Three weeks, people. Three weeks! We’re just three short, glorious, measly Saturdays away from the start of college football season. We’ve already hit on a number of different topics, including look-backs for each conference and a preview of the 30 biggest games of the season. This week we begin breaking down the best players at each major position in the country. First up is running backs, and my goodness, what a special crew we’ve got. Here are the Top 10.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Justin Jackson, Jr., Northwestern
How good is this list? So good that we had to leave off guys like Saquon Barkley (who set a freshman rushing record at Penn State last season) and UNC’s Elijah Hood off. That’s also what makes the presence of a guy by the name of Justin Jackson probably a little bit surprising to you. After all, I already assume you’re probably thinking something to the effect of: “I love college football, how have I never heard of this guy?” Well if you haven’t heard of Jackson you’re not alone; even as he reeled off one of the best seasons of any running back in the nation in 2015, he mostly flew under the radar for a 10-win Northwestern team. At the same time, that doesn’t take away from his stats -- he carried the ball a staggering 312 times (third most in the nation), while tallying 1,418 yards rushing. That was second in the Big Ten, behind only Ezekiel Elliott. The more incredible part? Jackson did it while defenses keyed on him, as Northwestern ranked dead last in the Big Ten in passing at just 138 yards per game. As good as Jackson’s stats were last year, if the Wildcats' RB can be even better in 2016 if Northwestern can get just a tiny bit more out of their passing game.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY SporDennis Wierzbicki
Wayne Gallman, Jr., Clemson
It’s funny how life works sometimes. When Gallman initially committed to Clemson four years ago, there were rumors the Tigers only offered him to try to lure his former high school teammate Robert Nkemdiche to Clemson. While Gallman has since denied those rumors, they were there (Nkemdiche originally committed to the Tigers before ending up at Ole Miss), but as it turns out Clemson may have ended up with the more impactful college star. The sturdy redshirt junior broke out in a huge way on Clemson’s run to the College Football Playoff title game last year, rushing for over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns. More importantly, he played his best in the Tigers’ biggest games, tallying at least 100 yards against Louisville (139), Notre Dame (111) and Florida State (103), while also rushing for 150 yards in the Tigers’ semifinal win over Oklahoma. With an experienced offensive line back, as well as some guy named DeShaun Watson under center, look for another monster year from Gallman.
Getty ImagesTyler Smith
Donnel Pumphrey, Sr., San Diego State
Never heard of Pumphrey? Well, to be blunt you’re probably not alone. Playing in the Mountain West, in many games that start after most of America is asleep, it’s easy for the San Diego State senior to get lost in the shuffle. But make no mistake -- Pumphrey is as good as anyone on this list. As a matter of fact, statistically, he’s actually better than everyone on this list. Pumphrey enters the year with 4,272 career rushing yards, which is the most of any active player in college football. He finished with 1,600 last year, and that’s actually down from 2015, when he rushed for 1,867 to go along with 20 touchdowns. The Aztecs are the reigning Mountain West champs, and with most of their key offensive pieces returning should be in line for another big season. Sure, you might not know Pumphrey’s name now, but you will by the end of the season.
Jalen Hurd, Jr. Tennessee
Simply put, Hurd is a freak, a guy who made headlines all summer long for posting insane workout video after insane workout video. At 6’4 and 240 pounds, and with the ability to run upwards of 23 miles an hour (according to one of those videos), Hurd might be the craziest physical specimen at running back in college football, which is saying something at a position that boasts guys like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette. At this point, the only thing keeping Hurd from becoming a breakout star is simple: He spent a big chunk of last year splitting carries with teammate Alvin Kamara, a big reason he didn’t quite get the national respect he probably deserved. Still, that didn’t stop him from racking up 1,288 rushing yards, including 100-plus yards over two of the best defenses in college football: Oklahoma and Florida. Tennessee should be in the thick of the SEC (and potentially national) title race all season. If they are, don’t be surprised if Hurd receives some Heisman buzz because of it.
Getty ImagesAndy Lyons
Samaje Perine, Jr., Oklahoma
Another guy who simply doesn’t get the respect he deserves, only because he splits carries with a teammate. Despite sharing his workload with Joe Mixon last year, Perine still managed to rush for 1,349 yards in helping Oklahoma to a Big 12 title and appearance in the College Football Playoff. Still, as good as those numbers are, imagine what they might be without Mixon in the equation? Remember, Perine who rushed for 1,713 yards as a true freshman, including an NCAA-record 427 yards against Kansas. While the Sooners junior probably doesn’t mind splitting the workload, we can only imagine what he’d do if he received more carries.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
Nick Chubb, Jr., Georgia
It really is hard to know exactly where to rank Chubb on this list, if only because we don’t know how healthy he’ll be in 2016. Georgia’s coaches are optimistic based on how he’s looked so far in practice, but coming off major knee surgery you just never know how much he will be able to push himself. Or for that matter, how hard Georgia’s coaches will actually push him, especially once fellow 1,000-yard rusher Sony Michel returns from injury. But while there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Chubb, what we do know is this: When healthy, he takes a back-seat to no one. This is a guy who rushed for over 1,500 yards in place of the injured Todd Gurley two years ago and followed it up with five straight 100-plus yard rushing games to open last season, before suffering that season-ending knee injury. Only time will tell on Chubb, but if he’s healthy, that’s bad news for the entire SEC East.
Royce Freeman, Jr. Oregon
Maybe it’s because he played with Marcus Mariota as a freshman, or because the Ducks struggled last year as a team, or because he’s just got a quiet demeanor overall, but poor Royce Freeman has turned into the Rodney Dangerfield of college football. The man gets no respect (and yes, I just dated myself with that joke)! Either way, he was the best running back that few people in college football talked about last year, after he rushed for a staggering 1,836 yards and 17 touchdowns. That included an incredible 141-yard-per game average, and 11 games (out of 13) where he rushed for at least 100 yards. So why doesn’t Freeman get more respect? Freeman probably doesn’t know, but he also doesn’t care. I asked him about the lack of respect at Pac-12 Media Days, and here is what he said: “[If] you want the praise and everything, you’re just a ‘me guy’ and that’s not me. So as far as those guys go, they’re talented, they’re very worth getting that praise, Christian [McCaffrey], Leonard [Fournette], Dalvin [Cook] and all those guys, it’s an honor to even be in that class.” Clearly Freeman is a humble guy, but for the record Royce, yes, I’m going to lump you in with those guys on that list. You’re as good as any of them, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. Also, by the way, thank you for helping me set up the rest of this list.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY SportsKirby Lee
Dalvin Cook, Jr., Florida State
If Freeman gets the least respect out of all the big-time running backs in college football, Cook isn’t far behind. That’s even after putting up stats that would rival pretty much anyone in the country. Cook finished last season with 1,691 yards, thanks to an insane average of 7.4 yards per carry. What’s even more incredible is that he did that while the Seminoles flip-flopped Everett Golson and Sean Maguire at quarterback all season long, and also while dealing with an injured hamstring. Seriously, the guy had an injured hamstring a big chunk of the season (even missing a game) and still averaged 7.4 yards per carry! With an improved passing game, look for Cook to have a monster year. While he doesn’t get the hype the two guys above him on this list do, he is just as likely to end up in New York for the Heisman ceremony as any of them.
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Christian McCaffrey, Jr., Stanford
I can’t lie, choosing between McCaffrey or Leonard Fournette here was, quite literally, the single toughest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. Frankly, it might have been the toughest decision anyone has had to make since that time Peter Griffin had to choose between soup and salad on "Family Guy." Ultimately, there’s no wrong answer when it comes to these two, and having to rank one at No. 2 shows you just how special each is. After all, in McCaffrey’s case, he is a guy who set an NCAA record last year tallying 3,864 yards to break Barry Sanders' record, which stood for nearly 30 years. In the process, he became one of the single most dynamic rushers (2,019 yards on the ground), receivers (45 catches, five touchdowns) and return men (one kickoff and punt return apiece) in all of college football.
Getty ImagesDavid Madison
Leonard Fournette, Jr., LSU
As good as McCaffrey was week-in and week-out (and he was nothing short of spectacular), I still can’t get Fournette’s 2015 season out of my head. For those first six or so weeks of the season, he might have been the single most exciting college football player I’ve ever seen. You all remember the high points, whether it was hurdling Auburn defenders or running away from everyone else, but in looking at the stats, it really does show you how special his season was. Fournette finished with 1,953 yards, an incredible number when you consider that he played two fewer games (one fewer regular-season game, and no conference championship) than several players on this list. He ended the season with 10 games overall with at least 100 yards, and three with 200-plus yards. Incredibly, he did it with virtually no help at all from LSU’s passing game. If LSU can get any semblance of a passing game to help Fournette in 2016, then not only is he the Heisman favorite, but the Tigers are a national championship contender. Only time will tell, but for now, he’ll have to settle for being the best running back in college football on our list.