Ranking the 10 Best Running Backs in Big Ten History
Though the Big Ten has existed since 1896, the conference first used its current name in 1953. Therefore, I will rank what I believe have been the 10 greatest running backs in the Big Ten since 1953.
When coming up with the players for this list, I strongly considered national individual honors, such as Heisman Trophy votes and consensus All-America team selections. These awards allow us to compare the backs not only to their in-conference peers, but also to running backs throughout the country. I considered statistics to a lesser extent, but the numbers do carry a lot of value in this list.
This list includes five players who won the Heisman Trophy a combined six times, as well as the FBS career leaders in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns. Eight of the 10 players are members of the College Football Hall of Fame, including a Class of 2013 inductee.
The conference has had some record-setting runners over the past 60 years, so choosing 10 was difficult. Feel free to debate the list, or to add players who you feel I have missed, in the comments section below.
10. Howard Cassady, Ohio State (1952-55)
In 1955, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady won the second Heisman Trophy for the Big Ten since the conference changed its name in 1953. Alan Ameche won the first in 1954, just one year prior.
Cassady’s 2,466 rushing yards ranked 13th in Ohio State football history through 2011, according to the program’s 2012 Football Information Guide.
In both 1954 and 1955, Cassady earned unanimous All-American honors.
Cassady was arguably a better defensive back than he was a running back. The 1955 Maxwell Award winner never allowed a completion to a receiver he was defending in Big Ten play, according to Heisman.com.
Cassady also won the AP Male Athlete of the Year award in 1955, meaning he was considered the best male athlete in American sports that year, not just in college football.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1979
9. Leroy Keyes, Purdue (1966-68)
Leroy Keyes got close to being the first player to win the Heisman Trophy twice, but fellow Big Ten running back Archie Griffin has that distinction.
Keyes finished third in 1967 and second in 1968. Both years, Keyes did earn something: unanimous All-American honors.
Keyes still holds the No. 2 spot for career average yards from scrimmage among Big Ten rushers (through 2012).
Purdue finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll every year Keyes played there (1966-68), and the Boilermakers also won the 1967 Rose Bowl during that time.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1990
8. Lorenzo White, Michigan State (1984-87)
Lorenzo White’s seasons that ended in odd numbers, 1985 and 1987, helped him get on this list.
In both 1985 and 1987, White finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, was an All-American and won the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. The only difference: White was a unanimous All-American in 1985 but “only” a consensus All-American in 1987.
White ranks in the top 10 among Big Ten rushers in the following career categories: rushing attempts (second), plays from scrimmage (third) and rushing yards and yards from scrimmage (sixth).
With White, Michigan State won the 1988 Rose Bowl and finished No. 8 in the final AP poll.
7. Eddie George, Ohio State (1992-95)
Eddie George dominated the college gridiron for two seasons, and he might have for two more if not for limited playing time.
George won the 1995 Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Doak Walker Award and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award. That year, George was also a unanimous All-American selection.
When George was the feature back for Ohio State (1994-95), he averaged 302 rushing attempts, 1,534.5 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns per season.
Despite only starting two seasons for Ohio State, George finished his college career with the second-most rushing yards in school history at the time (3,668), according to the program’s 2012 Football Information Guide.
During George’s Ohio State career (1992-95), the Buckeyes went 0-3 in the Citrus Bowl but finished no worse than No. 18 in the final AP poll.
Ohio State has retired George’s No. 27.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2012
6. Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-12)
Though Montee Ball’s ultimate legacy has not been determined, as he left college football in 2012, I had no doubts in putting him on this list.
Ball’s 83 touchdowns from scrimmage, and 77 rushing touchdowns, both rank first in FBS history for a career. The Wisconsin Badger also places in the top 10 among rushers in Big Ten history in the following categories: yards from scrimmage and rushing yards (fourth), plays from scrimmage (seventh) and rushing attempts (eighth).
Ball, a consensus All-American in both 2011 and 2012, finished fourth in the 2011 Heisman Trophy voting.
Ball won the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award in 2011 and the Doak Walker Award in 2012.
5. Bob Ferguson, Ohio State (1959-62)
Bob Ferguson easily made this list, albeit from the fullback position.
The 1961 Maxwell Award winner also finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting that year. Ferguson lost the 1961 Heisman Trophy by just 53 votes to Syracuse’s Ernie Davis.
The Ohio State Buckeye was a unanimous All-American selection in both 1960 and 1961.
Ohio State won the Football Writers Association of America National Championship in 1961 and finished No. 2 in the country in the final AP poll that year.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1996
4. Alan Ameche, Wisconsin (1951-54)
Alan “The Horse” Ameche won the first Heisman Trophy (1954) since the conference changed its name to the Big Ten (1953).
Ameche held the NCAA career rushing yards record after completing his college career at Wisconsin in 1954, according to UWBadgers.com.
In his Heisman Trophy-winning season, Ameche was a unanimous All-American. The year prior (1953), Ameche finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
While Ameche played for Wisconsin (1951-54), the Badgers never finished worse than 15th in the final AP poll. Ameche and the Badgers lost the 1953 Rose Bowl to Southern California, 7-0, even though Ameche ran for a then-Rose Bowl record of 133 yards, according to UWBadgers.com.
Wisconsin has retired Ameche’s No. 35, and the program named “The Horse” its greatest player in history in 1969, according to UWBadgers.com.
Ameche might be best remembered for scoring the winning touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship Game. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” was the first overtime game in NFL history.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1975
3. Anthony Thompson, Indiana (1986-89)
Anthony Thompson finished second in the 1989 Heisman Trophy voting, but he won most of the other major awards.
Thompson won the 1989 Walter Camp Award, Maxwell Award and Big Ten Player of the Year Award. The Indiana Hoosier was also a unanimous All-American selection in 1989.
The year prior, 1988, Thompson had no problem collecting major accolades either. Thompson finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting that year and earned both the Big Ten Player of the Year Award and a spot on the consensus All-American team.
Indiana has retired Thompson’s No. 32.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2007
2. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Ron Dayne, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999, could be the NCAA’s best-ever definition of a workhorse running back.
In 1999, Dayne also took home the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the AP Player of the Year Award, the Doak Walker Award and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Wisconsin won the 1999 and 2000 Rose Bowls, which were Dayne’s junior and senior seasons.
In 1999, Dayne was a unanimous All-American.
Wisconsin has retired Dayne’s No. 33.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013
1. Archie Griffin, Ohio State (1972-75)
Archie Griffin is the only player to win the Heisman Trophy twice, and he won them back to back in 1974 and 1975. Griffin also finished fifth in the 1973 Heisman Trophy voting.
In Griffin’s four seasons at Ohio State (1972-75), the Buckeyes went to the Rose Bowl every season but only won the 1974 Rose Bowl.
Griffin, a unanimous All-American in both 1974 and 1975, also won the Walter Camp Award in both seasons. In 1975, Griffin also won the Maxwell Award.
Griffin still ranks in the top 10 in Big Ten history among rushers in the following categories: rushing yards (second), yards from scrimmage (third), rushing attempts (seventh), rushing average (eighth) and plays from scrimmage (ninth).
Ohio State has retired Griffin’s No. 45.
College Football Hall of Fame Class of 1986
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