimus" Perine recorded the second most rushing yards in a season by an Oklahoma freshman - Peterson's 1,925 yards in 2004 is the NCAA's highest freshman mark. This list isn't based on what a player has accomplished, however; it ranks where they stand heading into 2015. What makes Perine so intriguing is that as good as he was in 2014, he can be even better in 2015. 

Erik Weiss - When you break the all-time single game rushing record, you’re doing something right. However, the rising sophomore is more than a one-hit wonder. Perine finished eighth in the country in both rushing yards and touchdowns. He was able to eclipse the 100-yard mark six times, the 200-yard mark three times, and, of course, the 400-yard mark once. Simply put, Perine knows how get the ball down the field. Now that he has a full college off-season to develop and get better, Perine should easily be able to establish himself as one of the nation’s top backs.

David Street - Thanks to his record-breaking, 427-yard performance, Perine was able to receive national attention. He finished eighth in the nation in both rushing yards (1,713) and rushing touchdowns (21). Perine could find himself in the upper mix of what should be a great 2015 running back class.

No. 3: Leonard Fournette, LSU

2014 Stats: Rushing - 187 attempts, 1,034 yards, 5.5 YPC, 10 TDs

                    Receiving - 7 receptions, 127 yards, 0 TDs

It is easy to label Fournette's freshman season a bust. Fournette entered LSU with an amount of hype that was almost impossible to justify. Through his first four games, he had only 200 yards, and made headlines for the wrong reason when he struck the "Heisman pose" after scoring his first touchdown. Over the final nine games however, he rushed for over 100 yards five times, including games against Florida and Ole Miss which boasted stingy, SEC defenses. It appeared as if Fournette's lights came on in LSU's bowl game against Notre Dame. On 11 carries, Fournette gained 143 yards and scored two touchdowns. He also added a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, while displaying breakaway speed.

Say what you will about Fournette's freshman season, but players possessing his physical skill set do not come around often. With a full year under his belt, and more time with the coaching staff, we think that Fournette will break out in 2015.

Our Thoughts

William McFadden - I cannot imagine playing with the level of expectations that Fournette faced as a freshman. Having said that, he certainly did not make it easy on himself by posing after only his first touchdown. As the season wore on, and Fournette had not actually set the college football world ablaze, the spotlight shifted and he played much better. His game against Notre Dame showed exactly what he is capable of, and should provide plenty of hope for LSU fans heading into this season. At his worst, Fournette is a back who has a 15 carry, 40-yard day like we saw against Kentucky; at his best, he averages 13 yards per carry while racking up 143 yards and three total touchdowns. The Fournette we saw last season was probably somewhere in the middle, but in 2015, I expect 143-yard performances to become commonplace. 

Erik Weiss - 2015 will be Leonard Fournette’s coming out party. That’s a guarantee. Although he is listed at No. 3 right now, don’t be surprised if he ends the year at No. 1 and with a Heisman trophy in his hands. Yes, I know that’s a bit bold, but the potential with Fournette is endless. Last season we received several sneak peeks as to what Fournette can do. Although it took a while for him to get going, he seemed to have figured it out in the final two games. In those two games (season finale against Texas A&M and Music City Bowl against Notre Dame) Fournette accounted for 289 yards and three touchdowns on the ground…with only 30 carries. He also returned a kick 100 yards for a touchdown. With a year under his belt and now rising to number one on the depth chart, I expect more of these big games out of Fournette in 2015.

David Street - Fournette started off the 2014 season somewhat slow, but did have spurts of excellence as show by his five 100+ rushing yards games and the 289 rushing yards combined in his final two games. I understand the potential this guy has, but I’m not sure if I’d really put him up this high. Let’s see how he does in 2015.

No. 2: Nick Chubb, Georgia

2014 Stats: Rushing - 219 attempts, 1,547 yards, 7.1 YPC, 14 TDs

                    Receiving - 18 receptions, 213 yards, 2 TDs

Chubb's season could be considered a contrast to Fournette's. While Fournette came into his freshman season with the "next greatest thing" label firmly attached, Chubb arrived at Georgia backing up one of the top running backs in college football, Todd Gurley. During his first three games, Chubb received only a total of 12 carries, but managed to gain 114 yards and a touchdown. He made a name for himself as a tough, tenacious runner, who wore defenses down late in games. Chubb was an excellent complement to Gurley, but when Georgia's star running back was suspended, the team turned to their true freshman to carry the load. After carrying the ball only 31 times over UGA's first five games, Chubb piled up 38 rushing attempts en-route to 143 yards and a touchdown. His performances on the road against Missouri and Arkansas helped to save Georgia's season, and gave them confidence that Chubb could truly be special. During the 2014 season Nick Chubb made eight starts, gaining over 100 yards in each of them. His lowest rushing total as a starter, 113 yards, came against Charleston Southern in which he only received nine carries. 

Like many of the other backs on this list, Chubb was at his best late in the season. In Georgia's bowl game against Louisville, who entered with the second-best rush defense, Chubb amassed 266 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries. Chubb's 266 yards were the second-highest rush total in Georgia history, second only to Herschel Walker, and his 1,547 yards were the second-most gained by a freshman running back at Georgia, again, second only to Walker. Chubb entered 2014 as someone intended to spell Georgia's Heisman candidate, he will enter 2015 as a Heisman front-runner. 

Our Thoughts

William McFadden - Nick Chubb was a fantastic surprise last season, and a God-send for Georgia fans. A nightmare scenario became reality in Athens when Todd Gurley missed over half of the season, but Chubb was able to impossibly replicate Gurley's production and then some. A different runner than Gurley, Nick Chubb compliments his low center of gravity and aggressive running style with incredible vision and deceptive speed. Perhaps the greatest difference between Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley, is Chubb's ability to carry the ball 30+ times a game, something that Gurley had only done once at Georgia. The Bulldog's quarterback situation remains up in the air, but the game plan should be simple: hand the ball to Nick Chubb early and often.  

Erik Weiss - With all of the hype surrounding LSU star Leonard Fournette last season, another freshman was turning heads over in Athens. Nick Chubb started last season as the fourth back on the depth chart. Due to injuries, he got his chance to really shine against Missouri, where he carried the ball 38 times for 143 yards. From then on, Chubb became the bell cow for Georgia. After a season where he only had double digit carries eight times, Chubb was able to put up 1547 yards and 14 touchdowns. The one thing that makes Chubb stand out over the rest of the list, however, is his ability to score every time he touches the ball. Prepare to see an encore of last year, as I don’t see any sign of him slowing down.

David Street - Chubb started off last season as the fourth-string running back, but was able to move up because of injuries and took full advantage of the opportunity. In each of his eight games as starter, Chubb ran for over 100 yards. He amassed 1,323 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns during those starts, which is equivalent to 1,985 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns over the course of a full 12-game regular season. Overall, Chubb had 1,547 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns for the season, and is a very lethal weapon for the Bulldogs.

No. 1: Ezekiel Elliott

2014 Stats: Rushing - 273 attempts, 1,878 yards, 6.9 YPC, 18 TDs

                    Receiving - 28 receptions, 220 yards, 0 TDs

The inaugural College Football Playoffs belonged to Ezekiel Elliott. In each of Ohio State's playoff games, the sophomore running back ran for over 200 yards. In fact, Elliott also topped 200 yards in the Buckeye's Big Ten Championship victory over Wisconsin, rushing for 220 yards and two touchdowns on only 20 carries. Ohio State's season looked to be over after J.T. Barrett, the team's Heisman-contending, second-string quarterback, suffered a broken ankle against rival Michigan. Cardale Jones, the Buckeye's unproven third-string quarterback, was named starter for Ohio State against Wisconsin and their Heisman-hopeful running back, Melvin Gordon. While Jones drew the media's attention prior to the Wisconsin game, Elliott stole the spotlight after kickoff. His performance overshadowed Gordon's, and helped Ohio State shutout the Badgers. In the Sugar Bowl against Alabama's infamous defense, Elliott outdid his previous effort and ran for 230 yards and two scores on an identical 20 carries. The Crimson Tide's defense held the Buckeye's passing attack in check, for the most part, but could not slow down the combination of Elliott and Jones. 

A mortal running back would surely feel fatigue after such impressive efforts, but not Elliott. Eager to bring a national championship back to Columbus, Elliott demanded the ball 36 times, and delivered with 246 yards and four touchdowns. He was named the game's MVP, and made a name for himself with the nation watching. With time to groom whomever Urban Meyer chooses at quarterback, it is likely that Elliott won't see 36 carries often. The upside to that however, is that team's shouldn't be able to load the box against him, of course, it wouldn't really matter if they did. 

Our Thoughts

William McFadden - It remains to be seen if Elliott can replicate his dominant performances over the course of an entire season. But even if those three games were his pinnacle, anything less would still have him in the Heisman race. Due to the circumstances, Elliott's three-game performance may be one of the finest in college football history. With Melvin Gordon heading to the NFL, Elliott appears to have laid claim to the title of "Big Ten's best back." Ohio State should once again be a contender for the National Championship, and Elliott will have plenty more chances to shine in 2015.  

Erik Weiss - By now, everyone in the country knows who Ezekiel Elliott is and how electric he can be. Last season he performed his best on the biggest stages, accounting for 708 total yards and eight touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship and both playoff games combined. Against arguably the best rush defense in the country in Alabama, Elliott averaged 11.5 yards per carry. By the end of the season he established himself as the undisputed top running back in the country. I don’t see any sign of him slowing down in 2015, as the majority of the Buckeye offensive line returns and he will share the backfield with three potential Heisman candidates.

David Street - Elliott burst onto the national scene last season with 696 rushing yards in his last three games, including a National Championship-record 246 rushing yards against Oregon. His skill as a power back was on full display against the Ducks as their defenders had an extremely hard time tackling Elliott. I fully expect for him to find similar success this upcoming season. 

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