Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 8 Best Running Backs of the BCS Era

David LutherFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2014

Big Ten Football: Power Ranking the 8 Best Running Backs of the BCS Era

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    The BCS has been relegated to the history books, and for many, it's good riddance. But the BCS era provided all of us with some great performances throughout its 16 seasons, and the Big Ten had some of its most spectacular rushing athletes during that span.

    The Big Ten has a long, proud history of great running backs. The legacy continued after the BCS was instituted for the 1998 season, and it's sure to continue on through the years of the College Football Playoff.

    With a transition to the new system taking place, we thought it was a good time to take a look back at the BCS era and compile a list of the very best ball-carriers the Big Ten had to offer.

Ron Dayne, Wisconsin

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    SUZANNE PLUNKETT/Associated Press

    An asterisk here is a must. After all, how could we not put Wisconsin's Ron Dayne at or near the top of our list?

    Whenever you have a chance to put a Heisman winner on a list like this, you should jump at it. But rather than listing Dayne at the top, we're going to start off with him for one very important reason: Half of his career in Madison—including his top statistical season—happened before the BCS began in 1998.

    But despite nearly 3,600 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns coming pre-BCS for Dayne, it's impossible to ignore both his career accomplishments or his decidedly BCS-worthy performance in 1999 that not only landed him the Heisman Trophy, but also the MVP Award for the 2000 Rose Bowl Game.

    In 1999 alone, Dayne won the Heisman, the Walker Camp Award, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award, AP Player of the Year Award and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the year as well as a consensus All-American.

    Add his 7,125 career rushing yards, which still stands as the most in FBS history, and there's no way we could keep Dayne off of this list—even if the BCS was only around for half of Dayne's time at Wisconsin.

James White, Wisconsin

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Another pick from Wisconsin? Considering the Badgers' love of the run game, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that they are dominating our list of top Big Ten running backs of the past decade-and-a-half.

    James White may have just finished his career at Wisconsin, but we can already place him on a list of the best Big Ten backs, not just in the BCS era, but ever. White finished his career averaging 6.2 yards per carry—fifth best in the modern history of the Big Ten—with 643 rushing attempts. He also finished his career in the top 10 all-time in terms of rushing touchdowns among Big Ten running backs.

    White's physical, bruising style—despite his small-ish 5'9", 195-pound frame—was well-suited to Wisconsin's power run game, and in short yardage situations, White was next to impossible to stop. White led Wisconsin in rush attempts and rushing touchdowns in 2013, helping Wisconsin to continue its impressive 12-season bowl streak.

Javon Ringer, Michigan State

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    There are plenty of Michigan State stars of today that have become household names. Winning Big Ten titles, finishing 13-1 and bringing home a Rose Bowl Game trophy will do that.

    But when there's a lack of overall team success, it's easy to overlook some of the truly great individual performances of the past. Michigan State's Javon Ringer might belong in that category of undeservedly anonymous players.

    Ringer, a 2008 consensus All-American as a senior, led the FBS in rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns that season. In four seasons, he never finished below ninth in the Big Ten when it came to rushing yards, and he still sits in the No. 11 spot on the conference's all-time rushing yards list.

    Ringer's senior season might also be considered by many as the launching point of the Spartans' current climb up the ranks of the Big Ten. Ringer, along with his teammates, helped lay the foundation for today's Spartans to achieve all of the on-field success we've seen. Since Ringers left campus, Michigan State is 48-19.

    Were it not for MSU's 25-24 record during Ringer's four seasons in East Lansing, his name may be better recognized outside of MSU circles. But that shouldn't detract from some incredible individual performances, which ranks him among the best Big Ten backs of the BCS era.

Anthony Davis, Wisconsin

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    MORRY GASH/Associated Press

    Another Badger makes an appearance on our list. Anthony Davis was the primary ball-carrier for Wisconsin from the moment he trotted out onto the field in 2001. In his four seasons at Wisconsin, Davis amassed 4,676 rushing yards, seventh of all time in Big Ten history.

    Davis was named a Doak Walker semi-finalist as a freshman in 2001—the only freshman that season to earn such an honor.

    It's worth noting that Davis only played eight games in each of his final two seasons at Wisconsin, yet he still managed to put together a pretty impressive list of accomplishments in Madison. He led the Big Ten in rushing in 2001 (1,466) and was second in the conference in 2002 (1,555). His numbers would have been even better in 2003 were it not for recurring toe and ankle injuries during the latter half of his career.

Shonn Greene, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    If we're going to include every Doak Walker Award winner from the Big Ten during the BCS era (and we will), we can't forget Shonn Greene from Iowa—the only Doak Walker Award winner in Iowa's history.

    Greene's 2008 breakout season saw him lead the conference and finish second in the FBS in rushing yards (1,850). Greene scored 20 rushing touchdowns in 2008, second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally.

    Greene opted to forgo his senior season at Iowa for an NFL career.

Larry Johnson, Penn State

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    PAT LITTLE/Associated Press

    Let's go all the way back to the early years of the BCS and take a look at Penn State's Larry Johnson. The 2002 Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp awards winner finished third in Heisman voting in a season in which he led the FBS in rushing with 2,087 yards.

    One of the most impressive parts of Johnson's rushing ability was his almost guaranteed positive yardage on every play. During his career at Penn State, Johnson averaged 6.4 rushing yards per carry, a mark that puts him fourth all-time in Big Ten history.

    Johnson never broke the 3,000-yard career mark, as he shared rushing duties through his junior season with Eric McCoo and Penn State's mobile quarterbacks. Still, his standout performance in 2002 was so impressive, we can't keep Johnson off of our list of top Big Ten running backs of the BCS era.

Mike Hart, Michigan

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    Mike Hart is remembered in the state of Michigan for a number of things, but what sticks in the minds of Michiganders most are his comments that came after Michigan's comeback win against Michigan State in 2007.

    Hart was asked in the postgame press conference about his thoughts on the sideline when Michigan State took a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. What Hart said next still rings in the ears of almost everyone in East Lansing and Ann Arbor.

    I was just laughing. I thought it was funny. They [MSU] got excited. It's good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when your'e playing basketball and stuff and you let him get the lead. Then you just come back and take it back.

    When asked if Hart thought of MSU as Michigan's little brother, Hart said with a smile, "Yep. That's what they think so that's what I think." But what happened next has been called by some "The Curse of Mike Hart." Michigan State won the next four meetings, and five of the next six.

    But beyond those famous (or infamous) comments, Hart should still be remembered for what he did on the field. Hart led the Big Ten in rushing yards in 2004 (1,455) and was second in the conference—and seventh nationally—in 2006 (1,562). He also led the Big Ten in rush attempts during both 2004 and 2006 (282 and 318, respectively).

    Had it not been for his injury-shortened 2005 season, who knows what heights Hart might have reached in the annals of Big Ten running backs. Even still, Hart finished with 5,040 rushing yards in his career at Michigan, which is good enough for fifth all-time in Big Ten history.

Montee Ball, Wisconsin

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    There are few players in the history of the Big Ten that can say they played in three consecutive Rose Bowl Games. Montee Ball is one of them.

    Ball was a major part of Wisconsin's Big Ten titles from 2010 to 2012, and he made his impact with record-setting performances. There are almost too many accolades to list, but we'll make note of some of the most impressive accomplishments Ball had during his four seasons here.

    Ball led the FBS in rushing yards in 2011 (1,923) and led the Big Ten in 2012 (1,830). Ball also led the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns in 2010 (18), 2011 (33) and 2012 (22), with his 2011 performance also leading the FBS. His 77 career rushing touchdowns also set a new FBS record.

    Ball was also a consensus All-American in both 2011 and 2012, was 2011 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and won the 2012 Doak Walker Award.

    With all of that on Ball's resume, there's little doubt as to why we list him atop our countdown of best Big Ten running backs of the BCS era.