The 48 Greatest Running Backs in College Football History

Joe PenkalaCorrespondent IAugust 25, 2011

The 48 Greatest Running Backs in College Football History

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    As we get ready for another college football season, running backs around the nation prepare to either start their college career or continue to try and build an individual and team legacy.

    Throughout time, we have already been treated to many outstanding backs that have electrified us with their moves, impressed us with their power or stunned us with their career accomplishments.

    Here is a look at the top 48 running back to ever carry the rock for a college program.

No. 48: Rashaan Salaam

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    While Rashaan Salaam had a good career at Colorado, his best season by far came in 1994.

    During the '94 season, Salaam hauled in the Walter Camp Award, Doak Walker Award, Jim Brown Award and the Heisman Trophy.

    For a single season, this may be one of the more decorated seasons a running back has had.

No. 47: Kevin Smith

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    In 2005 and 2006, Kevin Smith was a solid back, but did not truly turn heads until 2007.

    Smith was on track for a record-breaking season in 2007.  Despite having an unbelievable season, he came up 62 yards short of breaking Barry Sanders' single-season rushing record.

    Smith finished the season with 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns. 

    Despite only playing three seasons at UCF, Smith became the school's all-time rushing leader.

No. 46: Willis McGahee

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    Willis McGahee will be most remembered for the season he had in 2002.

    McGahee rushed for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns.  He also broke a school record with 10 100-yard games.

    McGahee was with Miami when they won the 2001 National Championship.  He was hoping to lead them to another in 2002, but saw his collegiate career end in the fourth quarter of the National Championship when a knee injury put his career in jeopardy.

No. 45: Shaun Alexander

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    Shaun Alexander spent four years in the backfield for the Alabama Crimson Tide.  While with the Tide, Alexander was a bruising back that had a nose for the end zone.

    After finishing his time with Alabama, Alexander left as the schools leading rusher with 3,565 career rushing yards.

No. 44: Steve Slaton

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    One of the only players to not be overshadowed by Pat White at West Virginia was Steve Slaton.

    Slaton was a three-year starter and a threat in and out of the backfield.  Rushing for 3,923 yards and 50 touchdowns.  Slaton was also able to pull in 65 receptions for 805 yards and five scores.

    He was named a consensus All-American in 2006.

No. 43: Warrick Dunn

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    Warrick Dunn truly helped bring Florida State to prominence during the 90's.

    While with the Seminoles, Dunn was named to the All-ACC team three times and has since had his jersey retired by the Florida State Seminoles.

No. 42: Ed Marinaro

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    Ed Marinaro was the best back to go through the University of Cornell.

    While with the program, Marinaro set 16 NCAA rankings and was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1971.

    Marinaro was truly a workhorse as he is still the record holder for most carries per game over a season and a career.

No. 41: Quentin Griffin

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    Quentin Griffin was part of a Oklahoma Sooners team that won the 2000 National Championship.

    Griffin started three years with the Sooners and rushed for 4,732 total yards and 41 touchdowns.

No. 40: Carnell Williams

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    Carnell Williams was a record-setter at Auburn.  Once his career finished with the Tigers, Williams broke Bo Jackson's touchdown record by scoring 45 of his own.

    Williams also set another Auburn record with 741 carries over his career.  His 3,831 career rushing yards wasn't too shabby either.

No. 39: Mike Rozier

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    Mike Rozier was the cornerstone of a nearly unstoppable offense at Nebraska in 1983.  He also may be one of the most talented backs to ever play for the Cornhuskers.

    1983 was by far his best year where he rushed for 2,148 yards and 29 touchdowns.

    During this season, Rozier averaged over 7.8 yards, which is a record for a back with over 200 carries.  He finished off the season with the Heisman Trophy.

No. 38: Bruce Smith

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    Bruce Smith spent his collegiate time with Minnesota and was one of the best running backs the school has ever seen.

    Not only was Smith named to the All-American and All-Big Ten teams, he's also a Heisman Trophy winner.

    Smith was also a huge piece of the back-to-back national championships Minnesota won in 1940 and 1941.

No. 37: George Rogers

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    Despite being overshadowed by Herschel Walker for much of the year, George Rogers put together a good career and an outstanding season in 1980.

    During his Heisman Trophy season of 1980, Rogers lead the nation in rushing, going for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns for South Carolina.

No. 36: Joe Washington

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    Joe Washington was another running back who would experience great success while with the Sooners.

    During his time in Oklahoma, Washington was always in consideration for the Heisman Trophy and was named to the All-American team twice.

    Washington would later go on to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame.

No. 35: Jim Thorpe

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    Jim Thorpe was another player that played early in the 1900's and was truly an outstanding athlete.

    Thorpe was able to play multiple positions on the football field and was an All-American in both 1911 and 1912.

No. 34: Marshall Faulk

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    Marshall Faulk had one of the best freshman seasons that college football has ever seen.  During his first year at San Diego State, Faulk rushed for 1,429 yards and 23 touchdowns.

    Faulk is one of the best backs that the programs has ever seen and is currently eighth in college football with 62 career touchdowns.

No. 33: Emmitt Smith

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    Emmitt Smith spent three years at Florida and was an outstanding weapon for the Gators almost instantly.

    Smith would cap off his career with Florida in fashion as he was able to become the schools record holder for yards in a game, season, career and rushing touchdowns during his junior season.

No. 32: Gale Sayers

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    Gale Sayers was not only an accomplished NFL running back but was also an outstanding college running back.

    While at Kansas, Sayers was a two time All-American and rushed for 2,675 yards and gained 3,917 all-purpose for the Jayhawks.

No. 31: Garrett Wolfe

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    Garrett Wolfe called the University of Northern Illinois home from 2003-2006. 

    His first year was spent on the sidelines, but once he got his shot as a sophomore, Wolfe never turned back.

    Wolfe never rushed for less than 1,500 yards and 16 scores.  The only thing that could slow him down was a knee injury in 2005.

    At the end of his career, Wolfe rushed for an impressive 5,164 yards and 52 touchdowns.

No. 30: Avon Cobourne

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    By many in the Big East, Avon Cobourne is considered the best back to ever play at West Virginia.  He spent four years with West Virginia and broke the 1,000-yard mark every year.

    During his four years, Cobourne rushed for a total of 5,164 yards and 42 touchdowns.  He currently sits atop the Big East record books for career rushing yards.

No. 29: Mike Hart

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    Mike Hart had a great career for one of the most storied programs, Michigan.  Hart spent four years with the Wolverines and turned down the NFL to return for his senior season.

    As a freshman, he set the Michigan freshman rushing record with 1,455 yards.  He also finished fifth in voting for the Heisman Trophy his junior season.

    Despite rushing for 5,040 over his career, Hart could have had even more success if he had not missed time during his sophomore season with an injury.

No. 28: Darren Sproles

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    While Sproles has gone on to a have a good career with the San Diego Chargers, he was a great collegiate athlete who spent four years at Kansas State.

    During his time with the Wildcats, Sproles ended up just shy of 5,000 rushing yards and scored 45 touchdowns—44 coming in his last three seasons.

    Sproles currently finds himself in the top 10 for college players in all-purpose yards.

No. 27: Larry Johnson

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    Larry Johnson spent his time in college at Penn State.  While having a quiet sophomore and junior seasons, Johnson's senior season was incredible.

    Johnson rushed for 2,087 and 20 touchdowns in 2002.  His season got even better by winning the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards.

No. 26: Marcus Allen

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    Marcus Allen is one of many great running backs to go through the USC program.

    While Allen had a great career for the Trojans, he saved his best for last in his Trojans career. 

    In Allen's final year, he rushed for 2,427 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

    Allen was the first college back to break the 2,000-yard mark and has had his number retired by USC.

No. 25: Eric Dickerson

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    Eric Dickerson was an amazing running back at SMU. 

    Dickerson was part of the most well known SMU teams and was also part of a dynamic backfield in which he shared carries with Craig James.

    While at SMU, Dickerson was an All-American and rushed for 4,450 yards.  He also tied the school record for career touchdowns.

No. 24: LaDainian Tomlinson

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    While LaDainian Tomlinson has had a terrific pro career, many are sometimes surprised to find out he spent four years with TCU.

    From 1997-2000, LT saw his role increase every year until he had his break-out season in 2000.  During that year, LT rushed for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns.

    As a Horned Frog, he finished with 5,263 yards and 54 touchdowns.  LT has also had his number retired by the program.

No. 23: Darren McFadden

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    Darren McFadden had one of the best careers of the past decade.   He stepped right out of high school, onto the football field and rushed for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    McFadden didn't stop with his freshman season.  In his sophomore and junior seasons, he rushed for more than 1,600 yards, won the Walter Camp award both years and was also the Heisman runner-up for two straight seasons.

No. 22: Ernie Davis

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    The career that Ernie Davis had at Syracuse was important both on and off the field.  After having Jim Brown as their running back, Syracuse welcomed Davis, and he did more than just fill the void.

    Davis won the 1961 Heisman Trophy, something that had never been done by an African-American player.

    The Ernie Davis story was so impressive that there was a movie made about his life and career, The Express.

No. 21: Cedric Benson

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    Cedric Benson spent four years at the University of Texas and was an outstanding back.  Despite being compared to Ricky Williams, Benson did enough on the field to stand out on his own.

    He finished his four-year career at Texas with 5,540 rushing yards and 67 total touchdowns.  In 2004, Benson won the Doak Walker award and was also named to the All Big-12 Team.

No. 20: DeAngelo Williams

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    From 2002-2005, DeAngelo Williams spent his time with the Memphis Tigers.  Williams made the most of his time becoming a threat all over the field.

    During his career, Williams ran for 6,026 yards and got into the end zone 60 times.  He also holds the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards at 7,573.

No. 19: Doak Walker

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     In 1948, Doak Walker won the Heisman Trophy while playing at SMU. During his college career, people wondered if there was a position Walker could not play.

    Walker rushed for 532 yards and eight touchdowns in his Heisman season.  To this day the award for the top running back in the nation is named in his honor.

    Walker was an incredible back during his time and has not been forgotten.

No. 18: Adrian Peterson

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    Adrian Peterson did not take long to get noticed.

    In his freshman season, Peterson broke the rushing record for a freshman by running for 1,925 yards.  He also found himself in the running for the Heisman Trophy, but ended up finishing second.  Peterson continued to have success in his sophomore and junior seasons. 

    He finished with 4,045 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns, and has gone on to be a dynamic back in the NFL.

No. 17: Reggie Bush

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    Despite everything that has come out after his college career, when judging Reggie Bush, you have to look at what he did on the field rather than off it.

    During his time at USC, Bush accumulated quite a list of accomplishments.  He was a two-time All-American, won the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy.

    While he has been stripped of a lot of these accomplishments, Bush still was an electrifying athlete who was on highlight reels across the nation.

No. 16: Doc Blanchard

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    At Army, Doc Blanchard was part of arguably the best tandem backfield college football has ever seen.

    While at West Point, Blanchard never lost and added a Heisman Trophy to his résumé in 1945.

    The other half of this backfield, Glenn Davis, would win the Heisman Trophy the following year.

No. 15: Glenn Davis

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    That other back would be Glenn Davis. While Doc Blanchard was known as "Mr. Inside," Davis was known as "Mr. Outside."

    With Blanchard missing time to an injury in 1946, Davis took advantage and earned the spotlight and the Heisman Trophy.

No. 14: Charles White

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    The USC Trojans have another outstanding back in this list and his name is Charles White.  White had an outstanding career at USC but his best year by far was 1979.

    White is another USC running back to win the Heisman Trophy, and for good reason.  In 1979, White rushed for 2,050 yards and also scored 19 touchdowns.

    On top of his individual success, White helped the Trojans make it through the season without a loss.

No. 13: Eddie George

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    Eddie George is a proud member of the Ohio State alumni and did a great job while with the Buckeyes.

    In 1995, George helped lead Ohio State to a 10-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy.  Combining both speed and power, George rushed for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns.

    Earlier this year, George's college career came full circle, as he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

No. 12: Tony Dorsett

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    Tony Dorsett had an outstanding career at Pittsburgh and truly left his mark as he is in the top five all time rushing leaders in college football history.

    Dorsett and Pittsburgh's best year came in 1976 season, as Dorsett not only won the Heisman, but Pittsburgh won the national championship as well.

    During the 1976 season, Dorsett rushed for 1,948 yards and 23 touchdowns.

No. 11: Billy Sims

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    Another running back in a rich history of rushers at Oklahoma was Billy Sims, and he had a great career with the program that culminated with a Heisman season in 1978.

    In 1978, Sims was determined to not let injuries define his career.  During his first two years, Sims struggled to stay healthy, but it was well worth the wait because during his junior year. 

    Sims rushed for 1,762 yards and 20 touchdowns.

No. 10: Ricky Williams

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    Despite having his career rushing record eventually broken, Ricky Williams ended his college career as the NCAA's leading rusher.

    During the 1998 season, Williams rushed for 2,427 yards and 30 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy.

    Williams had incredible strength and vision and was one of the best backs the college game has seen.

No. 9: Ron Dayne

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    After an amazing freshman season at Wisconsin, Ron Dayne was able to once again break the 2,000-yard mark as a senior.

    During his final year, Dayne rushed for 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns.

    Once his career was over, Dayne had broken Ricky Williams' career rushing record with 7,125 yards to become the new record holder.

No. 8: Jim Brown

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    Jim Brown was not only an outstanding football player but a great running back.  Brown was one of the players that helped pave the way for other African American football players.

    During his time in college, Brown played for Syracuse and had a couple of seasons go by that he should have won the Heisman but did not. 

    His performance ultimately gave way to Ernie Davis, who was able to earn the award.

No. 7: Earl Campbell

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    Earl Campbell had an outstanding college career and was a terrific back at the University of Texas.

    1977 was an outstanding year for Earl Campbell. 

    On top of being named the Heisman Trophy winner, he led the nation in rushing with 1,744 yards and 18 touchdowns.

    Campell was also named a consensus All-American and named the most outstanding player in the Southwest Conference.

No. 6: Bo Jackson

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    Bo Jackson was a freak of an athlete, but his story will always have people wondering, "What if?" 

    Despite having to leave a few games, Jackson rushed for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1985 and won the Heisman Trophy.

    Jackson would see his promising pro football career end in 1990 when he suffered a hip injury.

No. 5: Archie Griffin

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    Only one player has won the Heisman Trophy more than once, and that player was Ohio State's Archie Griffin.

    Griffin won the award in both 1974 and 1975, but 1974 was by far his better season.  He rushed for 1,695 yards and 12 touchdowns and had over 100 yards rushing in every regular season game.

    He ended up with 5,177 yards and that puts him in the top 10 for rushing yards.

No. 4: O.J. Simpson

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    Despite his problems off the field, O.J. Simpson was a stud on the field.  Rushing for USC, Simpson had an amazing season in 1968.

    Behind 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns, Simpson was not only named the Heisman Trophy winner but won in a landslide, winning by 1,750 points.

No. 3: Red Grange

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    Red Grange was certainly in a class of his own during his era.  Grange played at the University of Illinois and came to be known as The Galloping Ghost.

    During his time with the program, Grange would routinely put up big days on the ground and would find his way to the end zone on a regular basis.

No. 2: Barry Sanders

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    Barry Sanders was an incredible college running back and had an unbelievable season in 1988.

    Sanders set the single-season record for rushing with 2,628 yards and also had 3,248 yards total, 234 points and 39 touchdowns.

    During the season, Sanders also averaged over 200 yards per game and had four games in which he rushed for 300 yards.

    It's hard to argue that 1988 wasn't one of the best seasons a college football player has ever had and that Sanders isn't one of the best the college game has ever seen.

No. 1: Herschel Walker

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    Herschel Walker was a dominant athlete throughout his career and truly shined at the University of Georgia.

    After a tremendous season in 1981, in which he posted career highs in yards and touchdowns, Walker came into 1982 with high expectations.

    He didn't disappoint, as he rushed for 1,752 yards and 17 touchdowns and capped off the year with the Heisman Trophy.

    Walker finished his career with 5,259 yards rushing, good enough to be in the top 10 rushers in college football history.