Wisconsin’s first game of the season will feature two of the premier running backs in all of college football. Leonard Fournette from LSU is a 2016 Heisman favorite and is coming off a superb sophomore season. On the other side, Corey Clement from Wisconsin is looking to rebound from an injury-filled 2015 season and re-position himself as a solid Big Ten running back.
While this first game of 2016 will feature two great running backs, there are other rushers who are worth watching and hard to tackle. Even though college football has moved to a spread approach and teams are throwing more than ever, some running backs can still significantly affect the game and change entire seasons.
These running backs are staples in their teams’ offense and are expected to produce big numbers each week. If you try to game-plan to stop these runners, then you will be exposed in other areas. If you are willing to let them beat you, they certainly will. This is not an exhaustive list, but it sure is a solid one.
Nick Chubb, Georgia
When he is healthy, Chubb is one of the best running backs in the country. After rushing for more than 1,500 yards in 2014 as a freshman, Chubb was averaging 8.1 yards per carry last year before injuring his knee. All signs point to a healthy return, and Georgia’s backfield should be set with Chubb and Sony Michel, who filled in for Chubb last year.
Royce Freeman, Oregon
Oregon is known for its fast-paced offensive attack. Usually a fast-paced offense relies on quick, high-percentage passes to move the ball down the field and tire out the defense. Oregon attacks differently. They try to run the ball to set up play action passes once the defense is worn out. To spearhead their aggressive and fast running strategy, they employ Royce Freeman. Freeman flies under the radar since he plays on the West Coast, but his numbers should get him more attention. After finishing fourth in the country in rushing yards last year, Freeman should be able to put up similar numbers this year. Oregon will be breaking in a new quarterback and will depend on their underrated star to help carry the team and lead their offensive approach.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Perine made a big name for himself as a freshman in 2014 when he set the single game rushing record by running for 427 yards. Perine’s numbers regressed a bit last year as he split carries with Joe Mixon. It’s unclear if his workload will continue to take a hit, but Perine has shown that if he gets the carries he is able to dominate a game. Oklahoma can threaten with the run and the pass, and if teams pay too much attention to quarterback Baker Mayfield, then Perine can run for hundreds of yards.
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
Jalen Hurd is not on this list because of his straight line speed or his ability to break a big play. Hurd is on this list because he is dependable and he is critically important to his team. Hurd had the third most carries in the SEC last year, and his workload will continue to grow this year as Tennessee tries to grind out wins. They do have a capable quarterback in Joshua Dobbs, but Tennessee is run first, and Jalen Hurd leads that bruising and reliable attack.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin
Expectations were high for Clement at the beginning of 2015. He was supposed to be next in a long line of successful Wisconsin running backs. Unfortunately, his junior season was plagued by injuries and he only played in four games. He will be of the utmost importance to a Wisconsin team that is inexperienced at quarterback and is playing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Clement had a stellar sophomore season in which he averaged 6.5 yards per carry, and if he can stay healthy and produce at that level, he will be one of the top running backs in the country.
These are the running backs that can break a game open on any play. They are explosive and smart, and one mistake will put them in the end zone. There are small instances of inconsistency which prevent these runners from being the best. Make no mistake, however, these running backs are two of the best players, at any position, in the entire country.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
On his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, McCaffrey proved that he is one of the best football players in the country. He led the nation in yards from scrimmage by 300 yards. He had the fifth most yards from scrimmage of any player in any season in college football history. He is a threat to score on any play, whether he is catching the ball, running it, or returning kicks. How fast and explosive could he be, you ask? Ask the Iowa defense after this first play in last year’s Rose Bowl.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Cook had the fourth highest yards per carry average last year. He had five touchdown runs of 50-plus yards and four from 70-plus yards. He only had 229 carries last year, but he is a threat to score on any of them. Florida State’s quarterback situation is up in the air, so Cook will be heavily relied upon to create offense. He will command a great deal of attention from the defense, but if he makes one person miss, he could score from anywhere on the field.
Stud. Beast. Truck. Runaway Train. Leonard Fournette has been called many things in his college career, especially after his 2015 campaign. For now, he has earned another title: best running back in the country.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
After this ringing endorsement, people knew Leonard Fournette was going to be a big deal. He started off slowly as a freshman, only rushing for 18 yards against Wisconsin in 2014, but he continued to develop. As a sophomore, he began the season with seven straight games of 150 yards rushing. Wisconsin as a team only had six games of 150 yards rushing all season. Fournette finished as an All-American last year and projects to be the Heisman favorite this year. Despite just getting out of a walking boot, Fournette will be looking to return to the form that allowed him to do this and this. Hopefully he finds that form after his first game against the Badgers.
Photo courtesy of Sporting News.