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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top-25 Running Backs in College Football History

Top-25 Running Backs in College Football History

The greatest ball-carriers
Publish Date: 05/04/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Greatest College Running Backs

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.

25) Gale Sayers, Kansas

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

At Kansas, Sayers earned two All-American selections. She ran for 2,675 yards and amassed 3,917 total gains for the Jayhawks.

24) Eddie George, Ohio State

In 1995, George helped Ohio State achieve a 10-2 record and took home the Heisman Trophy. George ran for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns during that season by combining speed and power running styles.

23) Mike Hart, Michigan

Mike Hart enjoyed an outstanding career at one of the nation’s premier programs: Michigan. After four seasons as a Wolverine, Hart declined the NFL to return for his senior year with Michigan.

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

Hart amassed 5,040 yards over his career rushing and could have accomplished even more outstanding achievements if not for an injury suffered during his sophomore season.

22) Billy Simms, Oklahoma

Billy Sims was another of Oklahoma’s notable running backs to earn Heisman Trophy honors during 1978.

Sims was determined not to let injuries define his career in 1978. Although it took two years of struggle before staying healthy was finally accomplished during his junior season.

Sims amassed 1,762 yards on his way to 20 touchdowns. If Simms had not missed so much time injured, he would rank much higher than this.

21) Jim Thorpe, Carlisle

The Jim Thorpe Award now recognizes college football’s finest defensive back; however, when he played halfback for Carlisle Indian School.

Lars Anderson’s book Carlisle vs Army reports that Carlisle went 12-1-1 and outscored opponents 504-114 during the 1912 season. Walter Camp named Thorpe to the first-team All-America list with this citation: “Thorpe demonstrated more individual prowess than any back on the gridiron.”

Statistics on his career remain incomplete, but in 44 games, he amassed 53 touchdowns and 421 points – 29 and 224 of these points led the country in 1912.

Video: Jim Thorpe: All American Athlete, Olympian, Hero

Jim Thorpe: All American Athlete, Olympian, Hero

20) 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.

Video: Adrian Peterson💪🏾 Oklahoma Highlights(2004-2006)

Adrian Peterson💪🏾 Oklahoma Highlights(2004-2006)

19) 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.

Video: Classic Tailback - Eric Dickerson SMU Highlights

Classic Tailback – Eric Dickerson SMU Highlights

18) Larry Johnson, Penn State

After excellent sophomore and junior seasons, Larry Johnson hit it out of the park with a great senior campaign.

Johnson led all runners with 2,087 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in 2002. To cap it all off, his season was made even more remarkable by receiving the Doak Walker, Walter Camp, and Maxwell awards.

Video: Larry Johnson Penn State Career Highlights - 2K for LJ

Larry Johnson Penn State Career Highlights – 2K for LJ

17) 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.

Video: LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU | Throwback Thursday

LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU | Throwback Thursday

16) 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.

Although his accomplishments may have diminished over time, Bush was an exceptional athlete renowned for making national headlines.

Video: Most Exciting Player in USC Football History || RB Reggie Bush Highlights ᴴᴰ

Most Exciting Player in USC Football History || RB Reggie Bush Highlights ᴴᴰ

15) 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.

Video: Classic Tailback - Jim Brown Syracuse Highlights

Classic Tailback – Jim Brown Syracuse Highlights

14) 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.

Video: OJ Simpson USC Highlights

OJ Simpson USC Highlights

13) 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.

Video: Classic Tailback - Earl Campbell Texas Highlights

Classic Tailback – Earl Campbell Texas Highlights

12) 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.

Ernie Davis’ life and career were so captivating that a movie was produced about it, The Express.

Video: A Tribute to Ernie Davis - Syracuse Football

A Tribute to Ernie Davis – Syracuse Football

11) 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.

Plus, the trophy for the best running back in the country is named after him.

Video: Doak Walker: In Living Color

Doak Walker: In Living Color

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.

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.

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.

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 Mention

Glenn “Doc” Davis, Army

Doc Blanchard, Army

Deangelo Williams, Memphis

Cedric Benson, Texas

Darren McFadden, Arkansas

Emmit Smith, Florida

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