Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

First Rate: Running Backs

In terms of the best one-two punch, no backfield on the Irish slate is more gifted than Georgia’s with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who combined for 1,970 yards rushing in 2016.

Having the best running backs doesn't necessarily mean you have the best running game.

That's particularly true as it pertains to Notre Dame's 2017 schedule, which includes a handful-plus of running backs with quality rushing numbers within offenses that don't necessarily run the football efficiently.

Thus, we have a bit of a dilemma ranking Notre Dame and it's 12 opponents at the running back position. Here are our best bets using running back talent, running game efficiency, and offensive line talent as criteria for the order in which they appear.

13) Miami (Ohio) (Alonzo Smith/Kenny Young/Maurice Thomas)
Chuck Martin would love to complement QB Gus Ragland with a running game that balances the attack, particularly with four offensive linemen returning to the starting lineup. But it's been tough sledding for the Redhawks, who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry with a mere nine rushing touchdowns in 13 games in '16. Miami (Ohio) ranked 107th nationally at 136.3 yards rushing per game.

Smith – a 5-foot-10, 221-pound junior – rushed for 709 yards, a 4.3-yard average and just three touchdowns. Young's 5-foot-7 quickness and 6.3 yards per carry offer a nice change of pace. Thomas carried just 37 times last year, but averaged 7.0 yards per attempt.

12) Wake Forest (Cade Carney/Matt Colburn/Arkeem Byrd)
The Demon Deacons boasted three 500-yard rushers in '16, but that's where the boasting ends. More than one-fifth of the team's running plays resulted in lost yardage. Thus, the 101st ranking in rushing yards per game (145.8) and 3.5 yards per carry far out-weighed the value of the multiple ball-carrying options.

Colburn (626 yards) and Carney (589) will keep plugging away behind an offensive line that lost its best talent but still boasts three returning junior starters. Byrd adds some burst.

11) Boston College (Jon Hilliman/Davon Jones/A.J. Dillon/Travis Levy)
Only the Eagles' commitment to the running game puts them ahead of the above-mentioned squads. Just 25 teams rushed the football more than Boston College last year. But the Eagles weren't very good at it, finishing 96th on the ground at just 3.4 yards per carry.

Hilliman (542 yards, six TDs) is a veteran. Boston College will be looking for a spark from the youngsters behind him, including last-minute Michigan recruiting defection Dillon. Four starters return along the offensive line.

10) Navy (RB-Chris High, SB-Darryl Bonner/SB-Malcolm Perry/SB-Josh Brown/SB-Tre Walker)
Of course, the sum always is much greater than the parts in the Naval Academy's triple-option attack. It's always a plus for the Midshipmen to have an established fullback like High, who rushed for 546 yards, 6.4 yards per carry and seven touchdowns in '16. Only two starters return up front, but three seniors and two juniors will be leading the way.

9) North Carolina (Michael Carter/Jordon Brown/Stanton Truitt)
No one on the Irish slate lost more productivity at running back than the Tar Heels following the departure of Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan, who accounted for all but a handful of yards on the ground in '16. Plus, they lost three quality offensive linemen.

But with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky gone as well, look for North Carolina to run the football a bit more while banking on early-enrollee Carter to pick up the slack. Brown, a sophomore, rushed for just 45 yards on 20 carries last year. Truitt, a transfer from Auburn, could be a factor.

8) N.C. State (Jaylen Samuels/Nyheim Hines/Reggie Gallaspy)
With the loss of 1,166-yard rusher Matthew Dayes, the Wolfpack don't have a natural heir apparent. Samuels is listed as a tight end and Hines was a receiver up until a few months ago. Gallaspy is the leading returning rusher with just 234 yards, two touchdowns and a 4.7-yard average in '16.

But four starters return on what should be a quality offensive line. They'll have to do better than 4.03 yards per carry, which won't be easy without a player as gifted as Dayes.

7) Temple (Ryquell Armstead/Jager Gardner)
The Owls' rushing numbers in '16 were middle-of-the-pack, and now they'll have to absorb a couple of big hits on the offensive line, plus the loss of a three-year starting quarterback.

But there's little doubt that first-year head coach Geoff Collins will try to create a physical environment a la his predecessor, Matt Rhule, and build an offense around the talented Armstead, who rushed for 919 yards, 5.9 yards per carry and 14 of Temple's 31 rushing touchdowns in '16.

6) Miami (Mark Walton/Travis Homer)
The Hurricanes lost Joseph Yearby, who averaged 6.0 yards per carry with seven touchdowns en route to a 608-yard season. But Walton is back after rushing for 1,117 yards, a 5.3-yard average and 14 touchdowns behind an offensive line that was hit-and-miss, and it wasn't because it allowed an inordinate number of sacks.

The offensive line carved a meager path that ranked 93rd in rushing offense (151.7 ypg., 4.5 ypc., and 24 TDs). It's time for the unit, with more than 100 combined starts, to show some consistency. Otherwise, players like Jarron Jones will get six tackles for loss in one game. Homer, a sophomore, will try to form another tandem with Walton.

5) Notre Dame (Josh Adams/Dexter Williams/Tony Jones Jr.)
In two seasons, Josh Adams has rushed for 1,768 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 6.4 yards per carry, including a 933-yard sophomore season in '16. Williams, now heading into his junior season, remains way more promise than proven production while Jones Jr., a standout in the spring, has yet to get a live carry.

Four offensive linemen return to the starting lineup and offensive coordinator Chip Long claims there will be a greater emphasis on the ground game. Only 21 FBS teams last year allowed fewer than Notre Dame's 64 tackles for loss allowed. The opportunity is there for an improved rushing attack that accounted for 163.3 yards and 4.4 yards per carry.

4) Michigan State (LJ Scott/Gerald Holmes/Madre London)
What elevates the Spartans over the Irish is a proven one-two punch as opposed to Josh Adams and unproven commodities behind him. Scott rushed for 994 yards, a 5.4-yard average and six touchdowns in '16, including four 100-yard games over the last half of the season.

Holmes is a 1,000-yard career rusher, including 431 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Holmes led the Spartans in rushing in Michigan State's 36-28 victory over Notre Dame, due largely to his 73-yard touchdown run. London also has 620 yards rushing in two years in East Lansing. The Spartans return just one truly established offensive lineman – center Brian Allen.

3) USC (Ronald Jones II/Aca'Cedric Ware/Stephen Carr)
This high ranking is based almost entirely on Jones II, who rushed for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns last season while cracking the 2,000-yard two-year mark with the Trojans. Ware rushed for nearly 400 yards in '16 before Nicco Fertitta knocked him out in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale. Carr is a highly-touted freshman.

USC took some big hits along the offensive line, but Toa Lobendahn returns to the interior offensive line after suffering a season-ending injury in the opener to Alabama. The Trojans were 42nd in the country last year at 200.7 yards rushing per game.

2) Stanford (Bryce Love/Cameron Scarlett/Trevor Speights/Dorian Maddox)
The Cardinal lost Christian McCaffrey to the NFL draft, but they also lost him due to injury prior to the Notre Dame game and Stanford still came away with a victory. Love rushed for a career-high 129 yards and a touchdown in the three-point win over the Irish.

Love finished with 779 yards on the season and an eye-opening 7.0 yards per carry. He closed the season with a 119-yard performance in the Sun Bowl victory over North Carolina. Scarlett is the short-yardage back. With four starting offensive linemen returning, look for Stanford to improve its No. 35 running game.

1) Georgia (Nick Chubb/Sony Michel/Brian Herrien/D'Andre Swift)
The Bulldogs do not have the best rushing attack among Notre Dame's 2017 opponents. But they do have the best one-two punch at the position with Chubb (1,130 yards in '16) and Michel (840 yards). Now fully healthy from a nasty knee injury in '15, Chubb will be on a rampage this fall.

It's up to the offensive line to improve upon Georgia's 4.6 yards per carry and 18 rushing touchdowns. There's also young talent behind Chubb and Michel, just in case.

1. Georgia (3 – QB 2nd, RB 1st)
2. USC (4 – QB 1st, RB 3rd)
3. Stanford (6 – QB 4th, RB 2nd)
4. N.C. State (11 – QB 3rd, RB 8th)
5. Notre Dame (12 – QB 7th, RB 5th)
6. Michigan State (13 – QB 9th, RB 4th)
7. North Carolina (15 – QB 6th, RB 9th)
8. Miami (16 – QB 10th, RB 6th)
9. Miami (Ohio) (18 – QB 5th, RB 13th)
10t. Temple (20 – QB 13th, RB 7th)
10t. Wake Forest (20 – QB 8th, RB 12th)
12. Navy (21 – QB 11th, RB 10th)
13. Boston College (23 -- QB 12th, RB 11th)


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