College football: Nine greatest running backs of all time
Although football is proving to be more of a passing game these days, the 2015 college football season could be called the Year of the Running Back. Just think about all the unbelievable runners we have in today’s game: Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, and more.
Quarterbacks had taken home 13 of the past 14 Heisman awards entering this year, but Henry broke that trend in 2015 and came home with the hardware.
So, with college football having a running back renaissance of sorts, we thought this would be a great time to take a look back at some of the best runners in the game's history.
Our list was compiled based on a combination of stats, awards won and the legacy these players left on the game.
Notes: These rankings solely represent the views of the author. The players are placed in order based on when they played.
Doak Walker (1945, 1947-1949)
Doak Walker doesn’t have the eye-popping stats like every other name on this list as a result of the era he played in. However, It’s clear someone is a special player when a prestigious award is named after them more than 40 years after their career is over. In 1990, the NCAA created the Doak Walker award, to be given annually to the best running back in college football.
At SMU, Walker was a three-time All-American, a Maxwell award winner in 1947 and a Heisman award winner in 1948. Walker finished his career with 1,928 yards rushing, but he wasn't solely a running threat. Walker could throw (1,654 career yards passing), catch (454 yards receiving), kick (he punted and kicked extra points) and help in the return game (he returned punts and kickoffs). Talk about a do-it-all player. SMU has a statue of Walker in the appropriately named Doak Walker Plaza outside of its stadium.
Archie Griffin (1972-1975)
Archie Griffin left his mark on college football like no one else has. The former Ohio State great is the only player in history to win the Heisman twice. He rushed for 1,695 yards (6.6 YPC) and 12 touchdowns in 1974 and 1,450 yards (5.5 YPC) and four touchdowns in 1975 en route to the honors. Griffin also took home the Walter Camp award twice and the Maxwell award in 1975. Griffin’s 5,589 career yards rushing were an NCAA record when his career end, and he remains the only player in Big Ten history to lead the conference in rushing for three straight seasons.
Tony Dorsett (1973-1976)
Tony Dorsett's quickness was truly a sight to behold and he raced his way to 6,526 yards rushing and 59 touchdowns during four seasons at Pittsburgh. Dorsett is undoubtedly the greatest player in Pittsburgh history, helping the Panthers reach heights they hadn’t met in decades. In a magical 1976 season, Dorsett was named a consensus All-American, won the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards and led Pitt to its first title since 1937. Dorsett rushed for 2,150 yards and 22 touchdowns that season, but his ability to produce consistently year-after-year might be just as impressive as his 1976 stats. Dorsett rushed for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his four seasons. He left the game as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher and currently ranks third behind Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne.
Earl Campbell (1974-1977)
Few guys have ever been harder to tackle than Earl Campbell was. The Texas running back wasn’t a flashy runner; he was simply trying to out-physical his opponents. Fortunately for him, he was able to do just that and have one of the most impressive careers in college football history. Campbell rushed for 4,443 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 40 touchdowns during his four-year Longhorns career. Campbell rushed for 1,744 yards and 18 touchdowns during his best season in 1977, earning him consensus All-American and Heisman honors. Texas built a statue of Campbell that is displayed outside of its stadium in 2006.
Herschel Walker (1980-1982)
When you think about the ideal set of traits for a running back, Herschel Walker had it all. He had the strength, size, speed and vision that made him a nightmare for opposing defenses. Walker rushed for 5,259 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 49 touchdowns during his three seasons at Georgia. He led the Bulldogs to a national championship in 1980, was named a consensus All-American and SEC Player of the Year each year of his career and won the Walter Camp, Maxwell and Heisman awards in 1982. Interestingly enough -- and a real testament to how great Walker was -- his best season arguably came in 1981, not 1982. Walker rushed for 1,891 yards and 18 TDS his sophomore season, as compared to 1,752 yards and 16 TD in his Heisman-winning season. Walker left the college game with 11 NCAA records, 16 SEC records and 41 school records.
Bo Jackson (1982-1985)
Similar in stature to Walker, Bo Jackson was a physical specimen. The Auburn running back was nearly unstoppable during his four years on campus, rushing for 4,303 yards on a whopping 6.6 yards per carry (an SEC record) and 43 touchdowns. Jackson’s most prolific season came in 1985; he rushed for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns on 278 carries (6.4 yards per carry). He was named a consensus All-American and won the Heisman Trophy along with the Walter Camp award for his outstanding play that season. Jackson is one of just three players to have his number retired by Auburn.
Barry Sanders (1986-1988)
Barry Sanders is arguably the owner of the greatest season by a running back in college football history. Sanders racked up record-setting numbers of 2,628 yards on the ground, 37 touchdowns and 2,734 yards from scrimmage during his junior season at Oklahoma State. As a whole, Sanders set 34 NCAA records during his special season. That is … absurd. Sanders only had 189 carries total during his other two collegiate seasons, but he has to be mentioned as one of the greatest ever solely because of his 1988 performance. Sanders won the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards and was also named a consensus All-American in 1988.
Ricky Williams (1995-1998)
Just like Campbell, Williams played at Texas and utilized a viscous power-running style. The future No. 5 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft tore it up in college, rushing for 6,279 yards and 72 touchdowns in four seasons. Williams’ yardage total currently ranks second all time in NCAA history and his touchdown total ranks fourth. Williams’ best season came in 1988, when he rushed for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman trophy. Other accolades for Williams include: consensus All-American (1997, 1998), Doak Walker Award (1997, 1998), AP Player of the Year (1998), Maxwell Award (1998) and Walter Camp Award (1998).
Ron Dayne (1996-1999)
Wisconsin has fielded some of the game’s best running backs over the years, but Dayne has the best resume of the bunch. The bruising back’s numbers are out of this world, as he racked up 7,125 yards rushing (an NCAA record) and 71 touchdowns during his four seasons with his team. Dayne had at least 1,400 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns every season and had two years in which he posted at least 2000 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns (1996, 1999). For his particular excellence in 1999 (2,034 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns), he was named AP Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, while also taking home the Doak Walker, Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards.