Published on November 25, 2019 by Eric Crocker  

There is a constant debate of who is the greatest college football running back of all time.  While the arguments of who was the greatest quarterback, wide receiver, best defensive player, etc. are hard to debate as well, the greatest running back question is the most interesting to answer.  There are four players that are always brought up whenever people debate who was the greatest back of all time.  Their names are Hershel Walker, Bo Jackson, Archie Griffin, and Barry Sanders.  Walker and Jackson both played in the SEC, while Sanders played in what was then the Big 8, and Griffin played in the Big 10.  All four players have won the Heisman, the most prestigious award one can win in college football.  These four players racked up an unbelievable amount of yards, touchdowns, highlight plays, awards, and records when they played.  However, a closer look at their stats shows one player in particular stands out from the rest and that is the running back from the University of Georgia, Hershel Walker.

Hershel Walker

Walker played at the University of Georgia from 1980-1982.  During that three-year span, he won the Heisman, a national championship, and nine other honors.  The below chart shows his college stats.

Walker-Rushing-Receiving-Scrimmage-80-82.jpg 

As the chart demonstrates, Walker had over 1,600 yards from scrimmage every year as well as fifteen or more touchdowns every year. 

Bo Jackson

Now let’s take a look at Jackson’s career stats.

Jackson-Rushing-Receiving-Scrimmage-82-85.jpg

Jackson played at Auburn University from 1982-1985.  During that time frame, Jackson won the Heisman in addition to five other awards.  The 1984 season was short for Jackson because a separated shoulder sidelined him for most of his junior year.  During his time at Auburn, he totaled more than 4,500 total yards and over forty touchdowns.  Despite his injury, what he did during his other three seasons puts him in the discussion for greatest college football running back ever.  However, Walker was able to gain nearly 1000 more yards and seven more touchdowns than Jackson.  While Jackson did miss some of his junior year, he still played in more games than Walker.  Walker’s stats are more impressive and he was able to post those numbers in a shorter time frame than Jackson did.  To Jackson’s credit, he was a dual-athlete who ended up playing both football and baseball professionally.  In addition, he posted one of the fastest forty yards dashes of all time, at 4.13 seconds.  While Jackson may have been a better or more diverse athlete compared to Walker, Walker edges him out for the title of greatest running back in college football history.

Archie Griffin

The next back that is brought up in the greatest running back of college football is Archie Griffin.  Griffin played his college ball at Ohio State University.  He played from 1972-1975 and is the only player to this day to win two Heisman Trophies.  Griffin’s career stats are in the below table.

Griffin-Stats-72-75.jpg

Like Jackson, Griffin played one more year than Walker did.  Because of this, Griffin actually gained more yards than Walker.  However, it was only a 437-yard difference.  Had Walker stayed his senior year, he would have most likely eclipsed that 437-yard difference in the first quarter of the season and he would have had many more yards from scrimmage than Griffin.  On the other hand, a number that sticks out is the number of touchdowns.  In four seasons Griffin scored twenty-seven times.  Walker scored almost double that, fifty-two times, in just three seasons.  That stat alone helps offset the 437 yards more Griffin got over Walker.  This is to take nothing away from Griffin’s career.  He won seven awards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry, which is impressive considering he carried the rock 924 times while at Ohio State.  With all that being said, Walker still beats Griffin out as the greatest tailback at the collegiate level.

Barry Sanders

The last running back that is in the argument for greatest back in college football history is Barry Sanders.  Sanders played at Oklahoma State University from 1986-1988.  Like the previous three players, Sanders won the Heisman in addition to three other awards.  Below are his stat lines while at Oklahoma State.

Sanders-Rushing-Receiving-Scrimmage-86-88.jpg

While the first two seasons look average and do not stick out, his 1988 season alone puts him in the conversation for greatest running back ever because he put up video game like numbers.  His junior year is by far the most impressive season put together in college football.  Sanders still holds the records for most rushing yards in a season, most rushing touchdowns in a season, most points in a season, most 300+ yard games in a season, and highest rushing yards per game at 238.9.  All of these records are courtesy of his junior season.  Those numbers alone are the reason why Sanders is considered one of the greats.  One reason why his first two years were nowhere near his production in ’89 was because he had All-American Thurman Thomas in front of him and did not see much playing time.  Once Thurman graduated, Sanders got the starting job and he ran wild, putting up a season that will most likely never be topped.  However, as great as his ’89 season was, his first two seasons hurt him stat-wise.  While Walker only scored three more touchdowns than Sanders, he earned over 1,700 more yards than Sanders.  Unfortunately for Sanders, experts cannot point to one season and say because of that year, he is the greatest back of all time.  Nonetheless, it was the greatest season for a running back in the history of the sport and helped propel Sanders to a great professional career in NFL.

Conclusion

When one starts to argue who is the greatest running back in college football history, Hershel Walker, Bo Jackson, Archie Griffin, and Barry Sanders all come to mind.  Some pick Jackson, the two-sport professional athlete who recorded one of the fastest forty times.  Others pick Griffin, who put up nearly 6000 yards from scrimmage at Ohio State and is the only player to win the Heisman not once, but twice.  Some pick Sanders, the tailback who without a doubt put up the most impressive season in college football.  Finally, the ones who pick Walker win the debate for greatest running back in college football history.  Given his time frame of only playing three seasons, his number of yards and touchdowns are more impressive than all of the other backs.  In addition, he is the only player to finish in the top three of Heisman voting after each of his three college seasons.  Lastly, he is the only player of the group to win the ultimate prize, a national championship.  In closing, while all four of these running backs are once in a generation player, Hershel Walker is the one who gets to be called the G.O.A.T. of college football running backs… for now.

Sources

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/herschel-walker-1.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/bo-jackson-1.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/archie-griffin-1.html

https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/players/barry-sanders-1.html

https://bulldawgillustrated.com/sports/uga-football-2/fast-facts-georgia-vs-tennessee/

About the Author

Eric is a senior marketing major with a concentration in sports marketing at Samford University. He shares a strong passion for sports and looks forward to one day working in the sports industry.  Here is a link to his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericccrocker/