Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

"Running backs don't matter."

It's a phrase that's become prevalent in football over the last decade as analytics and advanced statistics have become more important at every level of the sport. The argument is that while the position matters, no running back is that much better than any other. While the idea has proven to be accurate at the NFL level, I assure you that running backs still matter very much at the college level.

A great running back can be a significant difference-maker for a college team. All you have to do is look at how important Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards were for the Michigan Wolverines last season. Every year, the College Football Playoff is filled with teams who have studs at the position, and that's not likely to change much in 2024 even with an expanded CFP field.

In fact, the position could become even more important in the expanded CFP era. Running backs also take a lot of hits, which is why it's just as important to have a wealth of talent at the position. With more games to play to win a national title, fresh legs could be more important than ever before.

Which teams have the deepest running back rooms in the country? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for my money, these are the top five out there.

1. Ohio State

The Buckeyes never have a shortage of running backs available to them, and 2024 won't be any different. TreVeyon Henderson surprised some people by returning for his senior season (NIL > NFL for running backs) after rushing for 926 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2023. Henderson shouldered most of the load at running back for the Buckeyes, but he'll have more help this fall.

The Buckeyes landed former Ole Miss running back Quinshon Judkins from the transfer portal. All Judkins did for the Rebels over the last two years was rush for 2,723 yards and 31 touchdowns. Those touchdowns could be his greatest appeal to an Ohio State team that struggled in the red zone last season. Behind those two, the Buckeyes also have incoming freshman James Peoples, the No. 7 RB from the 2024 high school recruiting class.

2. Georgia

From 2018 to 2022, Georgia saw Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, D'Andre Swift, James Cook and Zamir White all go in the NFL Draft. In 2015, Todd Gurley was the 10th overall pick. Neither of last season's two leading rushers, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton, are back, but the Bulldogs made a huge move in the portal this offseason by landing Trevor Etienne.

The younger brother of former Clemson RB and current Jacksonville Jaguar Travis Etienne left the Dawgs' arch-rival Florida, where he rushed for 753 yards and eight touchdowns while catching 21 balls for 172 yards. Behind Etienne will be Branson Robinson, who was the No. 2 back in the 2022 class but missed last season with a ruptured patellar tendon. Then there's Roderick Robinson, who was a top-10 back in the 2023 class and will take on a bigger role this season.

Should any of them go down, Georgia added three more four-star running backs (Nathaniel Frazier, Chauncey Bowens, Dwight Phillips) in their latest recruiting class. I don't know if you've heard, but Georgia recruits pretty well.

3. Kansas

I don't know if I'll ever get used to thinking of Kansas as one of the country's most talented college football teams, but it's a reality in 2024, particularly at the running back position. Devin Neal was one of the best backs in the country last season, even if he's not a household name. He's been one of the most productive backs in the country over the last two seasons, rushing for 2,373 yards and 25 touchdowns. Neal is also a valuable weapon in the passing game with 53 career receptions for 457 yards and three touchdowns.

Daniel Hishaw was a solid No. 2 behind Neal last season, rushing for 626 yards and eight touchdowns. He's back in 2024, too. Both are terrors in the open field; their combination of size and agility make them a serious pain-in-the-you-know-what to tackle.

4. Texas

Jonathan Brooks led the Longhorns in rushing last season with 1,139 yards, but he's moved onto the NFL. Texas need not worry as it moves to the SEC, because as good as Brooks was, there's more talent ready to step up. C.J. Baxter served as Brooks' primary backup last season, and the No. 22 player in the 2023 recruiting class (No. 1 RB) got off to a sluggish start in his freshman season. However, once November rolled around, Baxter had 90 yards on 10 carries against Kansas State, and had his first 100-yard rushing effort at Iowa State. Baxter finished the season by averaging more than 7 yards per carry against Washington in the Sugar Bowl with a touchdown.

Jaydon Blue was one of the top running backs in the 2022 class and will step into a larger role this year as well. Blue rushed for 398 yards last season while averaging 6.12 yards per carry. Blue was more explosive as a pass-catcher than Baxter too. He caught 14 passes for 135 yards, averaging over 3 yards per reception more than Baxter. It's a well-rounded unit that complements each other, and has the No. 3 RB in the 2024 class, Jerrick Gibson, behind both.

5. UCF

Last season, UCF's Rocky Harvey finished sixth in the nation with 1,416 yards rushing. That was 16 yards more than Toledo's Peny Boone, who rushed for 1,400 yards and finished eighth nationally. In 2024, they'll be in the same backfield. Boone, last year's MAC Offensive Player of the Year, transferred to UCF in May to give the Knights the most productive backfield in the country. And while he's not a running back, the Knights added QB KJ Jefferson from the portal, and he's quite literally a tank pretending to be a human quarterback. I don't have the physical proof of this, but I trust my eyes.

There's also Johnny Richardson, who finished second in rushing behind Harvey for the Knights last season, averaging 6.59 yards per carry. Those three backs combined with Jefferson in a Gus Malzahn offense? Ladies and gentlemen, sign me up for that.

Honorable mention

  • Miami (Damien Martinez, Mark Fletcher, Ajay Allen)
  • Penn State (Nicholas Singleton, Kaytron Allen)
  • Kansas State (D.J. Giddens, Dylan Edwards)
  • Ole Miss (Ulysses Bentley, Henry Parrish Jr., Jacorey Croskey-Merritt)
  • Oregon (Jordan James, Noah Whittington)