There are certainly other schools that can boast about the running backs they have produced such as Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Oklahoma, but there should be no doubt Auburn has produced some of the best running backs in college football during this time period.
Since 1970, NFL teams have drafted 21 Auburn running backs.
When it comes to comparing Auburn's running backs, there is doubt who should top the list--Bo Jackson. The true debate over Auburn's best running back starts after Jackson. With this is mind I have rated all of Auburn's top running backs since 1970 with seven statistical categories. This includes career totals, games with 20 carries or more, games with 10 carries or more, the top four games of their career, the top 11 games of their career, games against conference opponents and career games against opponents with a winning record.
Bo Jackson won the Heisman Trophy as a senior in 1985.
Each running back received a rating from each category based on yards per game, yards per carry and touchdown ratio. There were a total of 16 running backs involved in the comparison. The Auburn fan base has its favorites and each one of these backs has been special for various reasons. Some won championships while some produced big plays in big games. They all possessed talent, though some obviously were in a league of their own. Some were simply blue collar backs, who were productive mainly on effort and a desire to be their best.
Here are the top five backs from the seven categories along with their rating:
Games with 20 carries or more:
Players like Brent Fullwood and Ronnie Brown simply did not have the opportunity to shine as brightly as some others because they were not the lone featured back throughout their careers. They were both great runners, but shared their playing time with Jackson and Carnell Williams. Their games with 20 carries or more reveal their potential when given the opportunity to play.
Games with 10 carries or more:
Top four games of their career:
Each back had their one famous game, but selecting their best four games of their career reveals more consistency when it comes to showing just how special each back was during their time on the plains.
Top 11 games of their career:
I selected 11 games because the length of a regular season for most of the backs involved in the comparison. Note the slight separation between Jackson and Fullwood. Once again, this category hurts the backs who played in fewer games as the primary starter such as Ronnie Brown and Rudi Johnson.
Games against SEC opponents:
Kenny Irons was a two-year starter while at Auburn, but his senior year was plagued with injuries, making him less productive. He finally makes his first appearance in the top five.
Games against FBS opponents that finished with a winning record:
Only three of the 16 backs involved in this comparison finished in the top five of all save categories. They were Jackson, Fullwood and Stephen Davis. In terms of a statistical comparison, this would indicate Auburn's top three running backs since 1970.
Ronnie Brown runs for the unbeaten 2004 Tigers in their Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
Here is the final ranking of all 16 backs based on their average rating from the seven categories including the average number of carries during their career and their best game of their career based on opponent.
Bo Jackson 1.14 (17.9)/1983 Alabama: 256-20-2 TDs
Brent Fullwood 2.29 (11.0)/1986 Tennessee: 207-18-1 TD
Stephen Davis 4.43 (16.1)/1994 Arkansas: 246-27-3 TDs
James Brooks 4.86 (16.3)/1980 LSU: 210-35-1 TD
Joe Cribbs 6.00 (17.8)/1978 Georgia: 250-34-2 TDs
Carnell Williams 6.14 (17.7)/2003 Alabama: 204-26-2 TDs
Rudi Johnson 6.43 (26.8)/2000 Ole Miss: 165-29-2 TDs
Kenny Irons 8.57 (19.7)/2005 LSU: 218-27-1 TD
James Bostic 8.71 (16.5)/1992 Arkansas: 211-32-2 TDs
Ronnie Brown 9.57 (11.2)/2002 Ole Miss: 224-33-3 TDs
Lionel James 10.67 (9.7)/1982 Tennessee: 129-14-2 TDs
Onterio McCalebb 11.33 (7.8)/2009 Mississippi State: 114-16-1 TD
Ben Tate 11.86 (15.4)/2009 Arkansas: 184-22-2 TDs
Michael Dyer 13.29 (13.0)/2010 Oregon: 143-22-0 TD
James Joseph 14.71 (10.9)/1989 Mississippi State: 172-35-1 TD
Stacy Danley 15.43 (14.5)/1988 Georgia: 172-38-0 TD
When you consider that Fullwood averaged only 11.0 carries per game during his career, his average rating of 2.29 is extremely impressive. In comparison, Ronnie Brown averaged 11.2 carries per game, but finished No. 10 on the list.
Stephen Davis is shown an NFL running back.
Michael Dyer has up to three more seasons remaining in his career and Onterio McCalebb has two so both should be expected to climb the list. Looking at the career numbers of the 16 backs involved in the comparison, McCalebb has the second best average per rush and the best TD ratio. Dyer has the fourth best average per rush.
The different eras and styles of offense each player performed within had a minor consequence to the outcome of each back's career, but a player like Jackson or Fullwood would have been special regardless.
Rudi Johnson's one season as an Auburn football player was a productive one.
For some Auburn running backs it was about success found through quantity like Johnson, Williams and Irons. For players like Jackson or Fullwood, they found success in quantity and quality. Of the seven categories outlined in this feature, Fullwood possessed the best average per carry in six and was just slightly behind Jackson in games with 20 carries or more. Jackson averaged 6.75 yards per rush and Fullwood averaged 6.67 yards. The 16 running backs compared had an average of 5.42 yards per carry, scoring a touchdown every 21.3 attempts. Brent Fullwood finished his career with 7.04 yards per rush and a touchdown every 16.7 carries.
Brent Fullwood runs for the Tigers.
At 5-11 and 209 pounds, Fullwood ran like he was 225 pounds. He possessed quickness, speed and power and was born to be a running back. He had quick feet and strong legs, which were the keys to his trademark of running each play as if it were his last run. His running style was similar to the late, great Walter Payton, who also possessed strong leg drive, which allowed him to gain extra yardage after contact.
Fullwood would square his shoulders quickly, exploding up field at the first indication of open space. During his only season as Auburn's starter, he was No. 4 nationally in rushing despite having only 167 carries. The other three running backs had an average of 170 more carries than Fullwood in 1986. He also led the nation with 8.3 yards per carry, finishing as the Southeastern Conference leading rusher and No. 6 in the Heisman race.