Ranking the Top 16 College Football Running Backs of All Time
Who are the best running backs in college football history?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Different eras mean uneven standards by which to judge players, and what might have statistically constituted an All-American season years ago might not even draw all-conference attention nowadays.
So in order to select the top 16 running backs of all time, there are a number of different variables to be considered, but the overriding factor should be how tough the player was to stop. Some went around defenders, others went through them and a handful could do both exceptionally well.
Consequently, in order to make this list, one had to pretty much had to have won a Heisman Trophy, or done something so impressive that he was impossible to ignore. That’s why players like Cedric Benson, Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Eddie George, Derrick Henry, Mike Rozier, Billy Sims and LaDainian Tomlinson are all very, very close, but didn’t make the cut.
16. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004-06)
When Adrian Peterson was healthy, he was a special player for the Oklahoma Sooners. However, he dislocated his left shoulder as a freshman, suffered a broken foot as a sophomore and a broken collarbone as a junior.
Despite that, he still tallied 4,041 rushing yards on 748 carries, with 42 touchdowns over 31 career games.
His most complete season was his first, when Peterson broke several NCAA freshman rushing records including 1,925 yards and 339 carries, and he topped 100 yards in each of his first nine games at the collegiate level.
Peterson still managed to top the 1,000-yard mark in each of his three seasons, including as a junior, when he only played seven games.
15. Jim Thorpe, Carlisle (1907-08, 1911-12)
Legendary sportswriter Red Smith once wrote that Jim Thorpe “was the greatest athlete of his time, maybe of any time in any land,” and few would argue with him.
Although nowadays the Jim Thorpe Award goes to college football’s best defensive back, he played halfback for the Carlisle Indian School.
According to Lars Anderson’s book Carlisle vs. Army, when the team went 12-1-1 and outscored opponents 504-114 during the 1912 season Walter Camp named Thorpe a first-team All-American and wrote: “Thorpe showed again the greatest individual prowess of any back on the gridiron.”
Statistics are incomplete for his career, but over 44 games, he was credited with scoring 53 touchdowns and 421 points, of which 29 and 224, respectively, led the nation in 1912.
Thorpe also completed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, winning both the pentathlon and decathlon, and played both pro football and baseball. In 1950, the Associated Press named him the greatest athlete of the half-century.
14. O.J. Simpson, USC (1967-68)
O.J. Simpson would be higher on this list had he played more than two seasons with Southern California, but what he did during those 22 games was pretty remarkable.
In 1967, when he was edged by UCLA quarterback Gary Beban (who passed for 1,359 yards) for the Heisman Trophy, Simpson had 291 carries for 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He subsequently became the school’s second Heisman winner in 1968, winning in a landslide, when setting the NCAA single-season rushing record with 1,709 rushing yards. With his Rose Bowl performance, Simpson finished the year with 1,880 rushing yards on 383 carries and 23 touchdowns.
He set or tied 19 NCAA, conference and USC records before establishing the NFL single-season rushing record with 2,003 yards in 1973 (and then getting involved in some very bad things).
13. Jim Brown, Syracuse (1954-56)
It’s almost impossible to have a discussion about the best running backs of all time without mentioning the greats from Syracuse. While Floyd Little, Ernie Davis (the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy) and Larry Csonka were all outstanding, the best was the man who came first, Jim Brown.
Nowadays, Brown is better known for his NFL success, but he was a unanimous All-American in 1956 when rushing for 986 yards in eight games. Some feel that his Heisman Trophy snub is the most egregious in history, as Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung became the lone winner from a team with a losing record (although Oklahoma’s Tommy McDonald had the most first-place votes).
Statistically, Brown’s best collegiate game was against Colgate, when he ran for 197 yards and scored six touchdowns. He was also the team’s kicker and made seven extra points, to score 43 points.
Brown competed in three other sports for Syracuse: baseball, track and lacrosse, the last of which he tied for the national lead in scoring.
12. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Strange but true, Ron Dayne’s best season statistically at Wisconsin was as a freshman, when he amassed 2,109 rushing yards on 325 carries as 21 touchdowns, capped by his 246-yard performance against Utah in the Copper Bowl.
He came close to topping that as a senior, with 2,034 yards on 337 carries and 20 touchdowns in one fewer game. Nevertheless, his 7,125 career rushing yards set an NCAA record, and he ended up scoring 71 touchdowns for the Badgers.
Among the numerous records the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner set include most 200-yard rushing games with 12 (tied with Ricky Williams and Marcus Allen), and he’s one of only eight players in NCAA history to top 1,000 rushing yards in all four seasons he was eligible.
The three-time All-American was named the game MVP in three bowls and was only the third player to repeat as MVP of the Rose Bowl.
11. Earl Campbell, Texas (1974-77)
Anyone who saw Earl Campbell play was almost immediately mesmerized by his thighs, which were bigger than most people’s waists.
At Texas, Campbell was initially thought of as a good player, tallying 928 rushing yards as a freshman, and 1,118 with 13 touchdowns as a sophomore.
But in 1977, new coach Fred Akers changed the offense from wishbone-based to the I-formation, with Campbell moving from fullback to tailback. He powered his way to a terrific senior year with 1,744 rushing yards to lead the nation and set a Southwest Conference record. He also scored 19 touchdowns.
Known as the Tyler Rose, Campbell notched 200-yard rushing games against Texas A&M (222) and Southern Methodist (213), both on the road, and set a school record with 10 100-yard rushing games as his team went 11-1.
He finished his career having set Texas records of 4,443 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns.
10. Marcus Allen, USC (1978-81)
Although Marcus Allen was originally recruited to USC as a defensive back, head coach John Robinson moved him to the backfield, which may have been the greatest position change in college football history.
During his first two seasons with the Trojans, he was primarily used as a fullback, blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Charles White.
When he replaced White as the starting halfback, Allen rushed for 1,563 yards as a junior, finishing second in the nation. He subsequently topped that by becoming college football’s first 2,000-yard rusher with 2,342 in 1981. Allen averaged 5.6 yards per carry, and 212.9 each game.
His senior season, Allen gained 2,683 offensive yards, led the nation in scoring and won the Heisman Trophy.
He finished his career with 4,664 rushing yards, 5,232 total yards, and 46 touchdowns, while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Allen also has the distinction of being the only player in football history to have won a Heisman Trophy, national championship, Super Bowl, and be named NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP.
9. Doak Walker, SMU (1945, 1947-49)
There’s a reason why the annual award for the nation’s best running back is named in Doak Walker’s honor.
As a freshman, he was able to play in five games for SMU in 1945, and still earned All-Southwest Conference honors, before serving a brief stint in the Army in 1946.
When he returned to Dallas, Walker won the Maxwell Award in 1947 and the Heisman Trophy in 1948 (sandwiched around two third-place finishes).
In 1948, the running back had 108 carries for 532 yards and eight touchdowns, completed 26 of 46 passes for 304 yards and five touchdowns, and caught 15 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. He made three interceptions, returned 10 punts for 169 yards and a touchdown, returned five kickoffs for 161 yards, kicked 22 of 29 extra points and averaged 42.1 yards per punt in 35 attempts.
For this career, Walker played in 35 games and was credited with 288 points scored, 2,076 rushing yards, 1,786 passing yards, 454 receiving yards, 750 yards on 50 punt returns and 764 on 53 kickoff returns.
He was such a dynamic figure that, according to Texas lore, the second deck of the Cotton Bowl was added due to demand to see Walker play. Consequently, it was called “The House that Doak Built.”
8. Charles White, USC (1976-79)
Few players were as consistent during their collegiate career as Charles White, who had 31 100-yard rushing performances and finished his USC career with 5,598 regular-season rushing yards (the second most in history), 6,245 including bowls.
As a sophomore, he totaled 1,478 rushing yards, and then he topped that in both of his final two years with 1,859 as a junior and 2,050 as a senior.
White led the nation in all-purpose yards both years, and in rushing in 1979 while averaging 6.2 yards a carry and scoring 19 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
“I don’t remember ever playing against a tailback who can run like White,” Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant said after the running back had 199 rushing yards to lead a 24-14 victory against Alabama in 1978.
7. Red Grange, Illinois (1923-25)
“The Galloping Ghost,” Red Grange, was called that at Illinois because he was so elusive, and he’s also largely credited with legitimizing the National Football League.
At both levels, he was without peer. At Illinois, he played only 20 games, but he reached the end zone in all but one and scored 31 touchdowns. Grange was also a three-time consensus All-American.
During one of his legendary games, when Illinois Memorial Stadium was dedicated against Michigan in 1924, he scored four touchdowns in the first 12 minutes. He finished with five, threw for another, and amassed 402 total yards.
In 2008, ESPN named Grange the best college football player of all time.
6. Bo Jackson, Auburn (1982-85)
The eighth of 10 children was called “wild boar” by his family, which was shortened to “Bo.” It was more than fitting.
Although Jackson was considered an outstanding baseball prospect and selected in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft by the New York Yankees, he instead decided to attend Auburn on a football scholarship.
His sophomore season, when he had 1,213 yards on 158 carries, Jackson averaged 7.7 yards per carry and scored 14 touchdowns. As a senior, when he narrowly won the Heisman Trophy, Jackson had 1,786 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jackson finished his collegiate career with 4,303 rushing yards on 650 carries, for an average of 6.6 yards per carry (a Southeastern Conference record), and scored 43 touchdowns.
One of his epic performances was the 256 yards on 20 carries against rival Alabama in 1983.
He went on to have a successful, but brief, two–sport career with the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Raiders.
5. Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh (1973-76)
To give an idea of what kind of player Tony Dorsett was at Pitt, he not only set records, but then broke them.
For example, as a freshman in 1973, he set the NCAA single-game rushing record with 265 yards against Northwestern. A year later, he topped that with 303 yards against Notre Dame.
As a freshman, he led the Panthers to their first winning season in a decade, and he became Pitt’s all-time leading rusher three games into his sophomore year. In 1976, he won the Heisman Trophy and Pitt captured the national championship as Dorsett rushed for 2,150 yards.
Pitt’s first All-American since 1963, he landed first-team honors three times and was a second-team selection as a sophomore. Dorsett was credited with 6,082 rushing yards, then an NCAA career record. He had 6,526 yards including his bowl games.
He’s the only player in Heisman Trophy history to finish 13th or better in the voting four times.
4. Archie Griffin, Ohio State (1972-75)
In 1972, freshmen were cleared to play for the first time and at the urging of backfield coach Rudy Hubbard, Archie Griffin came off the bench against North Carolina and rushed for 239 yards, an Ohio State record.
Griffin, nicknamed “Duckfoot,” went to become the only player to win the Heisman Trophy twice (1974-75). He topped 100 yards in 31 straight games (an NCAA record), and 34 overall. He’s the only running back to lead the Big Ten Conference in rushing three straight years, and during those same seasons was named first-team All-American.
Griffin was credited with 1,577 rushing yards as a sophomore, 1,695 as a junior and 1,450 as a senior (bowl games included). When his career ended his 5,589 rushing yards were an NCAA record, plus he had 6,559 all-purpose yards and 26 touchdowns.
Griffin was twice named a team captain. One of the more famous stories about him was in 1975, when he cast the deciding vote about who would be named team MVP. He voted for quarterback Cornelius Greene instead of himself.
“He's a better young man than he is a football player, and he's the best football player I've ever seen,” former Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes once famously said of Griffin.
3. Ricky Williams, Texas (1995-98)
When Ricky Williams ran for 163 rushing yards to help snap Texas A&M’s 31-game home winning streak, the college football world took particular notice because Longhorns running back was just a freshman.
He followed that with 1,272 rushing yard in 1996, 869 of which were after contact (68.3 percent), and then 1,893 as a junior when he won the Doak Walker Award despite Texas finishing with a 4-7 record.
Enter head coach Mack Brown and Williams was nearly unstoppable as a senior, accumulating a school-record 2,124 rushing yards en route to winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming the first two-time winner of the Doak Walker.
When Williams broke Tony Dorsett’s 22-year-old NCAA record for career rushing yards with 6,279, he set the mark on a 60-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M with Dorsett on the sideline cheering him on.
2. Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State (1986-88)
College football might never again see a season like the one Barry Sanders had with Oklahoma State in 1988.
While leading the Cowboys to an 11-2 record, he tallied 2,628 rushing yards on 344 carries (averaging 7.6 per carry and 238.9 per game) and scored 37 touchdowns. In the process, he set 34 NCAA records.
Before Sanders became a starter, and was backing up All-American Thurman Thomas, he led the nation in yards per kickoff return (31.6) in 1987.
For his three-year career, Sanders had 3,556 rushing yards and 49 touchdowns. In his final game, which doesn’t count toward his individual statistics, Sanders also ran for 222 yards and scored five touchdowns before being pulled against Wyoming in 1988 Holiday Bowl.
1. Herschel Walker, Georgia (1980-82)
To give an idea of how good Herschel Walker was, consider that he led Georgia to the national championship and finished third in Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman. His 1,616 rushing yards set an NCAA freshman record that stood until 1996.
Walker went on to finish second for the Heisman in 1981, when he had a career-best 1,891 rushing yards before finally winning the award in 1982. He’s the only player in history to finish in the top three in Heisman voting after each of his three college seasons.
Walker was also named the SEC Player of the Year and a consensus All-American all three years with the Bulldogs.
Because bowl games didn’t count toward a player’s individual statistics, Walker was credited with having played in 33 games, with 5,259 rushing yards, for an average of 5.3 per carry and 159 per game. He also scored 55 touchdowns.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.