College football offenses love to spread the field, but that philosophy can still include a strong running game.
Yes, there are still a few programs with traditional single-back offenses. But as you scan the nation, you'll find a variety of styles that feature a couple of very productive running backs.
Spoiler alert: lots of SEC and Big Ten.
The list is subjective and based on a team's outlook entering the 2023 season; it is not a projection of the upcoming year. As a result, past production and depth of returning talent are the main factors.
You could expand this ranking with relative ease.
Florida returns Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne, who combined for 1,560 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Tulane transfer Cam Carroll is a wild card but rushed for 741 yards and 12 scores in 2020.
Auburn brought in South Florida transfer Brian Battie after he scampered for 1,185 yards in 2022. He joins a backfield with Jarquez Hunter, a potential breakout star. He backed up Tank Bigsby in each of the last two seasons but tallied at least 593 yards each year.
Clemson deserves a shout thanks to Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. Shipley totaled 1,424 scrimmage yards in 2022, while Mafah provided 515 yards and four scores on the ground.
Kentucky added two transfers: Ray Davis, a 1,000-yard rusher at Vanderbilt last season, and Ramon Jefferson, an FCS All-American for Sam Houston State in 2021.
And we certainly wouldn't need to stop there.
Florida State, Oregon State and Utah are among the other programs that at least merit some consideration.
8. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia's running back depth atones for what the two-time reigning champs lack in total production.
Still, there is proven rushing talent in Athens.
Even as Kenny McIntosh paced the Dawgs with 829 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, Daijun Edwards picked up 769 ahead of Kendall Milton at 592. They scored seven and eight times, respectively. Branson Robinson added 330 yards and three touchdowns as a deep reserve.
Given that UGA should have yet another excellent offensive line, the unit has real potential for multiple 1,000-yard rushers.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
One of the best surprises in 2022, Quinshon Judkins soared into the featured spot for Ole Miss as a true freshman. He finished the season with 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
Judkins will be the headliner again, and his share of touches—more than 22 per game—probably won't dip much.
On the other hand, Ulysses Bentley IV should have a greater role. He missed half of the season because of a wrist injury but rushed for more than 1,500 yards in his last two seasons at SMU before transferring.
Although the quarterback situation is unsettled, the Rebels can lean on a dynamic one-two RB punch.
6. Oregon Ducks
Oregon lost Travis Dye to USC last offseason, but a pair of incoming transfers filled in nicely.
During the 2021 season, Bucky Irving scampered for 699 yards as a freshman at Minnesota while Noah Whittington notched 617 with Western Kentucky. They played key supporting roles to Bo Nix, a dual-threat quarterback who propelled Oregon's offensive explosion.
Irving rushed for 1,058 yards, caught 31 passes for 299 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns. Whittington tallied 779 yards on the ground with 22 receptions for 169 yards and six total scores.
Throw in Jordan James and his five touchdowns, and Oregon returns an overwhelming majority of its 12th-ranked rushing production.
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Finding one breakout immediate-impact runner is great. Picking up two in the same class, though, is outstanding recruiting.
Sure, it's not like Penn State uncovered a couple of unknown gems. Nicholas Singleton carried a 5-star billing, and Kaytron Allen narrowly missed a top-150 overall ranking in the 2022 cycle.
They stormed into the rotation, and Singleton rushed for team-high marks of 1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns. Allen followed closely behind with 867 yards and 10 scores, catching 20 passes for 181 yards. Singleton chipped in 10 receptions and a 13th trip to the end zone.
Penn State has also padded its depth with transfer Trey Potts, who surpassed 1,000 yards over the last two seasons at Minnesota.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
How do you measure two established players in an offense that will border on unrecognizable?
Wisconsin has used spread concepts in recent years, of course, but the 2023 version of the Badgers will be wildly different. New coordinator Phil Longo is installing an Air Raid attack and ramping up the tempo at a program that is accustomed to slow-paced offenses.
Still, the potential among UW's running backs is exciting.
Braelon Allen has registered a pair of 1,200-yard seasons for the Badgers, scoring at least 11 touchdowns in both years. Chez Mellusi rushed for nearly 1,300 yards as Allen's backup in 2021 and 2022.
The program's proud tradition of a strong running game should continue in Longo's new-look offense.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks
Star player? Check. After rushing for 578 yards and five scores as a freshman, Raheim Sanders tore apart defenses to the tune of 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The second-team All-SEC back added 28 catches for 271 yards and two more scores.
Depth? You bet. AJ Green has provided 639 yards in two seasons as a backup, and Rashod Dubinion rushed for 293 last year. They combined for eight rushing touchdowns in 2022.
And the Razorbacks might have a little more, too.
Dominique Johnson, unfortunately, has endured ACL injuries in consecutive years. When healthy in 2021, however, he posted 575 yards and a team-leading seven rushing touchdowns.
Arkansas has a difficult road to contending for an SEC crown, but the Hogs' running game should be terrific.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Ah, yes, we've reached the point of the ranking that will generate zero discussion whatsoever. The nation's best two RB units only belong to teams on either side of a bitter, tradition-filled rivalry.
No wrong decision here!
In all seriousness, Ohio State has an incredible unit. TreVeyon Henderson totaled 1,560 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2021. His injury-plagued 2022 campaign opened the door for Miyan Williams to collect 825 yards and 14 scores, as well as Dallan Hayden's 553 yards and five touchdowns.
There is no shame in having the country's second-rated group; it just so happens that Michigan is the next team.
1. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan fell narrowly shy of two 1,000-yard rushers in 2022.
Prior to his November knee injury, Blake Corum put together a year worthy of a Heisman Trophy finalist invite. He amassed 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, scoring at least once in all 11 healthy appearances and securing first-team AP All-America recognition.
Donovan Edwards piled up 520 rushing yards in three starts after Corum's setback, closing the campaign with 991 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Edwards had 18 receptions for 200 yards and two scores, as well.
For good measure, CJ Stokes chipped in 273 yards and a score as the Wolverines won their second straight Big Ten title.
Given that Corum and Edwards are top-10 backs nationally, it's only sensible for Michigan to land at No. 1.