Which college football program has produced the most outstanding running backs? I’d vote USC No. 1. Oklahoma State, based on my objective and subjective research, could be No. 2.
OSU churned out All-American Thurman Thomas and 1988 Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders. They were teammates from 1986-87. After Thomas graduated, Sanders became the starter in his junior season.
As a juking junior in ‘88, Sanders set the NCAA single-season rushing record (2,628 yards). After having one of the greatest NCAA individual seasons ever, he performed even better in the NFL.
NFL teams have long been drafting tailbacks from the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma’s tailbacks have been getting drafted since the 1950s. I consider the Sooners to have produced the better backs, but let’s find out what research reveals.
Texas deserves to be mentioned in the conversation. Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams did a lot of fine running and cutting for the Longhorns. A few other programs—Auburn and Georgia for example—deserve mentioning, but it’s clear, after narrowing down the top 10 or 15 schools, that Nebraska and Oklahoma may not rank No. 1, but they still have had a lot of great backs.
The USC Trojans had O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Anthony Davis and Marcus Allen. Did I forget to mention Frank Gifford, John Arnett and Mike Garrett (USC’s first Heisman Trophy winner)? No.
Barring Reggie Bush’s no-no, four different Trojan running backs have won a Heisman. Garret (1965), Simpson (1968), White (1979) and Allen (1981) all won it. Bush became the fifth by winning the Heisman in 2005, but he vacated it.
Furthermore, four USC running backs have finished second in the voting over the years since the Heisman Trophy was crafted (1935).
The Heisman is sometimes awarded on a Saturday and won by one of the schools known for running backs.
On Saturday, Nebraska and Oklahoma—speaking of schools known for running backs—play their last game in the Big 12. The Big Ten welcomes Nebraska next season. Oklahoma is remaining in the Big 12 for the foreseeable future.
The ground game rivalry between OU and NU evaporated since the wishbone triple option faded. The passing game helped to steady the future of OU under Bob Stoops. The Huskers are still more of a "ground chuck" offense.
Leading the pack of NU and OU runners this year, Roy Helu Jr. and DeMarco Murray both set records this season. I don’t believe either Helu or Murray will be voted All-Americans, but both schools boast a plethora of past All-Americans.
Cornhuskers All-Americans at I-back and halfback are Jeff Kinney (1971), Jarvis Redwine (1980), Bobby Reynolds (1950) and Mike Rozier (1982-83), the only I-back to own a Heisman Trophy (1983).
OU All-American half backs include Adrian Peterson (2004), Billy Simms (1978-79), Joe Washington (1975) and Steve Owens (1969). Gregg Pruitt made the team in 1971 and in 1972.
Billy Vessels and Buck McPhail (1952), Tommy McDonald (1955-56), Clendon Thomas (1956-57) and Steve Owens (1969) are other OU All-Americans.
Vessels became the first of three halfbacks for the Sooners to win the Heisman Trophy. Steve Owens (’69) and Billy Simms (‘78) are the other two.
He’s the last of the Oklahoma tailbacks to do it.
Joe Washington rushed for over 4,000 yards in his Sooners career. His tailback mate on the 1974 AP National Championship squad, Elvis Peacock, was drafted 20th in the NFL draft in 1978.
Marcus Dupree lasted only one season at OU (1982). He is still regarded as one of the most talented tailbacks to ever run the ball on American soil.
A man-child in high school, he could have been one of the best players ever. He was the most talented runner I’ve ever seen. Barry Switzer, Fred Akers, Lou Holtz and a host of others would possibly agree.
One of the most recruited players in college football history, Dupree was courted by 300 schools—the maximum—he said. Looking at his touchdown highlights, it’s easy to believe. Too bad he couldn’t avoid the traps of the college game.
Over the years, superlative Nebraska I-backs could run the counter trap or sweep to perfection. I-backs such as the great Bobby Reynolds, Tony Davis, Ahman Green and Lawrence Phillips did it. Some I-backs had flashier names than others.
Isaiah Moses Walter Hipp—I.M. Hipp—was just the fourth Husker ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Reynolds (1,342 in 1950) was the first to do it. Kinney (1,136 in 1971) and Tony Davis (1,114 in 1973) were the other two.
Redwine was a viable Heisman Trophy candidate, according to Tom Osborne in 1979. Osborne was quoted as saying Redwine was the most talented Husker since Johnny Rodgers.
A combination wide receiver, returner, halfback, flanker or "wingback," Johnny "The Jet" won the Heisman in ’72. A Heisman winner in 1983, Rozier won it by breaking Reynolds’ single season rushing record by almost double the yardage gained.
Mike Rozier is the best running back in Nebraska’s history—period. It’s harder to pick the best running back from Oklahoma.
Indeed, OU’s tailback factory has outproduced Nebraska’s since WWII ended. Oklahoma was the dominant team of the era, going on a 47-game winning streak soon after the international fighting stopped.
Its tailback factory mass-produced runners for their mighty 1950s run. On the flip side, 1940 was Nebraska’s last winning season until Reynolds arrived. He is listed as NU’s all-time running back, along with Mike Rozier.
Oklahoma had more All-American tailbacks than Nebraska, and its tailbacks have played better in the NFL. The Sooners also own the advantage (3-1) in the number of Heisman Trophy winners at the tailback position.
USC and Ohio State are tied for the most (four), but Archie Griffin won it twice for the Buckeyes (1974-75). Eddie George (1995) and Howard Cassady (1955) were the other Buckeye halfback Heisman winners.
Ohio State has two more Heisman winners who were part=time halfbacks—Les Horvath (1944) and Vic Janowicz (1950).
Results: The data suggests Oklahoma is more of a running back factory than Nebraska.
In your opinion, which college football program, including the Sooners and Huskers, produced the best running backs?
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