Until the mid-1960s, substitutions in college football were minimal. All-around athletes dominated, playing frequently on both sides of the ball. But with the end of the mandate on one-platoon play in 1965, specialization began to reign. Players better at offense became offensive players, players better at defense became defenders, and rather quickly, running backs took over. From 1965 to 1988, running backs won 17 of 24 Heisman Trophies, dominating the 1970s and early 1980s in particular.
As the game has changed, so has the position. We see very few running backs getting 25 carries per game, and only three RBs have won the Heisman in the 21st century. The position is evolving, but it’s still a key piece of almost every college football offense. So let’s take a moment to commemorate the best backs we’ve seen.
Here are the 100 best running backs of the past six decades, the period since specialization took over the sport.
The first six players on the list proved almost as dangerous catching passes as they were taking handoffs. And after players such as Donny Anderson and Ronnie Harmon paved the way, Travis Etienne showed the finished form of such a back, rushing for more than 1,600 yards twice and catching 85 balls for 1,020 yards over his last two seasons.
100. Greg Lewis, Washington (1987-90)
99. Ronnie Harmon, Iowa (1982-85)
98. Rueben Mayes, Washington State (1982-85)
97. Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois (2004-06)
96. Donny Anderson, Texas Tech (1963-65)
95. Travis Etienne, Clemson (2017-20)
Ahead of their time
In the mid-1960s, top running backs hadn’t quite become the load-carrying feature backs they would in the late 1960s and 1970s. These players could have benefited greatly from such a development. (Mercury Morris, meanwhile, belongs partially to this category and partially to the last one.)
94. Mel Renfro, Oregon (1961-63)
93. Mel Farr, UCLA (1964-66)
92. Jim Grabowski, Illinois (1963-65)
91. Mercury Morris, West Texas A&M (1966-68)
The four players below combined to rush for 14,908 yards and score 129 total touchdowns in their respective careers. But each of them did most of their damage in a single, 2,000-yard season, led by Kevin Smith’s otherworldly 2,567-yard campaign in 2007.
90. Andre Williams, Boston College (2010-13)
89. J.J. Arrington, Cal (2003-04)
88. Bryce Love, Stanford (2015-18)
87. Kevin Smith, UCF (2005-07)
Each of these 12 backs earned pretty significant attention from Heisman voters at least once, and each put together pretty ridiculous career numbers, even if those numbers weren’t quite enough to get them into the top 60.
86. Larry Csonka, Syracuse (1965-67)
85. Shaun Alexander, Alabama (1996-99)
84. Roosevelt Leaks, Texas (1972-74)
83. Terry Miller, Oklahoma State (1974-77)
82. Woody Green, Arizona State (1971-73)
81. Darnell Autry, Northwestern (1994-96)
80. Paul Palmer, Temple (1983-86)
79. Anthony Davis, USC (1972-74)
78. Anthony Thompson, Indiana (1986-89)
77. Emmitt Smith, Florida (1987-89)
76. Najee Harris, Alabama (2017-20)
75. Leonard Fournette, LSU (2014-16)
Toby Gerhart nearly won the Heisman with an 1,800-yard senior season, Ka’Deem Carey rushed for nearly 3,800 yards over an incredible two-year span, J.K. Dobbins averaged nearly 1,500 yards and more than 6 yards per carry over a star-studded three-year career and Dalvin Cook carried a ridiculously heavy load while doing his best to carry a flagging Florida State program. All were incredible.
74. Toby Gerhart, Stanford (2006-09)
73. Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona (2011-13)
72. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State (2017-19)
71. Dalvin Cook, Florida State (2014-16)
Penn State stars
Beaver Stadium has housed an amazing number of successful feature backs through the years. Though Saquon Barkley was particularly noteworthy, he wasn’t the only one deserving of a spot on this list.
70. Ki-Jana Carter, Penn State (1992-94)
69. Lydell Mitchell, Penn State (1969-71)
68. Saquon Barkley, Penn State (2015-17)
Good as freshmen and even better as seniors for the most part, these seven posted ridiculous career yardage totals and made the absolute most of their lengthy and successful college experiences. (That goes double for Donnel Pumphrey, with his 6,405 career rushing yards.)
67. Damien Anderson, Northwestern (1998-2001)
66. Errict Rhett, Florida (1989-93)
65. Nick Chubb, Georgia (2014-17)
64. Mike Hart, Michigan (2004-07)
63. Royce Freeman, Oregon (2014-17)
62. DeAngelo Williams, Memphis (2002-05)
61. Donnel Pumphrey, San Diego State (2013-16)
The top 60
Now we get to the 60 best backs of the past 60 years. Let’s shine a light on each.
60. Mike Alstott, Purdue
Career stats: 3,635 rushing yards (5.6 per rush), 1,075 receiving yards (11.6 per catch), 42 TDs
Purdue would soon become the first home of the Big Ten’s spread offense evolution, but Alstott was the most early ’90s Big Ten running back imaginable, weighing in at nearly 250 pounds and bruising his way to 1,436 rushing yards as a senior.
59. Jamaal Charles, Texas
Career stats: 3,328 rushing yards (6.2), 539 receiving yards (11.0), 39 TDs
After a couple of seasons as an explosive backup, Charles took full advantage of a feature opportunity in 2007, rushing for 1,619 yards (6.3 per carry) and scoring 18 touchdowns for a Longhorns team in transition.
58. Edgerrin James, Miami
Career stats: 2,960 rushing yards (6.0), 595 receiving yards (14.2), 35 TDs
Like Charles, James had to wait for his turn in the spotlight and starred for a program on the brink of greatness. His 1,416 yards (5.9 per carry) and 17 touchdowns in 1998 still made quite a mark.
57. Gale Sayers, Kansas
Career stats: 2,675 rushing yards (6.5), 398 receiving yards (11.4), 19 TDs
The future Chicago Bears great was quite a canvas for figuring out what the running back position was capable of in a two-platoon universe. Over three seasons with the Jayhawks, Sayers averaged about 15 touches per game and an impressive 6.8 yards per touch.
56. Joe Washington, Oklahoma
Career stats: 3,995 rushing yards (6.1), 253 receiving yards (19.5), 31 TDs
Like other college football powers, Oklahoma moved to the wishbone in the early ’70s and thrived. Washington was one of the early beneficiaries, finishing in the Heisman top five in both 1974 and 1975.
55. Ahman Green, Nebraska
Career stats: 3,880 rushing yards (6.8), 300 receiving yards (8.6), 45 TDs
From one of the first beneficiaries of the option (Washington) to one of the last. Even by the standards of Nebraska I-backs, Green was a standout, averaging 1,000-yard seasons for two years, then ripping off 1,877 during Nebraska’s last national title run.
54. Rob Lytle, Michigan
Career stats: 3,311 rushing yards (6.0), 158 receiving yards (11.3), 29 TDs
Known for his toughness above all else, the three-year Wolverines star also boasted standout explosiveness. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry over more than 18 carries per game as a senior, famously posting 165 yards in a runaway win over rival Ohio State.
53. Trent Richardson, Alabama
Career stats: 3,130 rushing yards (5.8), 730 receiving yards (10.7), 42 TDs
Richardson’s college career in one play:
Trent Richardson’s impressive 76-yard TD run against Ole Miss in Oxford. pic.twitter.com/MWGh0HNXPm
— alabamavault (@alabamavault) September 13, 2018
52. Ed Marinaro, Cornell
Career stats: 4,715 rushing yards (5.1), 232 receiving yards (10.1), 52 TDs
The future “Hill Street Blues” TV star was one of the sport’s first great workhorse backs. As a senior, Marinaro rushed 356 times (nearly 40 per game!) for 1,881 yards and 24 touchdowns and narrowly lost the Heisman vote to Auburn’s Pat Sullivan.
51. Warrick Dunn, Florida State
Career stats: 3,959 rushing yards (6.9), 1,314 receiving yards (10.0), 49 TDs
Maybe the best dual-threat back of the 1990s, Dunn rushed for at least 1,000 yards and caught at least 30 passes in each of his final three seasons in Tallahassee. Ridiculously great person too.
Career stats: 3,656 rushing yards (7.5), 479 receiving yards (11.4), 44 TDs
A Thurman Thomas-to-Barry Sanders transition at the Group of Five level: In 2016, Penny gained 1,018 yards in just 136 carries while backing up the great Donnel Pumphrey. As the star in 2017, Penny went off for 2,248 yards (7.3 per carry) and 23 scores.
49. LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU
Career stats: 5,387 rushing yards (5.7), 267 receiving yards (6.2), 56 TDs
After a nondescript first two seasons in Fort Worth, Tomlinson made up for lost time, erupting for more than 4,100 yards and 42 touchdowns in his last two seasons, then becoming one of the NFL’s best and most durable backs of the 21st century.
48. Willis McGahee, Miami
Career stats: 2,067 rushing yards (5.9), 348 receiving yards (12.4), 31 TDs
It’s hard for someone to make this list if he did most of his work in a single season, but what an impression McGahee made as a redshirt sophomore in 2002. He rushed for 1,753 yards (6.2 per carry) and caught 27 passes for a team that came within an eyelash of the national title.
47. Mark Ingram, Alabama
Career stats: 3,261 rushing yards (5.7), 670 receiving yards (11.2), 46 TDs
One of history’s greatest oddities: No Alabama player won the Heisman until 2009. Granted, four have done so since, starting with Ingram, who ran for 1,658 yards and had 32 receptions during Nick Saban’s first national title campaign in Tuscaloosa.
Career stats: 4,041 rushing yards (5.4), 198 receiving yards (8.3), 42 TDs
One of the most highly touted recruits of the 2000s, Peterson immediately lived up to the hype, rushing for 1,925 yards as a freshman for a Sooners team that reached the BCS championship game. Only injuries kept him out of our top 20.
45. Larry Johnson, Penn State
Career stats: 2,953 rushing yards (6.4), 681 receiving yards (10.5), 33 TDs
In 2002, Johnson provided one of the greatest one-year outbursts we’ve seen. After rushing for just 866 yards in three seasons, he posted 2,087 and 20 touchdowns — with 41 receptions! — as a senior, guiding the Nittany Lions to a nine-win bounceback season.
44. Steve Owens, Oklahoma
Career stats: 3,928 rushing yards (4.3), 141 receiving yards (8.3), 57 TDs
The last great back of OU’s pre-wishbone days, Owens took on an unreal workload, averaging nearly 36 carries per game over his final two seasons, gaining 3,059 yards, scoring 44 times and winning the 1969 Heisman Trophy.
43. Keith Byars, Ohio State
Career stats: 3,200 rushing yards (5.2), 882 receiving yards (12.3), 49 TDs
Injuries can be cruel: Byars combined 1,764 rushing yards with 42 receptions while finishing second in the Heisman voting in 1984 and was primed to win it in 1985 before breaking his foot in the preseason and struggling as a senior. But his junior season was an all-timer.
42. Steve Slaton, West Virginia
Career stats: 3,923 rushing yards (5.9), 805 receiving yards (12.4), 55 TDs
Slaton was part of a perfect marriage with coach and spread innovator Rich Rodriguez and quarterback Pat White. After helping WVU to a Sugar Bowl title in 2005, Slaton ramped things up, gaining 3,505 yards from scrimmage and scoring 36 touchdowns in 2006 and ’07.
41. Troy Davis, Iowa State
Career stats: 4,382 rushing yards (5.6), 258 receiving yards (7.8), 37 TDs
Imagine how difficult it must have been to be the only big-time player on a team that would win just five games in two seasons. Opponents had to prepare to stop you and only you. Now imagine rushing for more than 2,000 yards and finishing in the Heisman top five twice on those teams. That’s what Troy Davis did.
40. John Cappelletti, Penn State
Career stats: 2,639 rushing yards (5.1), 207 receiving yards (9.4), 30 TDs
After spending his sophomore season as a defensive back, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Cappelletti switched to offense as a junior. Good call. He rushed for 1,117 yards in 1972, then bumped it up to 1,522 during his Heisman campaign of 1973.
39. Garrison Hearst, Georgia
Career stats: 3,232 rushing yards (6.0), 546 receiving yards (12.1), 35 TDs
After slumping to start the 1990s, Georgia rebounded to win 19 games in 1991 and ’92. One of the main reasons for that surge was Hearst, who gained 1,871 combined yards from scrimmage, finished third in the 1992 Heisman voting, then was taken third in the 1993 NFL draft.
38. Greg Pruitt, Oklahoma
Career stats: 2,939 rushing yards (7.5), 450 receiving yards (15.0), 39 TDs
With its newly minted wishbone attack, Oklahoma fielded one of the best offenses in history in 1971, and Pruitt was the main component. He rushed for 1,760 yards (9.0 per carry) and 18 touchdowns while finishing third in the Heisman voting, then finished second in 1972.
37. Ricky Bell, USC
Career stats: 3,689 rushing yards (5.2), 185 receiving yards (10.3), 29 TDs
As a USC tailback in this era, it almost feels like a fluke that the future No. 1 pick didn’t win a Heisman. He finished third in the voting while rushing for 1,957 yards in 1975, then finished second while rushing for 1,433 yards as a senior.
36. Chuck Muncie, Cal
Career stats: 3,052 rushing yards (5.6), 1,085 receiving yards (11.2), 38 TDs
Another great dual-threat back, Muncie put together a season for the ages in 1975, rushing for 1,460 yards (6.4 per carry) and catching 39 balls for 392 more. Cal recorded its first top-15 finish in 25 years, and Muncie finished behind only Archie Griffin in the Heisman voting.
35. Darren McFadden, Arkansas
Career stats: 4,590 rushing yards (5.8), 365 receiving yards (7.9), 43 TDs
One of the most sought-after Arkansas recruits of the century, McFadden stayed in-state and backed up all hype. Over his last two seasons, he rushed for 3,477 yards and 30 touchdowns, caught 32 passes and even threw seven touchdowns passes as a Wildcat QB.
Career stats: 3,961 rushing yards (6.7), 449 receiving yards (7.7), 44 TDs
I could tell you about his back-to-back 1,800-yard seasons … or I could just show you his most famous run.
Career stats: 3,591 rushing yards (6.0), 285 receiving yards (16.8), 45 TDs
Let’s put it this way: Henry remains a unique force at the pro level, capable of either running over or outsprinting NFL defensive backs and rushing for 2,000 yards (as he did in 2020). It was unfair to ask college defenders to stop him, and few did during his 2,219-yard campaign in 2015.
32. Cedric Benson, Texas
Career stats: 5,540 rushing yards (5.0), 621 receiving yards (9.0), 67 TDs
Benson finished his career as one of college football’s steadiest stars. He not only produced four straight 1,000-yard seasons but also almost produced two of them as a senior, posting 1,834 yards and helping the Longhorns to a Rose Bowl title.
Career stats: 4,810 rushing yards (5.2), 801 receiving yards (9.3), 47 TDs
Allen patiently waited for his turn in the USC backfield, then made up for lost time. He rushed for 1,563 yards as a junior before producing one of the greatest senior years you’ll ever see: 433 carries (36 per game!) for 2,427 yards and 22 touchdowns.
30. LaMichael James, Oregon
Career stats: 5,082 rushing yards (6.6), 586 receiving yards (11.5), 57 TDs
Chip Kelly’s Ducks went 34-6 from 2009-11, finishing in the top five twice and nearly winning the 2010 national title. James was the face of those teams, rushing for at least 1,500 yards each year and scoring 24 times during that blessed 2010 run. An underrated superstar.
29. Marshall Faulk, San Diego State
Career stats: 4,589 rushing yards (6.0), 973 receiving yards (11.9), 62 TDs
Recruited as a cornerback by major programs, Faulk instead chose to play running back in the WAC. His three top-10 Heisman finishes suggest that was a solid choice. As a junior, he combined 1,530 yards on the ground with 47 receptions, then went second in the NFL draft. (To be sure, he would have been a hell of a cornerback too.)
28. Darrin Nelson, Stanford
Career stats: 4,033 rushing yards (5.7), 2,368 receiving yards (11.1), 40 TDs
Nelson’s talent was so unique that he nearly made last summer’s Best College Receivers list too. In four seasons at Stanford, he topped 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards three times each.
27. Mike Garrett, USC
Career stats: 3,221 rushing yards (5.3), 399 receiving yards (11.1), 29 TDs
One of the first big-time-high-volume running backs, Garrett averaged 26.7 carries per game during a senior season that earned him 1,440 yards and an easy Heisman win over three other backs on this list (Grabowski, Donny Anderson and the guy listed one spot above him).
26. Floyd Little, Syracuse
Career stats: 2,750 rushing yards (5.4), 591 receiving yards (11.6), 39 TDs
Applying this list to only the past 60 years of college football narrowly squeezes out incredible Syracuse backs Jim Brown and Ernie Davis. But Little makes it in on the power of two Heisman top-five finishes and a pretty awesome dual-threat statline for the mid-1960s.
25. Eric Bieniemy, Colorado
Career stats: 3,940 rushing yards (5.6), 380 receiving yards (14.1), 42 TDs
One of the first major recruiting wins of the Bill McCartney era at Colorado, Bieniemy came to town hoping to raise the program’s profile and left it as the headliner (1,628 yards, 17 touchdowns, third in the Heisman voting) for a national champion.
24. Eric Dickerson, SMU
Career stats: 4,450 rushing yards (5.6), 190 receiving yards (10.0), 48 TDs
Dickerson’s recruitment was the stuff 30-for-30s are made of, and he proved he was worth the fuss. He led SMU to a 21-1-1 record in 1981 and ’82, rushing for more than 3,000 yards and finishing third in the 1982 Heisman voting.
23. Thurman Thomas, Oklahoma State
Career stats: 4,847 rushing yards (5.1), 598 receiving yards (7.1), 45 TDs
Thomas’ career was somehow overshadowed by the guy who took his job after he left for the NFL (some guy named Sanders), but he was incredible in his own right, rushing for more than 1,600 yards twice and averaging more than 20 receptions per season.
22. Darren Sproles, Kansas State
Career stats: 4,979 rushing yards (6.1), 609 receiving yards (9.2), 47 TDs
Listed at 5-foot-6, Sproles was the ultimate “underestimate me at your peril” back, rushing for at least 1,300 yards three times and cranking it up to 1,986 during KSU’s 2003 Big 12 title run. He then embarked on a 15-year NFL career, just in case the doubters remained unconvinced.
21. Eddie George, Ohio State
Career stats: 3,768 rushing yards (5.5), 534 receiving yards (8.5), 45 TDs
Like others on this list, George had to wait his turn to prove himself. But after rushing for 1,442 yards as a junior in 1994, he somehow found another gear as a senior: 1,927 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 25 total touchdowns and one Heisman Trophy.
20. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Career stats: 4,915 rushing yards (7.8), 228 receiving yards (10.4), 49 TDs
Wisconsin’s backfield in the early 2010s was so crowded that, after rushing for 216 yards on just nine carries in the 2012 Big Ten championship, Gordon still had to wait until 2014 to take on feature-back status. But what a feature back he was: He rushed for 2,587 yards (7.5 per carry!) and 29 touchdowns.
19. Montee Ball, Wisconsin
Career stats: 5,140 rushing yards (5.6), 598 receiving yards (10.1), 83 TDs
Gordon would have seen time sooner in the Wisconsin backfield if Ball had chosen some other school. In 2011 and ’12, Ball averaged 24 carries and 5.7 yards per carry and scored a jaw-dropping 61 touchdowns, 39 in a record-setting 2011 campaign.
18. George Rogers, South Carolina
Career stats: 5,091 rushing yards (5.5), 389 receiving yards (9.0), 33 TDs
In an era of amazing feature backs, Rogers still managed to stand out. At a school that hasn’t produced many Heisman contenders, he finished seventh in 1979 and first in 1980 while rushing for a combined 3,462 yards and 22 touchdowns. He then went No. 1 in the 1981 draft.
17. Rashaan Salaam, Colorado
Career stats: 3,057 rushing yards (6.3), 412 receiving yards (10.8), 33 TDs
After a brief, post-1990 reset, Colorado nearly won the national title again in 1994 thanks to Salaam’s Heisman performance. He rushed for 2,055 yards and 24 touchdowns and caught 24 passes to boot as the Buffaloes lost only to national champion Nebraska.
16. Leroy Keyes, Purdue
Career stats: 2,090 rushing yards (5.9), 1,204 receiving yards (15.1), 36 TDs
Keyes would have thrived in any decade. He finished in the Heisman top three in both 1967 and ’68, not only rushing for 1,989 yards and 27 touchdowns but also catching 78 passes for another 1,186 yards. He threw eight touchdown passes as well, which frankly is just showing off.
Career stats: 3,922 rushing yards (6.2), 1,206 receiving yards (12.2), 31 TDs
A Keyes for the 2010s, McCaffrey somehow combined 2,109 rushing yards with 645 receiving yards in 2015, finishing behind only Henry in the Heisman voting. Maybe the only reason he didn’t rush for 2,000-plus again the next year? He missed two games with injury.
14. Billy Sims, Oklahoma
Career stats: 3,820 rushing yards (7.0), 77 receiving yards (38.5), 48 TDs
Sims rushed for 3,268 yards and won a Heisman in two seasons as OU’s feature back, but that doesn’t provide enough context. That he did that in barely 20 carries per game, and scored a touchdown on basically every 11th carry, adds a bit more. He was electric.
13. Charles White, USC
Career stats: 6,245 rushing yards (5.4), 541 receiving yards (9.2), 53 TDs
It makes sense that Marcus Allen had to wait for his shot in the lineup considering White was the guy in front of him, rushing for 3,909 yards, winning a Heisman and leading the Trojans to a combined 23-1-1 record and dueling top-two finishes in 1978 and ’79.
12. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin
Career stats: 7,125 rushing yards (5.8), 304 receiving yards (9.8), 71 TDs
The platonic ideal of a Barry Alvarez back, Dayne rushed for 2,109 yards and 21 touchdowns as a freshman, then tried his best to top that in the years that followed, leading the Badgers to two Rose Bowl wins and winning the Heisman in 1999.
Career stats: 6,174 rushing yards (6.7), 407 receiving yards (9.7), 55 TDs
It says something about a player who, per the official NCAA records, came within 231 rushing yards of the all-time career lead. It says even more that he did it in three seasons. Taylor rushed for 1,977, 2,194 and 2,003 yards, respectively, from 2017-19, all with top-10 Heisman finishes. That he didn’t finish better than fifth says far more about the era than it does about him.
10. Reggie Bush, USC
Career stats: 3,169 rushing yards (7.3), 1,301 receiving yards (13.7), 38 TDs
If you want to deduct points from Bush’s ledger for his splitting of an amazing USC backfield with LenDale White, go for it. If you still resent that he won the Heisman in 2005 instead of Texas’ Vince Young, fine. My counterpoint:
Bush was the most hypnotic, hold-your-breath running back of the 2000s. He goes in the top 10.
9. Earl Campbell, Texas
Career stats: 4,443 rushing yards (5.8), 128 receiving yards (21.3), 41 TDs
Like Derrick Henry, Campbell was like a video game Create-A-Player brought to life. With enormously wide, powerful legs, the “Tyler Rose” broke through as a sophomore but battled injuries the next year. Fully healthy in 1977, he led the nation with 1,744 yards, scored 18 touchdowns and led Texas to the brink of a national title until the Longhorns’ Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame.
8. Bo Jackson, Auburn
Career stats: 4,303 rushing yards (6.6), 272 receiving yards (10.5), 45 TDs
Like Campbell, Jackson’s career was worth the wait. After rushing for 1,213 yards as a sophomore (256 against Alabama) as the Tigers nearly won the national title, he battled injuries for much of his junior season before exploding as a senior: 1,786 yards, 17 touchdowns and the narrowest of Heisman wins over Iowa’s Chuck Long.
7. Mike Rozier, Nebraska
Career stats: 4,780 rushing yards (7.2), 216 receiving yards (10.8), 51 TDs
Rozier took one of the nation’s most dominant programs to a new level. He surpassed Roger Craig in the starting lineup and rushed for 1,689 yards as Nebraska went 12-1 in 1982, then broke out for 2,148 yards and 29 scores and ran away with the Heisman as the Huskers nearly put together the most dominant national title run ever. (They tripped at the final hurdle against Miami.) His 1983 campaign might have been the best season a running back had put together to that point.
6. Tony Dorsett, Pitt
Career stats: 6,526 rushing yards (5.6), 415 receiving yards (9.9), 63 TDs
Dorsett was an All-American as a freshman. He was Pitt’s leading career rusher early in his sophomore season. He rushed for more than 290 yards on Notre Dame twice. He had two 1,600-yard seasons and a 2,100-yard season. He won basically every award a running back can win. He led Pitt to the 1976 national title in maybe the most blueblood-friendly decade in the sport’s history. He was just unreal.
5. O.J. Simpson, USC
Career stats: 3,423 rushing yards (5.1), 320 receiving yards (8.9), 36 TDs
Maybe the most accomplished juco transfer this side of Cam Newton, Simpson showed up at USC and immediately became one of the best players in college football. As a junior, he rushed for 1,543 yards, 13 TDs, a loping 64-yard score in a win over No. 1 UCLA and a No. 2 Heisman finish. He somehow topped that as a senior: 1,880 yards, 23 scores and a Heisman win.
Career stats: 6,279 rushing yards (6.2), 927 receiving yards (10.9), 75 TDs
A unanimous All-American and Doak Walker Award winner as a junior in 1997, Williams had already rushed for 4,265 yards and 46 touchdowns in his career before he elected to return to UT as a senior and set records. He broke Dorsett’s career rushing record in style:
GameDay 100: Ricky Williams breaks off a long touchdown run against Texas A&M to surpass Tony Dorsett’s NCAA career rushing record.
3. Herschel Walker, Georgia
Career stats: 5,259 rushing yards (5.3), 243 receiving yards (9.3), 52 TDs
In the three years before Walker’s arrival, Georgia had gone just 20-13-1. The Dawgs had one top-10 finish in the previous eight years. In three seasons with Walker as the lead back, the Dawgs won 33 games and their first AP national title (1980). He enjoyed one of the best freshman seasons ever (1,616 yards, 15 touchdowns), then proceeded to top it twice. He finished third, then second, then first in the Heisman voting and came agonizingly close to a second title in 1982. His was a nearly perfect three-year career.
2. Archie Griffin, Ohio State
Career stats: 5,589 rushing yards (6.0), 350 receiving yards (11.7), 27 TDs
Simply put, Griffin put together the most celebrated four-year career a running back has seen. After splitting carries with Champ Henson as a freshman, Griffin averaged 20-plus carries and 135 yards per game for three straight seasons, leading Ohio State to a 31-3-1 record and, after finishing fifth in the Heisman voting in 1973, becoming the only player to win it twice, in 1974 and ’75. He was almost impossibly steady and consistent, but he also brought some pop, averaging 6.0 yards per carry in a “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense.
1. Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State
Career stats: 3,556 rushing yards (6.8), 164 receiving yards (7.1), 49 TDs
It feels strange giving the No. 1 ranking to a guy who was a national standout for only one season. But it would have felt even stranger not giving it to him. Sanders’ 1988 season is the most incredible thing we’ve ever seen from a running back. After serving as the nation’s scariest return man in 1987, Sanders took over for Thurman Thomas and produced the greatest rushing season ever.
He scored on both his first and last carries of the season. He scored at least three touchdowns eight times. He topped 300 yards four times! Back in 2018, ESPN’s Jake Trotter compared his weekly output to the best output in all of college football during each week of the 2017 season. Sanders won. He was untouchable and electric, and for all that college football fans, writers, coaches and players have seen over the past 150-plus years, we’ve never seen anything else like Barry Sanders.