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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / The Grueling Truth's Top 10 Sports Lists / Top-10 Running Backs in College Football History

Top-10 Running Backs in College Football History: Who was the Greatest?

The greatest ball-carriers
Publish Date: 05/03/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

I start off by saying that this list does not take into consideration anything these men did in the NFL. Some guys may be rated lower because maybe they only played two or three years. I know many candidates exist for these top ten spots, and picking a top ten is darn near impossible.

Criteria

Stats are always huge, but the player’s impact on the game and how many years he played is also a big deal. If a running back only played two years in College, it will be hard to top a man who played all four years.

10) Marcus Allen, USC

After replacing White as the starting halfback, Allen amassed 1,563 yards as a junior and finished second nationally in rushing totals. He eclipsed that mark by becoming college football’s inaugural 2,000-yard rusher with 2,342. Allen averaged an astounding 5.6 yards per carry and 212.9 per game played.

Allen had an outstanding senior season, amassing 2,683 offensive yards while leading the nation in scoring and winning the Heisman Trophy.

He finished his career with 4,664 rushing yards, 5,232 total yards and 46 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 5.2 average yard per carry average.

Allen is the only player ever in football history to have won all four major honors: Heisman Trophy, National Championship and Super Bowl while being honored both as NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. See where Marcus Allen ranks on the list of the Best USC Trojans Football players of all time

Video: USC Trojans - Marcus Allen Highlights

USC Trojans – Marcus Allen Highlights

9) Bo Jackson, Auburn

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 who made Auburn football relevant again in the state of Alabama would see his promising pro football career end in 1990 when he suffered a hip injury.

Video: Bo Jackson Highlights 🎥 The Most Dominant Player in College Football HISTORY 💯

Bo Jackson Highlights 🎥 The Most Dominant Player in College Football HISTORY 💯

8) Ron Dayne, Wisconsin

Oddly enough, Ron Dayne had his finest season at Wisconsin as a freshman when he amassed 2,109 rushing yards on 325 attempts and 21 touchdowns – culminating with his 246-yard performance against Utah in the Copper Bowl game.

As a senior, he came close to surpassing that mark with 2,034 yards on 337 carries and 20 touchdowns in one fewer game – though his 7,125 career rushing yards still set an NCAA record and he amassed 71 touchdowns for Wisconsin Badgers.

1999 Heisman Trophy winner Dayne set many records that remain standing today, such as the most 200-yard rushing games (12, tied with Ricky Williams and Marcus Allen). Additionally, Jackson became only one of eight NCAA players ever to surpass 1,000 yards rushing all four seasons of eligibility.

Video: Ron Dayne Wisconsin Career Highlights |

Ron Dayne Wisconsin Career Highlights | “The Great Dayne”

7) Charles White, USC

Few players were as consistent during their college careers as Charles White, who notched 31 100-yard rushing performances and finished his USC career with 5,598 regular-season rushing yards (the second most ever), plus 6,245 bowl rushing yards (third most ever).

As a sophomore, he totaled 1,478 rushing yards; in both of his final years, he eclipsed that total 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 by averaging 6.2 yards a carry and scoring 19 touchdowns en route to earning the Heisman Trophy.

Video: 1980 Rose Bowl-Charles White Takes Over

1980 Rose Bowl-Charles White Takes Over

6) Archie Griffin, Ohio State

Only one player has won the Heisman Trophy more than once: Ohio State’s Archie Griffin.

Griffin won the award in 1974 and 1975, but 1974 was 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, putting him in the top 10 for rushing yards. Griffin also played for one of the greatest college football coaches of all time!

Video: Classic Tailback - Archie Griffin Ohio State Highlights

Classic Tailback – Archie Griffin Ohio State Highlights

5) Red Grange, Illinois

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.

In the end nobody did more to make the game of college football popular than Red Grange did.

Video: Classic Tailback - Red Grange Illinois Highlights

Classic Tailback – Red Grange Illinois Highlights

4) Tony Dorsett, Pitt

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. He also led the program to national prominence in the mid-1970’s.

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.

Video: Classic Tailback - Tony Dorsett Pittsburgh Highlights

Classic Tailback – Tony Dorsett Pittsburgh Highlights

3) Ricky Williams, Texas

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 college game’s best backs.

Video: Ricky Williams🤯 Texas Highlights(1995-1998)

Ricky Williams🤯 Texas Highlights(1995-1998)

2) Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State

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. Sanders was drafted in 1989, one of the greatest draft classes in NFL history!

Video: Barry Sanders😤 Oklahoma State Highlights UNSTOPPABLE(1986-1988)

Barry Sanders😤 Oklahoma State Highlights UNSTOPPABLE(1986-1988)

1) Herschel Walker, Georgia

Herschel Walker was a dominant athlete throughout his career and truly shined at the University of Georgia. Walker led the Bulldogs to a National Championship with a win over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl.

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.

Video: Classic Tailback - Herschel Walker Georgia Highlights

Classic Tailback – Herschel Walker Georgia Highlights

Honorable mentions

Doak Walker, SMU

In 1948, this running back completed 108 carries for 532 yards and eight touchdowns, he completed 26 of 46 passes for 304 yards with five touchdowns, caught 15 passes totalling 278 yards with two scores on 15 receptions, made three interceptions, returned ten punts for 169 yards with one scoring return, returned five kickoffs for 161 yards in returns, kicked 22 of 29 extra points, averaged 42.1 average yards per punt attempt in 35 attempts and kicked 22/29 extra points out of 35 attempts!

Walker appeared in 35 games over his career and earned 288 points while amassing 2,076 rushing yards, 1,786 passing yards, 454 receiving yards, 750 punt return yards, and 764 kickoff returns.

Ernie Davis, Syracuse

Ernie Davis had an impactful career at Syracuse, both on and off of the field. Syracuse welcomed Ernie as they’re running back after losing Jim Brown, but he went beyond simply filling a positional void with his presence and contributions to Syracuse football.

Davis won the 1961 Heisman Trophy – something no African-American player had done until then.

Earl Campbell, Texas

On top of being named the Heisman Trophy winner in 1977, he led the nation in rushing with 1,744 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also led the Longhorns to the National Championship game, but came up short against Notre Dame.

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

O.J. Simpson, USC

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. Would probably rate even higher had he played more than two years at USC. Simpson is also on the list of greatest NFL Running Backs of the 1970s!

Jim Brown

Jim Brown was an outstanding football player and 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.

Reggie Bush, USC

Reggie Bush must be judged according to his performance on the field rather than off it, regardless of what has come out after his college career has concluded.

At USC, Bush amassed quite the list of achievements: He earned two All-American spots, won the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophies, and was named an All-Academic team member twice.

LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU

LaDainian Tomlinson has had an outstanding pro career, so many are surprised when they discover he spent four seasons at TCU.

From 1997-2000, LT’s role increased each year until his breakout performance in 2000, when he ran for 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns – ultimately setting the bar for success moving forward.

As a Horned Frog, LT amassed 5,263 yards and 54 touchdowns en route to earning his number being retired by the program.

Eric Dickerson, SMU

Eric Dickerson was a great running back at SMU.

Dickerson was  on one of the most celebrated SMU teams and was part of an explosive backfield which featured him alongside Craig James, for whom he shared carries.

Dickerson earned All-American status while at SMU and amassed 4,450 rushing yards; he also tied the school record for career touchdowns scored.

Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma

Peterson amassed 4,041 rushing yards on 748 attempts with 42 touchdowns across 31 career games.

Peterson had the most remarkable debut season as a collegiate runner when he broke multiple NCAA freshman rushing records, amassing 1,925 yards on 339 carries in just nine games – surpassing 100 yards each time!

Peterson still managed to eclipse 1,000 yards during all three of his seasons, even as a junior when only playing seven games.

 

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