MACtion is back! Well, at least it will be in a few months time. The conference of midweek mayhem will play host to some of the top ball carriers in the nation this fall, and what better way to celebrate than ranking the 12 projected starters for the 2023 college football season — and the rest of the room? Ladies and gentlemen, we give you our MAC RB rankings for 2023.
2023 MAC RB Rankings
1) Marquez Cooper, Vaughn Pemberton, Charlie Spegal | Ball State
When you lose the player who paced the conference in rushing yards a year ago to the transfer portal, there’s an assumption that you can expect a drop-off in production from the running back room. Expect nothing of the sort from the Ball State Cardinals, however, who swap the conference’s leading rusher for the man who finished just 225 yards behind him last year.
Numbers aren’t everything, but Marquez Cooper’s 1,331 yards finished second only to Carson Steele last year. Despite being 5’6″ and 184 pounds, Cooper runs with more physicality and aggression than you’d expect. Few can compare to his explosiveness, lateral agility, and ability to fool opponents with impressive body control and dizzying tools of deception.
Ball State’s RB room is bolstered by the return of Vaughn Pemberton, who picked up the majority of non-Steele carries last fall. Meanwhile, the addition of former Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year Charlie Spegal from the Indiana Hoosiers helps the Cardinals sit atop our MAC RB rankings in 2023.
2) Antario Brown, Gavin Williams, Jaylen Poe | Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois is another MAC team losing their leading rusher from last season to the transfer portal. Unlike Ball State, however, the Huskies don’t need to delve into the portal themselves to find a replacement lead back. They already have one of the nation’s most talented playmakers already on their roster.
Antario Brown played second-fiddle to Harrison Waylee in terms of carries and, subsequently, rushing yards last fall but out-stripped his highly regarded teammate with 6.3 yards per carry and seven rushing touchdowns.
MORE: MAC QB Rankings 2023
The 5’10”, 218-pound junior has the frame to withstand contact between the tackles, the agility to bounce outside, and the speed to take the ball to the house on chunk plays. He’s shown decent vision between the tackles and the burst to hit the hole with dangerous intentions.
Northern Illinois had strengthened their roster with the addition of JUCO standout Azhaun Dingle, but his stay in DeKalb was brief. They do add true-freshman Jaylen Poe, who was a two-time high school team MVP while bringing in Power Five experience in the form of Iowa running back Gavin Williams.
3) Sieh Bangura, O’Shaan Allison, Tyler Toledo | Ohio
1,078 rushing yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 13 touchdowns, and 27 receptions for 226 yards and two touchdowns. MAC Freshman of the Year. There were lots of impressive numbers and awards for Sieh Bangura last fall. The terrifying thing for the rest of the MAC — and the rest of college football, for that matter — is that Bangura is likely only going to get better this fall.
Heading into the season as a 6’0″, 200-pound redshirt sophomore, Bangura has already earned his place near the top of our 2023 MAC RB rankings with his ability to bulldoze through in short-yardage situations, be effective as a receiving option, and generate enough speed out of his imposing frame to be able to rip off explosive plays.
Bangura’s still learning, with only one full season of experience under his belt and the ability to improve in some elements of his game. He’s already a devastating weapon to try and take down, so the possibility of him becoming an even more difficult opponent to face should give MAC defensive coordinators sleepless nights.
Ohio will be excited to return O’Shaan Allison after he missed all of 2022 with an injury. Meanwhile, Tyler Toledo (is there a more MACtion name out there?!) has shown the vision and tackle-breaking ability to be a threat when given the opportunity.
4) Samson Evans, Jaylon Jackson, Bryson Moss | Eastern Michigan
After setting the program record for rushing touchdowns last fall, many expected Eastern Michigan running back Samson Evans to enter the 2023 NFL Draft. Instead, he returns to the Eagles for 2023 as one of the most feared RBs in the conference, nay, the nation.
Evans’ combination of production, skill set, performances against Power Five opponents, and importance to his offense help secure his place near the top of the 2023 MAC RB rankings. He is one of just three returning MAC rushers who powered to over 1,000 yards last fall.
Evans also led the conference in rushing touchdowns. At 6’0″, 218 pounds, his game is predicated on power. Drawing comparison to his biblical namesake, the Eastern Michigan back is as strong as an ox, routinely stiff-arming and running over his opponents with a lowered shoulder.
Yet, he navigates traffic with vision and burst while possessing receiving ability too. Evans is the clear standout in an Eagles RB room that also contains Jaylon Jackson, Bryson Moss, and true freshman Deion Brown.
5) Jacquez Stuart, Micah Kelly, Peny Boone | Toledo
Toledo boasts one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation with DeQuan Finn, and his contributions certainly help power the Rockets’ ground game. However, Toledo also possesses a running back whose talent ensures that they rank as the fourth-best team in our 2023 MAC RB rankings.
Epitimozing the phrase “running back rotation,” the Rockets gave triple-digit carries to four players last fall, but it was Jacquez Stuart who separated himself from the rest of the group. The 5’9″, 180-pound junior rushed for 770 yards and four touchdowns at an impressive 5.7 yards per carry.
With his mazy runs, Stuart is extremely elusive, twitching his way through the open field and leaving defenders grasping at his shadow. Impressive movements are weaponized by legitimate speed, with the Toledo RB able to effortlessly pull away from opponents.
Stuart adds returner value to his portfolio as one of the best running backs in the conference. The Rockets’ RB room is rounded out by Micah Kelly and Peny Boone, who both handled significant workloads last fall.
6) Al-Jay Henderson, Mike Washington, Ron Cook Jr., Dylan Kedzior | Buffalo
If it wasn’t for the quality of the RB1 on each of the programs listed above them, the Buffalo Bulls would be ranked much higher in these rankings. There isn’t a running back room in the conference that boasts as much talent as Buffalo’s, with all four RBs above capable of producing game-changing plays.
Mike Washington is the leading returning back in terms of yardage, pacing the Bulls with 625 yards while leading the way with seven scores. He’s a speed threat who also does a good job of following his blockers between the tackles. At 6’2″, 215 pounds, Washington’s also shown impressive leg drive to grind out yards.
Ron Cook Jr. is an older, smaller back than Washington but is by no means less effective. He has a patient style, lacking Washington’s long speed but being able to time his run with short-area burst to clear the line of scrimmage. Yet, it’s the last two who might be the most exciting backs on the roster.
Al-Jay Henderson combines great speed with an excellent understanding of angles to be a dangerous threat anywhere on the field. Success against Power Five opposition furthers his portfolio as one of the best in the MAC. Meanwhile, JUCO RB Dylan Kedzior is an alluring mix of speed and physicality, with a 6’0″, 212-pound frame ready for cold midweek MACtion.
7) Terion Stewart, Jaison Patterson, Ta’ron Keith, Jamal Johnson | Bowling Green
Bowling Green RB Terion Stewart might be one of the most underrated players in all of college football. The explosive, exciting, and physical rusher led the team in yards in 2020 and 2021, prompting high praise from within the program early in his career.
“I think he’s going to be a real good football player,” Bowling Green head coach Scott Loeffler told the Sandusky Register after Stewart’s first season with the Falcons. “He has a few things to work on, but he’s super talented. I think we can bring him to the next level as a player and a student.”
Stewart didn’t play for the program last fall but returns to the roster with the expectation of picking up back where he left off. If he can live up to his full potential after a year away, Stewart — and the Bowling Green RB room as a whole — should quickly ascend up these MAC RB rankings in 2023.
Last year’s leading rusher, Jaison Patterson, returns, as do Ta’ron Keith and Jamal Johnson. There’s a presumption that the Falcons will rotate their backs this fall. They’ll need to see more rushing production out of their stable of RBs in terms of touchdowns; tight end Harold Fannin Jr. had more rushing scores than the three returning contributors last fall.
8) Gavin Garcia, Xavier Williams, Ky Thomas | Kent State
The loss of Cooper to their conference rivals hits Kent State hard in our 2023 MAC RB rankings. The Golden Flashes also lost quarterback Collin Schlee, whose 489 rushing yards and four touchdowns ranked second on the team. That’s a significant amount of rushing production lost.
It isn’t immediately clear how Kent State is going to replace that production either.
They added Ky Thomas from Kansas, who is just a year removed from putting up 824 yards at five yards per carry for Minnesota. Thomas is physical as a blocker and isn’t afraid of contact between the tackles while boasting receiving skills that will prove valuable for their offense.
Gavin Garcia was called into action at times last fall, demonstrating big-play potential. Bryan Bradford flashed too, but he’s currently in the transfer portal. It may fall on Xavier Williams to shoulder the load. He’s only a year removed from averaging 6.5 yards per carry and 812 rushing yards. There’s potential there, but also plenty of question marks.
9) Keshawn King, Zahir Abdus-Salaam, Jalen Buckley, CJ Hester | Western Michigan
With Sean Tyler’s departure, the Western Michigan Broncos RB room arguably has the most uncertainty of any in the MAC. Tyler had been at the heart of the ground game for three years, and even when he wasn’t leading the team in carries, he found a way to register a 1,000-yard campaign. Replacing back-to-back-to-back campaigns of that magnitude is no mean feat.
The Broncos attempts to replace Tyler’s production begin with the transfer of Keshawn King. The former Virginia Tech four-star recruit led the Hokies in rushing yards and yards per carry last fall. King brings speed and a receiving threat to the Broncos backfield, while he’s shown he can add extra yardage with twitchy movements and impressive contact balance.
King’s arrival mitigates a lack of experience and production in the Broncos’ running back room. Their leading returner is Zahir Abdus-Salaam, who averaged just 2.2 yards per carry from a limited workload last fall. Jalen Buckley and Jamal Hailey have both seen very few carries in their young careers.
One young back to watch out for is CJ Hester. The three-star recruit out of Wyoming High School, he was recruited by a large number of MAC schools and also had Power Five interest. He was extremely productive while showing good long speed, nice cut-ability, and the physicality to ensure early success.
10) Marion Lukes, Myles Bailey, Christian Brown | Central Michigan
Lew Nichols III led the Chippewas for the past two seasons, establishing himself as one of the top running backs in the nation. The two RBs behind him, Marion Lukes and Myles Bailey, will now get their chance to shine, with confidence emanating from the Central Michigan coaching staff about the two prior to the 2022 season.
“We feel really confident about them. They’ve shown us that they can contribute to this football team. When Lew needs a break, we’ve got no problem putting those guys in there,” running backs coach Cordell Jackson said of the two early last year.
Lukes should emerge as the leading rusher for the Chippewas and has the potential to rise up the 2023 MAC RB rankings. Although he isn’t the fastest of backs, Lukes’ ability to change direction and deceive his opponent has allowed him to have success when called into action.
Meanwhile, he can also contribute to the Central Michigan offense both as a receiver and kick returner, registering a 100-yard kick return touchdown in 2021. You can see his ability to manipulate angles and use his body control to fool opponents on that sensational play.
11) Keyon Mozee, Kevin Davis, Rashad Amos | Miami (OH)
The RedHawks’ leading rushing last season was quarterback Aveon Smith. While he’s an impressive dual-threat under center who could challenge long-time starter Brett Gabbert through spring practice and into summer, new running backs coach Justin Simmons will want to see some improvement out of a unit that ranks near the bottom of our 2023 MAC RB rankings.
There is talent in the room, don’t get me wrong. Keyon Mozee is a former high school 100m sprinter — with a 10.5-second official time — who can explode out of the backfield with the ball in his hands or as a route runner in the receiving game.
Meanwhile, South Carolina transfer Rashod Amos is a powerful downhill runner whose 6’2″, 227-pound frame forces defensive players to make a business decision before attempting to halt him.
Perhaps the most exciting player, and the one that the RedHawks can be most optimistic about, is 5’9″, 167-pound junior Kevin Davis. He’s explosive out of the backfield and dangerous in the open field. His ability to throw spin moves in with a jaw-dropping juke makes him one to watch this fall.
12) Clyde Price III, Lorenzo Lingard | Akron
Akron’s ground game ranked last in the MAC in 2022 across a number of metrics. Only a reliance on punching it in for a rushing touchdown prevented a clean sweep, with their 16 scores on the ground ranking ahead of Ball State, Miami (OH), Bowling Green, and Western Michigan.
The Zips lose their rushing-yards leader after Cam Wiley entered the transfer portal, although they return leading TD rusher, Clyde Price III. Price was in his first year as a significant contributor last fall, so there’s an expectation of developing this upcoming season.
Nonetheless, trying to elevate the RB room was clearly a consideration for the Akron staff this offseason, with multiple transfers at the position expected to come in and compete. The highest profile of those was Lorenzo Lingard.
The former five-star running back out of Orange City, Florida, has failed to live up to his potential at the college level due to a serious knee injury early in his time at Miami. A transfer to Florida failed to provide a springboard for his career, but Akron will be hoping to release the skills that made Lingard a heavily recruited prospect.