Most of college football’s biggest spring games have come and gone, and now it’s time to flash forward to August and the upcoming season.
Two of the biggest questions as the summer approaches: Which offense will be the most explosive, and which players will be behind that production? We’ve already knocked out the top 10 quarterbacks heading into the 2023 season, and next up are the running backs.
Here are the names ahead of the fall slate.
Eleven reporters voted on a ballot with 10 points to the first-place running back down to one point for the 10th-place RB.
2022 stats: 1,463 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, 80 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
Points: 105 points (9 of 11 first-place votes)
Corum’s return to the Wolverines carries some surprise following his All-America 2022 season and the praise he received. Jim Harbaugh said Corum is the best collegiate back he has coached, while Biff Poggi, who coached Corum both in high school and at Michigan, described him as having shades of both Walter Payton and Barry Sanders. A late-season knee injury derailed Corum’s Heisman Trophy chances and ultimately brought him back for a final season with the Wolverines. If healthy, he will be the focal point of Michigan’s offense alongside another back included here, Donovan Edwards.
A combination of power, shiftiness and speed propels Corum, a Doak Walker Award finalist who won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football as Big Ten MVP. Last season, he finished 11th nationally in total rushing yards (1,463) and tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (18) despite essentially missing Michigan’s final three games (he had two carries against Ohio State) and sharing carries with Edwards. Limited early by Michigan’s lopsided nonconference wins, Corum bullied his way in Big Ten play, averaging 24.1 carries and 152.8 yards in the eight league games before his injury. The small-town kid from Virginia returns to the big stage this fall as he tries to become Michigan’s first Heisman winner since Charles Woodson in 1997. — Adam Rittenberg
2022 stats: 1,567 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 132 receiving yards, 1 touchdown
Points: 85 points (2 of 11 first-place votes)
It’s a wonder Judkins ever got out of state. But the former three-star recruit wasn’t the toast of Alabama and didn’t sign with the Tide or the Tigers. Credit Ole Miss for seeing his potential, because after last season, Judkins isn’t going to be overlooked ever again. As a freshman, he led the SEC in rushing yards (1,567) while also setting the single-season rushing record at Ole Miss for yards and rushing touchdowns (16). CBS named him its freshman of the year. And, according to Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, Judkins was so well thought of that opposing coaches tried to lure him away via the transfer portal. He stayed, signing a name, image and likeness deal that will keep him as the centerpiece of the Rebs’ offense. — Alex Scarborough
2022 stats: 1,443 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 271 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
How do you fly under the radar with a nickname like Rocket? But that’s exactly what happened with Sanders last season thanks to Arkansas’ subpar 7-6 finish. The offense as a whole struggled, due in large part to quarterback KJ Jefferson battling injuries. But Sanders more than held up his end of the bargain, ranking second in the SEC in rushing yards (1,443) and third in rushing touchdowns (10). A healthy Jefferson could make a speedy Sanders even better, and the two could form one of the best QB-RB rushing duos in the SEC. — Scarborough
2022 stats: 1,061 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 85 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown
One of the most noticeable upgrades to Penn State’s offense last fall was its running game, and much of that can be attributed to the emergence of Singleton, the Big Ten’s 2022 Offensive Freshman of the Year. Behind a vastly improved offensive line, Singleton provided a one-two punch with Kaytron Allen, and with both returning this fall, the Nittany Lions should be a more serious contender in the Big Ten’s East Division.
“[Nicholas], his physical attributes are a lot of speed and power,” offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich told ESPN. “You get the straight-line ability to bust a run and go the distance every time. He’s very tough. He provides a lot of inspiration the way he plays. He’s relatively quiet, but I see him gaining more vocal leadership every day. He understands the scheme and understands the protections very well.”
In 2021, Penn State had one of the worst running games in the country but made a quantum leap last season, improving from No. 118 in rushing yards per game (107.8) to No. 45 last year at 181.1. With Singleton continuing to improve on catching the ball out of the backfield, he could contribute even more this fall. — Heather Dinich
2022 stats: 991 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 200 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns
The “other” Michigan running back is a really good one, and he could continue to make his mark in his third season with the Wolverines. Edwards actually arrived as a more decorated recruit than Corum — ESPN rated him as the No. 4 running back and No. 68 overall player in the 2021 class — but has had to fall in line, first behind Corum and Hassan Haskins and then behind just Corum last season. But Edwards flashed in the No. 2 role, recording 173 rushing yards and two touchdowns as Michigan ran over Penn State. He also filled in admirably after Corum’s injury, rushing for 520 yards and three touchdowns against Ohio State, Purdue (Big Ten championship game) and TCU (College Football playoff semifinal).
Edwards is Michigan’s home run hitter and one of the nation’s best. He had touchdown runs of 85 and 75 yards against Ohio State as Michigan pulled away in the fourth quarter. Edwards ranked fourth nationally in runs of 40 yards or longer with six, including four in his final three games as Michigan’s primary ball carrier. His 7.1 yards-per-carry average last season ranked third in Michigan history. He’s also a capable receiver, recording 38 receptions in his first two seasons. His usage will be interesting with Corum’s return, but Edwards brings an explosiveness to Michigan’s offense that should not be wasted in what could be his final season with the team. — Rittenberg
2022 stats: 1,242 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 104 receiving yards
Wisconsin’s offense will have a new look this fall following the hire of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, but that doesn’t mean the Badgers are abandoning the running game entirely in favor of the Air Raid offense. Instead, a stronger passing game should create more opportunities for Wisconsin’s star running back. With new coach Luke Fickell on the sideline, Allen ran for 116 yards and scored on a 20-yard touchdown in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl win over Oklahoma State. It was a performance he’s capable of building on in the new offense, but he has to stay healthy. Allen played through a shoulder injury late last season, and he also missed the Minnesota game because of an ankle injury.
The 7-6 2022 season was frustrating for everyone within the program, including Allen, whose production declined slightly from his freshman season when he wasn’t even a full-time starter. Under former coach Paul Chryst, Wisconsin was a run-first, pro-style offense driven by its burly offensive linemen, but it also became predictable. With fewer defenders in the box this fall to account for what Wisconsin hopes will be a respectable passing game, Allen should reassert himself as one of the best running backs in the country. — Dinich
2022 stats: 1,058 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns, 299 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns
One of Oregon’s great transfer portal finds ended up being Irving, and the Ducks needed him after playing their first season since 2017 without CJ Verdell or Travis Dye in the backfield. Despite committing to Minnesota out of high school (he didn’t play his senior year during the 2020 COVID-19 season) and spending his freshman season with the Gophers, he transferred to Oregon, expecting that a more creative offense would better suit his game.
Irving was right, as he developed into the Pac-12’s third-leading rusher with 1,058 yards. He and Noah Whittington became a two-back force that became difficult to stop all season. They became the first pair of Oregon teammates since 2018 to each rush for 100-plus yards in the same game on Nov. 12 vs. Washington, with Irving rushing for a career-high 149 yards and Whittington adding 106. In 2022, Irving even showed he might be able to throw the football a little bit, completing two passes for 36 yards and a touchdown to Ducks QB Bo Nix. The 2023 season should be another big one in the backfield for Irving and the Ducks, as he, Whittington and Jordan James all return. — Harry Lyles Jr.
2022 stats: 1,182 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 242 receiving yards
In two years at Clemson, Shipley has been something of an enigma. As a freshman, he battled injuries on an offense that struggled mightily. Still, Shipley was a silver lining in an otherwise lackluster year for the Tigers. He rushed for 739 yards and 11 touchdowns, with the bulk of his success coming over the season’s second half, as Clemson reeled off six straight wins to close out the year. It was enough to signal Shipley as an emerging star, a near sure thing to break out as a sophomore in 2022.
Instead, Shipley’s follow-up campaign was … good. Good, but a touch shy of great.
Shipley had five 100-yard games. He scored 15 touchdowns. He topped 1,100 yards on the ground. He added 38 catches and more than 300 yards as a kick returner. By any rational standard, he was exceptional. But Clemson again lost three games and Shipley sporadically disappeared from the game plan, spurring fan complaints. He was great, many fans thought, but couldn’t he be even better?
That question might be answered in 2023. Clemson has a new offensive coordinator in Garrett Riley, who engineered one of the most dynamic rushing attacks in the country a year ago at TCU. It has a new QB in Cade Klubnik, and there’s ample reason for optimism that a more prolific passing game will open up running lanes for Shipley, too. Moreover, Shipley’s versatility could result in him flourishing in the passing game, too, akin to Travis Etienne‘s final seasons at Clemson.
The ceiling for Shipley is immense, and for the better part of the past two years, he has carried an otherwise mediocre Clemson offense. In 2023, there’s a chance the stars align and Shipley and the Tigers are all at peak production. If so, he might be the best back in the country. — David M. Hale
Year: Redshirt junior
2022 stats: 990 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns, 144 receiving yards.
Injuries sidetracked Benson’s career at Oregon, and even when he arrived at Florida State in the spring of 2022, there were big questions about whether he could thrive in a lead role. He tantalized FSU fans during last year’s spring game, but Mike Norvell eased Benson into the offense early on. He had 10 carries or fewer in each of his first six games against FBS opponents last season, but it was enough to flash the potential that made him such an intriguing prospect.
After racking up 69 yards on just seven carries in a Week 7 game against Clemson, however, it was clear there was no more holding Benson back.
Over the season’s final six games, Benson carried 100 times for 618 yards and six touchdowns with 18 runs of 10 or more yards. He topped the 100-yard mark four times, including 168 against Syracuse and 111 against SEC rival Florida. By year’s end, there was no question the Seminoles had a burgeoning star.
In 2023, there will be no easing Benson into the deep end. With the transfer of Treshaun Ward (Kansas State), Benson is the clear-cut RB1 for FSU, and while the Seminoles still have some nice depth at the position, there’s every reason to think he’ll get more than 200 touches. What Benson does with that type of workload is no longer a question mark. The expectation is that he’ll be in the mix for All-America honors. — Hale
2022 stats: 1,382 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns, 219 receiving yards
The Golden Eagles needed a big year out of Gore in their first season in the Sun Belt, and he didn’t disappoint. The son of one of the most reliable running backs to ever play the game, Gore helped run Southern Miss to a 7-6 (4-4) record in their first season in what has become one of the best conferences in the Group of 5.
For the more casual viewer, you might remember Gore and his father scoring a touchdown on the same weekend in 2020. More recently, Gore ran for an NCAA bowl-record 329 yards and accounted for three touchdowns to help Southern Miss hold off Rice 38-24 in the 2022 LendingTree Bowl, complete with a cameo from his thrilled aunt. After that performance, Southern Miss head coach Will Hall said, “He’s a special guy. He’s really learned how to be a leader. He’s really learned how to handle the responsibility of being Frank Gore Jr., and he has embraced that, and he’s embraced the whole deal of ‘to whom much is given, much is required.'”
Much will be required of Gore again in 2023, as the Golden Eagles will rely on him through another fall. — Lyles Jr.