Power Ranking the 10 Best Running Backs of the BCS Era

Jonathan McDanal@@jdmcdanalContributor IIIApril 5, 2013

Power Ranking the 10 Best Running Backs of the BCS Era

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    Truly great running backs don't come along that often. During the BCS era (1998-present), the Heisman Trophy has been awarded to a running back on only four occasions.

    While a Heisman-winning running back is clearly a great player, it's not the only measure of his ability. Consistency is always a key factor in the greatness equation.

    Besides consistency,three other major factors need to be considered when making a list of the best running backs:

    1. Strength of the opposition. (This determines how difficult it was to perform at a high level.)

    2. Versatility. (Did the running back simply run the ball, or was he a decent target for the quarterback?)

    3. Efficiency. (How many times did he have to touch the ball before he turned it into points?)

    Using these four factors, here are the 10 best running backs of the BCS era.

    *Strength of schedule, Heisman voting and player-specific statistics are from Sports-Reference.com, and Doak Walker Award information is from ESPN.com

    *The final equation for ranking the players was as follows: [(Strength of schedule)/(Number of touches/touchdowns)] = Raw Score. The consistency bonus automatically places players above all the ones without the bonus, and a cheating deduction moves that player to the bottom of his group regardless of statistical superiority.

10. Chris Perry, Michigan

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    Awards: 2003 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 4 in 2003

    Strength of schedule: 3.94 (34th of 117)

    Touches per touchdown: 19.1

    Consistency bonus? No

    In 2003, Chris Perry rushed for 1,674 yards and 18 touchdowns on 338 carries and had 44 catches for 367 yards and two more scores.

    Perry was a record-breaking running back at Michigan, which is no small feat. He was also Michigan's first (and so far its only) Doak Walker Award winner.

9. Toby Gerhart, Stanford

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    Awards: 2009 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 2 in 2009

    Strength of schedule: 3.42 (27th of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 12.6

    Consistency bonus? No

    Toby Gerhart had the misfortune of being up against Mark Ingram in the closest Heisman race in the award's history, but that doesn't preclude Gerhart from making this list.

    Gerhart carried the ball 343 times for 1,871 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2009, which resulted in a host of awards for the Stanford tailback.

    He could have won the Heisman in many of the other BCS seasons, but the powers that be still awarded him the Doak Walker Award for his efforts.

    Stanford finished the 2009 season with eight wins, and Gerhart was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.

8. Larry Johnson, Penn State

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    Awards: 2002 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 3 in 2002

    Strength of schedule: 3.98 (23rd of 117)

    Touches per touchdown: 13.6

    Consistency bonus? No

    Larry Johnson ran for 2,087 yards and 20 touchdowns on 271 carries in 2002, and he caught 41 passes for  for 349 yards and three TDs.

    Johnson won the Doak Walker Award, and he was a Heisman finalist that season.

    He was the first player in Big Ten history to rush for more than 2,000 yards and just the ninth player to do so in NCAA Division I history.

    Johnson averaged an incredible 7.7 yards per carry, which is second to only one player on this list. (That name will be revealed later in the show.)

7. Trent Richardson, Alabama

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    Awards: 2011 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 3 in 2011

    Strength of schedule: 4.21 (17th of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 13.0

    Consistency bonus? No

    Trent Richardson followed the legendary Mark Ingram as the go-to running back at Alabama.

    He had 283 carries for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2011 on the way to a third-place finish in Heisman voting. (That mark broke Ingram's record for rushing yards in a season at Alabama.) He also had 29 receptions for 338 yards and three touchdowns.

    Richardson, on average, scored once every 13th time he touched the ball, whether it was a running or passing play.

6. Mark Ingram, Alabama

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    Awards: 2009 Heisman Trophy

    Heisman voting placement: No. 1 in 2009

    Strength of schedule: 6.62 (Second of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 15.2

    Consistency bonus? No

    In 2009, Mark Ingram led the ground attack for an Alabama team that went 14-0 and beat Texas for the national title.

    He set the single-season rushing record (which Trent Richardson would break two seasons later) with 1,658 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in the process. He also had 32 catches for 334 yards and three touchdowns.

    Ingram, like most tailbacks on this list, wasn't just a threat on the ground. He was a threat to score whenever he got the ball.

    He also proved that the quarterback was an optional piece of the offensive puzzle for Alabama by leading a Wildcat-based scoring drive against the South Carolina Gamecocks—after Greg McElroy had thrown a couple of interceptions.

    That drive propelled Ingram to the Heisman podium. He was a contender before that, but that drive undoubtedly helped him get the support he needed to edge out Stanford's Toby Gerhart by 28 votes for the award.

5. Reggie Bush, USC Trojans

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    Awards: 2005 Heisman Trophy (vacated) and 2005 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 1 in 2005 and No. 5 in 2004

    Strength of schedule: 6.80 in 2005 (Ninth of 119) and 8.22 in 2004 (Fifth of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 13.8

    Consistency bonus? Yes

    Major deduction for cheating? Yes

    Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy (vacated) and the Doak Walker Award in 2005.

    He had 200 carries for 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns, and 37 catches for 478 yards and two more touchdowns that season.

    Bush is the only player to have a higher yards-per-carry average than the Penn State great Larry Johnson. Bush averaged 8.7 yard per attempt.

    But because of the NCAA infractions involving Bush that resulted in a loss scholarships, the vacating of victories in which he participated and a two-year bowl ban for USC, Bush comes in last among the running backs who won multiple major awards.

4. Montee Ball, Wisconsin Badgers

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    Awards: 2012 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 4 in 2011

    Strength of schedule: 2.91 in 2012 (39th of 124) and 0.68 in 2011 (53rd of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 16.6 in 2012 and 8.5 in 2011

    Consistency bonus? Yes

    Montee Ball broke Big Ten, NCAA and Wisconsin records during his 2011 run, but he didn't win the Doak Walker Award until 2012. His numbers at first glance actually looked a bit worse in 2012 than in 2011, but the strengths of schedule were also much different.

    Ball had 356 attempts for 1,830 yards and 22 touchdowns during his 2012 run, and he helped Wisconsin to its third-straight Rose Bowl appearance.

    In 2011 (the year he didn't win), he had 307 carries for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns, along with 24 receptions for 306 yards and six more scores.

    His 39 touchdowns in 2011 tied Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record, and his 83 career touchdowns are the most in FBS history.

3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas

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    Awards: 2006 and 2007 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 2 in 2006 and 2007

    Strength of schedule: 5.05 in 2006 (11th of 119) and 3.37 in 2007 (33rd of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 19.7 in 2006 and 20.4 in 2007

    Consistency bonus? Yes

    In 2007, Darren McFadden became the second player to win the Doak Walker Award twice. (The first player is further up this list.)

    He wasn't the most efficient running back on this list as far as scoring touchdowns was concerned, but he's the only one of the BCS era to finish back-to-back as a Heisman runner-up.

    Here are his stat lines from both his seasons at the top of his game:

    2006: 284 carries for 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns, and 11 catches for 149 yards and one score.

    2007: 325 carries for 1,830 yards and 16 touchdowns, and 21 catches for 164 yards and one score.

    McFadden helped Arkansas make it to the SEC Championship Game (and the Capital One Bowl) in 2006 and to the Cotton Bowl in 2007.

    McFadden is the best tailback in Arkansas history.

2. LaMichael James, Oregon Ducks

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    Awards: 2010 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 3 in 2010 and No. 10 in 2011

    Strength of schedule: 3.92 in 2010 (24th of 120) and 3.23 in 2011 (27th of 120)

    Touches per touchdown: 13.0 in 2010 and 13.9 in 2011

    Consistency bonus? Yes

    LaMichael James is one of the best running backs not to win the Heisman Trophy (Maybe someone can start a petition to give him Cam Newton's 2010 hardware if this Auburn situation takes a turn for the worse?).

    James had great stats in his final two seasons at Oregon:

    2010: 294 carries for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns, and 17 catches for 208 yards and three scores.

    2011: 325 attempts for 1,805 yards and 18 touchdowns, and 17 catches for 210 yards and one score.

    James was a speedy tailback who led Oregon's fourth-ranked rushing attack in 2010, and he carried the Ducks to fifth place in 2011.

1. Ricky Williams, Texas

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    Awards: 1998 Heisman Trophy, 1997 and 1998 Doak Walker winner

    Heisman voting placement: No. 1 in 1998 and No. 5 in 1997

    Strength of schedule: 6.07 in 1998 (10th of 112) and 0.10 in 1997 (55th of 112)

    Touches per touchdown: 13.8

    Consistency bonus? Yes

    Ricky Williams was the first player to win two Doak Walker Awards. He started his career just outside the scope of this piece, but his stupendous 1998 run came in the inaugural BCS season.

    Williams was a beast for the Texas Longhorns, compiling more than 2,000 offensive yards in both his award-winning seasons.

    1997: 279 carries for 1,893 yards and 25 touchdowns, and 20 receptions for 150 yards.

    1998: 361 carries for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns, and 24 receptions for 262 yards and one score.

    Williams is easily the best running back in BCS history, and with only one season left in the era, he can't be dethroned. (All his potential competition will officially be in the NFL as of 2013's draft.)