The Running Back Race Is the Best Debate in College Football

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There’s a chance that both Tre Mason and Todd Gurley could suit up for the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. That is madness. Two of the most dominant running backs in recent college football history are on the same team, in the same backfield. Of course, in the NFL, this barely registers as news. Tre Mason isn’t a star, and Todd Gurley is only a rookie. This is why it’s important to cherish running backs while they’re still in school and still making defenses look helpless. It’s the Reggie Bush rule. The most exciting players in this sport are always more fun in college.

So I come to you today with a proposal: Forget the Heisman race. Let’s talk about the race to determine the best running back in college football.

It was only a year ago that Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and Ameer Abdullah were supposed to usher in a return of running back dominance — maybe it will happen in the NFL this year — but it turns out that that was just a prelude. This year is when things get crazy. Look around the country and you’ll find more dominating backs than ever, and they all torture defenses in different ways. It raises the question: If you could choose any running back in America, who would it be?

Put your Doak Walker pants on. These are the contenders in 2015.

Dalvin Cook

dalvin-cook-florida-state-triMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Nickname: Do It Again.

Year: Sophomore.

Superpower: Blinding speed.

Weaknesses: Fumbles, durability, off-field issues.

Highlights: It’s hard to imagine any running back going for 266 yards in a single game, but watch this run from Saturday, and … yeah, makes sense.

Analysis: Florida State’s offense entered this season without Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, Nick O’Leary, and four offensive linemen from last year, all of whom now play in the NFL. In total, FSU lost half its starters.

On Saturday, new starting quarterback Everett Golson finished the first half with six yards passing. The offensive line was a mess, too. And Dalvin Cook was so good that none of it mattered. This is the Seminoles’ blueprint for 2015. His fumbles in the Rose Bowl helped turn a close game into an Oregon blowout, and this season is a chance for Cook to redeem himself. He was the best freshman in America last year, and after being found not guilty on battery charges that clouded his future this summer, he is Florida State’s only hope of remaining in the title hunt in 2015. It may not work, but it’ll be fun to watch him try.

“Fast” as a descriptor doesn’t quite do his running justice. Just imagine trying to catch a rabbit with your bare hands. That’s how defenders look when chasing Dalvin Cook. He’s also bouncier and stronger than he looks. He’s got an uphill battle to outshine the rest of this list, but given the situation at FSU, he’ll get more chances than anyone else.

Leonard Fournette

leonard-fournette-lsu-heisman-triJonathan Bachman/AP

Nickname: His grandmother calls him Button, but his real name is Leonard Fournette. A nickname would be counterproductive in this case.

Year: Sophomore.

Superpower: Linebacker size with cornerback’s feet.

Weaknesses: Quarterback, hubris.

Highlights: He will run around you …

… he will run over you.

Analysis: If we’re judging on talent alone, Fournette is tough to argue against. This dude can do everything. He’s big like Derrick Henry, he’s fast like Cook, he will run through tackles like Ezekiel Elliott, and he can carry an offense like Nick Chubb. He can also play quarterback.

He just needs to work on putting it all together for an entire season. Doing that is easier said than done. Like Cook, he’s playing on an offense without a great quarterback, but unlike Cook, he’ll be stuck getting hammered by SEC defenses every week. Eight-man fronts at Wake Forest and Louisville are not quite the same as those at Alabama and Auburn. In other words, for LSU’s offense to contend this year, it’ll need Fournette to be something close to superhuman. And, hey, that is entirely possible.

Ezekiel Elliott

All State Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Ohio StateStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Nickname: Zeke.

Year: Junior.

Superpower: Single-handedly ruined all of our jokes about Big Ten speed.

Weaknesses: Quarterbacks, boredom, the NCAA’s puritanical war against the crop top jersey.

Highlights: 36 carries, 246 yards, four touchdowns, and headlines like “Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott absolutely dominates National Championship.”

Analysis: What he did to Oregon in the national title game probably didn’t get the credit it deserves. That was as ruthless as anything that happened in college football all year. It was like watching someone perform a Mortal Kombat fatality move for three hours straight. The Cardale Jones story at the end of the season was so crazy that it was hard to focus on anything else, and that’s fine. But remember this: Ezekiel Elliott finished the year with 696 yards against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon.

That is insane. Those are numbers that would make you crank up the difficulty if they happened in NCAA Football.

It’s up to you to decide how much of the credit goes to Urban Meyer’s scheme, the threat of the passing game, and Elliott himself. I can’t decide. Would he be this good at LSU or Florida State? Maybe not. He’s got the opposite problem of Fournette and Cook. He’s got two great quarterbacks and is surrounded by talent, which makes it harder to appreciate his contributions.

Nick Chubb

nick-chubb-georgia-triJohn Bazemore/AP

Nickname: Chubbatron.

Year: Sophomore.

Superpower: So good that he’s made the name “Nick Chubb” cool.

Weakness: The curse of Georgia running backs.

Highlights: Between the hypnotic techno and the highlights, the below video could’ve been 40 minutes long and I would have watched the whole thing. If you’re looking for brevity, this Vine is a good recap of the Belk Bowl.

Analysis: He is probably the least spectacular player on this list. It’s not that he’s any worse, but he doesn’t quite have the sex appeal of guys who make it look easy to turn defenses upside down. When Chubb runs, it looks like work. The closest comparison is probably Emmitt Smith, another undersized running back from the SEC who was neither stronger nor faster than any of his peers. He was just better, every year, until he retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.

I’m not putting those Emmitt Smith expectations on Chubb, but it’s the best way to explain how he fits into this conversation. He’s the consistent one. Dalvin Cook had 266 yards against South Florida, you say? Chubb had 266 yards against a top-20 Louisville team last year, and 202 with two touchdowns against an Arkansas defense that limited Fournette to five carries and nine yards. On Saturday, he had 189 against Vanderbilt.

He played the first half of last year in the shadow of Todd Gurley, and now we get to see if he can keep this pace for a full year. That’s all he has left to prove. That, and doing this while beating Alabama on October 3, ending Georgia’s cursed history of post–Herschel Walker running backs, and being good enough to make the “We’re not panicking” quarterback policy irrelevant. So, actually, yeah: There’s plenty of room to make a name for himself here.

Derrick Henry

derek-henry-alabama-auburn-triKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Nickname: EL TRACTORCITO.

Year: Junior.

Superpower: “Everybody just say he’s a big monster,” says his 248-pound fullback. “He makes me look like a midget.”

Weaknesses: Speed, quarterback.

Highlights:

Analysis: I’ve never been so certain that a player should not be allowed to play college football. And all I want to do is watch Derrick Henry play college football. Against Wisconsin in Week 1, Henry had 13 carries for 147 yards and three touchdowns.

He moves through defenses like a tank. It’s not even violent, it’s just inevitable. He will take your blitzing linebacker and laugh his way through the blocking assignment. He will run through arm tacklers like they’re not even there. He never really gets tackled at all; he just sort of collapses forward in the middle of three people. You never know when one of his routine 6-yard rumbles will turn into a glorious 60-yard rumble.

He split carries with T.J. Yeldon last year, but now he’s no. 1 on the depth chart, and with Kenyan Drake’s speed coupled with Henry’s power, Alabama may not even need to have a quarterback on the field. This weekend it has a rematch against Ole Miss’s killer defense, and that will be a significant test.

Even speaking as a Tractorcito evangelist, though, he’s got more to prove than anyone on this list. Can he stay healthy? Will he still be explosive if he’s doing this 20 times a game? This section has compared him to a tractor, a tank, a monster, and a fictional dinosaur … but what if Alabama can’t find a passing game? Will El Tractorcito be enough to carry the load?

The leader on this list will change at least five times this season, and we didn’t even mention Samaje Perine. It’s so much better than the Heisman. For right now, just watch these guys go nuts and try to steal the spotlight from each other every week. Cook plays at Boston College tonight, and Fournette is up next against Auburn on Saturday afternoon.

Derrick Henry plays Ole Miss at 9:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Filed Under: College Football, NCAA Football, Derrick Henry, Alabama, LSU Tigers, Leonard Fournette, Nick Chubb, Georgia Bulldogs, Dalvin Cook, Florida State Seminoles, Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp