Ranking college football's top 10 running backs in 2024

ByESPN.com ESPN logo
Friday, March 8, 2024

We continue our college football top-10 lists by looking at running backs.

There's plenty of talent in this group, including some breakout stars from last season and some players looking to shine even brighter in different roles or a new school. And we have a pair of teammates that make up a formidable duo in what should be a powerhouse backfield.

We polled our resident college football experts, asking them to rank their top 10 running backs entering the 2024 season. Points were assigned based on their votes: 10 points for first place, nine for second place and down to one point for 10th place.

Here are the results.

Also: Ranking the top 10 QBs

1.Ollie Gordon II, Oklahoma State

2023 stats: 1,732 yards rushing, 6.1 yards per rush, 21 rushing TDs, 39 receptions, 330 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Points: 98 (eight first-place votes)

Gordon, a 6-foot-1, 211-pound junior, exploded on the scene last season -- a true breakout story. He rushed for 308 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman, then began last season with a total of just 19 carries in Oklahoma State's first three games, including three carries for 12 yards in a 33-7 loss to South Alabama. The Cowboys retooled, centered the offense on the legs of Gordon, and magic happened. Gordon dashed off eight 100-yard games over his next nine, including a two-week stretch in October when he ran for 553 yards and six touchdowns in games against West Virginia and Cincinnati. He became Oklahoma State's first Doak Walker Award winner, finishing the season with 1,732 yards and 21 TDs, including five against BYU, tying Barry Sanders' school record.

With quarterback Alan Bowman returning for his seventh collegiate season, and a talented wide receiver corps including Rashod Owens and Brennan Presley returning, defenses will have to respect the passing game, which could bolster the chances of another big season for Gordon and OSU, which reached the Big 12 championship game last season. Gordon's return has the Cowboys aiming for a College Football Playoff berth and Gordon eyeing a trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. -- Dave Wilson

2.TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State

2023 stats:926 yards rushing, 5.9 yards per rush, 11 rushing TDs, 19 receptions, 229 receiving yards, 10 receiving TDs

Points: 65 (one first-place vote)

Even though he wasn't 100 percent a year ago, TreVeyon Henderson led Ohio State with 926 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in just 10 games. He also struggled with injuries as a sophomore in 2022, when he broke a bone in his left foot and underwent surgery. But Henderson says he's healthy now and ready to make his senior season the best one yet at Ohio State. As a freshman, he rushed for 1,248 yards and scored 19 touchdowns.

Henderson has it all -- breakaway speed, acceleration through the hole and the ability to make defenders miss. The 5-foot-10, 212-pound speedster had the fifth-highest grade among Power 5 running backs last season, according to Pro Football Focus. With the Buckeyes' addition of Ole Miss transfer Quinshon Judkins, Henderson won't have to carry too heavy a load in the Ohio State backfield, meaning he should be even fresher and more equipped to rip off big plays in the second half. If Henderson can stay healthy, he's as dynamic a player as there is in college football. -- Chris Low

3.Quinshon Judkins, Ohio State

2023 stats:1,158 yards rushing, 4.3 yards per rush, 15 rushing TDs, 22 receptions, 149 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs

Points: 60 (one first-place vote)

After Judkins' blistering freshman season at Ole Miss in 2022, the idea that he wouldn't be the nation's top running back as a junior seemed laughable. He earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors and was a first-team all-league selection that fall, while finishing as a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award. His 1,567 rushing yards trailed only Herschel Walker as the most by a freshman in SEC history. Judkins followed with a strong sophomore season, leading the SEC with 15 rushing touchdowns, but several of his other numbers fell off a bit. He now finds himself in a different but fascinating situation entering his junior season.

The 5-11, 210-pound Judkins entered the transfer portal in early January and landed days later at Ohio State, part of the Buckeyes' incredible winter personnel haul. The interesting part is that he joins Henderson, one spot higher in our rankings, to form the nation's most accomplished backfield tandem. Judkins has 545 carries in his first two seasons but now must share the ball with Henderson. But after his yards-per-carry average dropped from 5.7 in 2022 to 4.3 last season, Judkins could benefit from being fresher when he touches the ball. -- Adam Rittenberg

4.Omarion Hampton, North Carolina

2023 stats:1,504 yards rushing, 5.9 yards per rush, 15 rushing TDs, 29 receptions, 222 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Points: 57

North Carolina went into last season wanting to place a much bigger emphasis on running the ball. Mission accomplished behind Hampton, who had a breakout sophomore season en route to becoming a Doak Walker Award finalist, and earning Walter Camp first-team All-America honors. Hampton rushed for 1,504 yards -- second on the school's single-season list -- with 15 rushing touchdowns, while adding 29 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown. Hampton had seven 100-yard games and his total rushing yards ranked fifth in the FBS.

This season, the dynamic shifts a bit. With Drake Maye gone and an open quarterback competition set to begin this spring, Hampton is the most known commodity on the North Carolina offense. Conventional wisdom says defenses will stack the box to stop Hampton and force the new starting quarterback -- projected to be transfer Max Johnson or Conner Harrell -- to try to beat them. -- Andrea Adelson

5.Tahj Brooks, Texas Tech

2023 stats:1,541 yards rushing, 5.3 yards per rush, 10 rushing TDs, 29 receptions, 69 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs

Points: 43

Brooks is back for a super-senior year, which is a big win for Texas Tech as the Red Raiders come off a season when Brooks rushed for 1,538 yards and 10 TDs and was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award despite gaining only a total of 110 yards in the season's first two games. After that, though, the 5-10, 230-pound bruiser reeled off 95 or more yards in 11 straight games while becoming the only Power 5 back to force more than 70 missed tackles. Boyd did this despite a Tech offensive line that struggled and an offense that ranked 64th nationally last season.

There will be wholesale changes up front in 2024, with five O-linemen gone and transfers from Toledo, Memphis and Middle Tennessee joining the mix alongside new offensive line coach Clay McGuire, a Tech alum who worked for Mike Leach and Lincoln Riley. Boyd will be a focal point of the Red Raiders' offense for a team hoping to jump back into Big 12 contention, and he'll enter this season 1,167 yards shy of Byron Hanspard's school record for career rushing yards. -- Wilson

6.Ashton Jeanty, Boise State

2023 stats:1,347 yards rushing, 6.1 yards per rush, 14 rushing TDs, 43 receptions, 569 receiving yards, 5 receiving TDs

Points: 38

Breakout bowl performances aren't always a portend of coming greatness. But they sometimes are exactly that. In the 2022 Frisco Bowl, Jeanty rushed for 178 yards and a touchdown in a 35-32 Boise State win over North Texas. He had served as a capable backup for George Holani that season, but he had designs on something bigger. In 2023, with Holani injured to start the season, Jeanty took the RB1 job and (literally) ran with it. Despite missing two games himself with injury, he rushed for 1,347 yards and 14 touchdowns while also serving as the Broncos' No. 2 receiver in terms of both catches (43) and yards (569). He had at least 100 combined rushing and receiving yards in 10 of the 12 games he played.

Perhaps most impressively in the transfer portal era, Jeanty also returned. "Knowing the legacy I can leave behind and the impact that I can have to change people's lives is important, and I appreciate the opportunity to do that for a program that changed my life by believing in me when no one else did," he wrote in December. His return, plus the addition of former blue-chip quarterback Malachi Nelson, could give Boise one of the most dynamic offensive backfields in college football. -- Bill Connelly

7.Donovan Edwards, Michigan

2023 stats:497 yards rushing, 4.2 yards per rush, 5 rushing TDs, 30 receptions, 249 receiving yards, 0 receiving TDs

Points: 35

Edwards' rapid rise to prominence in 2022 -- when he rushed for 150 yards or more three times in the last six games of the regular season and nearly 1,000 total yards on just 140 carries -- slowed a bit as Blake Corum returned from injury in 2023. Corum was the Wolverines' reliable No. 1 back and produced a 1,245-yard, 27-touchdown season.

Edwards, however, still had his bright moments as he tallied almost 500 yards and five touchdowns, including a 41-yard score in the national championship game. Edwards said afterward that he played most of the season with a partially torn patellar tendon. Now, with Corum off to the NFL and Edwards returning for his junior season, the stage is set for him to become one of the most electric and productive backs in the nation. -- Paolo Uggetti

8.Trevor Etienne, Georgia

2023 stats:753 yards rushing, 5.7 yards per rush, 8 rushing TDs, 21 receptions, 172 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Points: 31

In one of the biggest offseason transfer portal moves, Etienne moved on from Florida to rival Georgia, immediately giving the Bulldogs a game-changer at running back as they look to make another run at a national championship. Etienne was highly productive at Florida, but he was never the featured back as he split time withMontrell Johnson Jr. In two seasons with the Gators, Etienne had 249 total carries for 1,472 yards with 14 touchdowns. He was used more extensively as a pass-catcher in 2023, with 21 catches for 172 yards and one touchdown.

At Georgia, he has the opportunity to be the featured back in a proven system that values running the ball. The Bulldogs lost their top two leading rushers in Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton, creating an opening for Etienne. Though Georgia shares the ball among its running backs, Etienne explained in a recent interview on teammate Tate Ratledge's podcast "Real Talk Player Podcast," "I could stay, be running back 2 on a losing team or go somewhere and you know, possibly [be] running back 1 and win a natty." -- Adelson

9.Jaydn Ott, Cal

2023 stats:1,305 yards rushing, 5.3 yards per rush, 12 rushing TDs, 26 receptions, 196 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs

Points: 26

Perhaps it's because he played for a team that went 6-7, but Ott was one of the most underrated running backs in the country last season. After a strong freshman year (897 yards, 8 touchdowns), Ott broke out in his second season at Cal. Ott averaged more than 18 carries per game and totaled 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Ott was undoubtedly the Golden Bears' best player; in fact, four of Cal's wins came when Ott had more than 150 rushing yards-- a feat he accomplished five times during the 2023 season. Ott's decision to come back to Berkeley for one more year is a boon for the Bears, who should improve on their 2023 campaign. Improvement isn't always linear in college football, but after a productive sophomore season, the sky is the limit for Ott in his third season. -- Uggetti

10.Devin Neal, Kansas

2023 stats:1,280 yards rushing, 6.3 yards per rush, 16 rushing TDs, 25 receptions, 217 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Points: 24

Let's do some whittling. There were 45 thousand-yard rushers in the FBS in 2023. Of those, only nine averaged at least 3.0 yards before contact and at least 3.0 yards after contact, displaying both the quickness to properly hit the holes as they open and the strength to require multiple tacklers to bring them down. Of those nine, only six possessed both the burst and finesse required to average at least 6.2 yards per carry both inside and outside the tackles. And of those, only one also caught at least 25 passes: Devin Neal.

Say hello to maybe the single most well-rounded running back in college football. Like quarterback Jalon Daniels, Neal was instrumental in Kansas' program-changing upset of Texas late in 2021 (he had 169 combined rushing and receiving yards and four touchdowns that night), and he's been responsible for much of the Jayhawks' success since. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in a game 12 times and at least 1,000 yards in a season twice. He has forced at least four missed tackles in a single game 15 times. We'll see what changes new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes has in store for the KU attack, but as long as he continues to feed No. 4, things will probably go pretty well. -- Connelly

Also receiving votes: Damien Martinez, Oregon State (21); Kaytron Allen, Penn State (17); Nicholas Singleton, Penn State (14); Raheim Sanders, South Carolina (7); RJ Harvey, UCF (5); Marcus Carroll, Missouri (4); Peny Boone, Louisville (4); Darius Taylor, Minnesota (1)