Over the past four decades offenses have become more dynamic and more balanced, but a superior running back can still take over a game at the collegiate level. There have been so many great ones over the last 40 years it would be unfeasible to single out one as the greatest. Rather than taking on the task of selecting the best player at the position, I elected to rate some of the greatest running backs over the past four decades based on efficiency and production.
The search began with a list of 127 players who rushed for at least 3,000 yards during their college careers from 1970-2011. Every Heisman Trophy winner except for John Cappelletti of Penn State and Reggie Bush of Southern Cal was selected. Cappelletti played running back for only two seasons and Reggie Bush had only one dynamic season. Because both had a limited college career, they were excluded from this comparison.
The remaining running backs selected rushed for more than 4,000 yards or possessed a career average of at least 6.0 yards per carry. This narrowed the field of contestants to 33 running backs to be reviewed. That group includes:
Mark Ingram (Alabama) 3,261 yards, 572 carries, 42 TDs, 86.6 YPG (yards per game), 5.70 YPC (yards per carry)
Darren McFadden (Arkansas) 4,484 yards, 763 carries, 40 TDs, 118.0 YPG, 5.88 YPC
Bo Jackson (Auburn) 4,714 yards, 735 carries, 48 TDs, 115.0 YPG, 6.41 YPC
Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) 3,433 yards, 563 carries, 39 TDs, 122.6 YPG, 6.10 YPC
Emmitt Smith (Florida) 4,229 yards, 742 carries, 38 TDs, 124.4 YPG, 5.70 YPC
Herschel Walker (UGA) 5,596 yards, 1,083 carries, 57 TDs, 155.4 YPG, 5.17 YPC
Troy Davis (Iowa State) 4,382 yards, 782 carries, 36 TDs, 141.4 YPG, 5.60 YPC
Darren Sproles (Kansas State) 4,979 yards, 815 carries, 45 TDs, 110.6 YPG, 6.11 YPC
DeAngelo Williams (Memphis) 6,026 yards, 969 carries, 55 TDs, 137.0 YPG, 6.22 YPC
Tyrone Wheatley (Michigan) 4,178 yards, 688 carries, 47 TDs, 101.9 YPG, 6.07 YPC
Michael Hart (Michigan) 5,040 yards, 1,015 carries, 41 TDs, 117.2 YPG, 4.97 YPC
Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois) 5,164 yards, 807 carries, 52 TDs, 161.4 YPG, 6.40 YPC
Mike Rozier (Nebraska) 5,094 yards, 734 carries, 49 TDs, 134.1 YPG, 6.94 YPC
Ahman Green (Nebraska) 4,216 yards, 620 carries, 45 TDs, 117.1 YPG, 6.80 YPC
Eddie George (Ohio State) 3,768 yards, 683 carries, 44 TDs, 78.5 YPG, 5.52 YPC
Archie Griffin (Ohio State), 5,590 yards, 924 carries, 27 TDs, 124.2 YPG, 6.05 YPC
Billy Sims (Oklahoma) 4,111 yards, 587 carries, 53 TDs, 103.0 YPG, 6.94 YPC
Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma) 4,045 yards, 747 carries, 41 TDs, 130.5 YPG, 5.41 YPC
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State) 3,799 yards, 557 carries, 53 TDs, 126.6 YPG, 6.82 YPC
LaMichael James (Oregon) 5,082 yards, 771 yards, 53 TDs, 137.4 YPG, 6.59 YPC
Tony Dorsett (Pitt) 6,529 yards, 1,163 carries, 59 TDs, 138.9 YPG, 5.61 YPC
Ray Rice (Rutgers) 4,926 yards, 910 carries, 49 TDs, 129.6 YPG, 5.41 YPC
George Rogers (South Carolina) 5,214 yards, 955 carries, 31 TDs, 113.3 YPG, 5.46 YPC
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) 4,746 yards, 796 carries, 58 TDs, 148.3 YPG, 5.96 YPC
Eric Dickerson (SMU) 4,656 yards, 840 carries, 49 TDs, 105.8 YPG, 5.54 YPC
LaDainian Tomlinson (TCU) 5,535 yards, 983 carries, 58 TDs, 117.9 YPG, 5.64 YPC
Ricky Williams (Texas) 6,592 yards, 1,064 carries, 75 TDs, 134.5 YPG, 6.20 YPC
Cedric Benson (Texas) 5,540 yards, 1,112 carries, 64 TDs, 115.4 YPG, 4.98 YPC
Earl Campbell (Texas) 4,745 yards, 832 carries, 40 TDs, 110.3 YPG, 5.70 YPC
Darren Lewis (Texas A&M) 5,168 yards, 941 carries, 46 TDs, 112.3 YPG, 5.49 YPC
Charles White (USC) 6,245 yards, 1,147 carries, 49 TDs, 130.1 YPG, 5.44 YPC
Marcus Allen (USC) 4,810 yards, 932 carries, 45 TDs, 123.3 YPG, 5.16 YPC
Ron Dayne (Wisconsin) 7,125 yards, 1,220 carries, 71 TDs, 151.6 YPG, 5.84 YPC
For this assessment each running back is ranked on four different levels. This includes yards per game, yards per rush, touchdown ratio and strength of schedule. The rankings will be factored into 12 different categories to determine which player was the most efficient or productive in each category. Those categories include:
*Top 11 games of career
*Top 20 games of career
*Career games of 20 carries or more
*Games against opponents with winning record
*Games against opponents with winning record (.750 or better)
*Games averaging at least five yards per rush
*Games averaging at least six yards per rush
*Games averaging at least seven yards per rush
*Games with at least 100 yards rushing (percentage)
*100-yard performances rated
After the rankings were calculated the top five running backs from each category are listed. Here are the final results.
Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois led all running backs with 161.4 yards per game during his career. Oklahoma's Billy Sims had the highest yards per rush with 6.94 yards per carry. Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State had the best TD ratio (ATD) with one every 10.5 carries and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma faced the most difficult strength of schedule.
Barry Sanders had an outstanding NFL career after leaving Oklahoma State.
In terms of durability, Georgia's Herschel Walker led all running backs with 30.1 carries per game. (ATD is the number of rushing attempts per touchdown)
LaMichael James (Oregon) 8.75 (137.4 YPG, 6.59 YPC, 14.5 ATD)
Mike Rozier (Nebraska) 9.00 (134.1 YPG, 6.95 YPC, 15.0 ATD)
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) 9.50 (148.3 YPG, 5.96 YPC, 13.7 ATD)
Bo Jackson (Auburn) 10.75 (115.0 YPG, 6.41 YPC, 15.3 ATD)
Ricky Williams (Texas) 11.50 (134.5 YPG, 6.20 YPC, 14.2 ATD)
LaMichael James of Oregon wins this category with an average ranking of 8.75. James was No. 15 in strength of schedule, No. 7 in yards per game, No. 5 in yards per carry and No. 8 in touchdown ratio.
Garrett Wolfe led all backs with 258.4 yards per game and LaMichael James had the highest average per rush with 8.66 yards. Barry Sanders had the highest TD ratio and Bo Jackson of Auburn faced the most difficult strength of schedule. Marcus Allen of Southern Cal had the most carries per game with 36.8.
LaMichael James (Oregon) 6.50 (212.5 YPG, 8.66 YPC, 11.7 ATD)
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State) 7.50 (245.1 YPG, 7.77 YPC, 8.7 ATD)
Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois) 8.00 (258.4 YPG, 7.70 YPC, 10.9 ATD)
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) 8.25 (234.0 YPG, 7.55 YPC, 9.7 ATD)
Ricky Williams (Texas) 10.25 (251.2 YPG, 7.59 YPC, 10.1 ATD)
LaMichael James was a dynamic runner for the Oregon Ducks.
LaMichael James finished No. 1 in this category with rankings of No. 5 in strength of schedule, No. 12 in yards per game, No. 1 in yards per rush and No. 8 in touchdown ratio.
Ron Dayne of Wisconsin led all backs with 222.1 yards per game and Mike Rozier had the highest average per rush with 8.03 yards. Barry Sanders was No. 1 in TD ratio with one every 9.9 carries and Bo Jackson faced the most difficult schedule. Marcus Allen averaged 36.0 carries during his top 20 games.
LaMichael James (Oregon) 6.50 (181.9 YPG, 7.79 YPC, 12.3 ATD)
Ricky Williams (Texas) 8.25 (213.3 YPG, 7.17 YPC, 10.8 ATD)
Mike Rozier (Nebraska) 8.75 (180.6 YPG, 8.03 YPC, 11.0 ATD)
Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois) 8.75 (219.8 YPG, 7.41 YPC, 12.9 ATD)
Marshall Faulk (San Diego St.) 10.75 (193.0 YPG, 6.70 YPC, 12.8 ATD)
Once again LaMichael James finished at No. 1 in this category with the No. 8 strength of schedule, No. 11 in yards per game, No. 2 in yards per rush and No. 5 in touchdown ratio for an average ranking of 6.50.
Barry Sanders led all backs in yards per game (222.3), yards per rush (7.21) and TD ratio (9.5). Mark Ingram faced the most difficult strength of schedule and Marcus Allen averaged 35.1 carries per game during his top 20 games.
Auburn's Bo Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy.
This category should be a focal point of comparison as the playing field becomes more competitive with the number of carries per game. Running backs like Bo Jackson and Billy Sims primarily played in a wishbone offense, limiting their career touches compared to the other backs. When they were faced with the opportunity to carry the football more than 20 times both backs produced big numbers. Eric Dickerson of SMU also had to share the backfield with Craig James.
Bo Jackson (Auburn) 6.75 (182.8 YPG, 6.75 YPC, 17.1 ATD)
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State) 7.00 (222.3 YPG, 7.21 YPC, 9.5 ATD)
Mike Rozier (Nebraska) 7.00 (178.1 YPG, 6.78 YPC, 14.6 ATD)
Billy Sims (Oklahoma) 7.75 (178.3 YPG, 7.00 YPC, 15.9 ATD)
Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) 8.00 (163.8 YPG, 6.33 YPC, 12.9 ATD)
Bo Jackson triumphs in this category with a rating of No. 3 in strength of schedule, No. 3 in yards per game, No. 5 in yards per rush and No. 16 in touchdown ratio. Ron Dayne of Wisconsin had the most games of at least 20 carries with 36 followed by Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett with 35.
Mark Ingram had the fewest with nine games of 20 or more carries and Jackson was next with only 12 games. Jackson had the second lowest percentage of "20 carries" among the other 32 running backs at 29.3 percent.
Garrett Wolfe led all rushers with 191.2 yards per game and Nebraska's Mike Rozier led all backs with 7.27 yards per game in conference play. Barry Sanders had the highest TD ratio of one every 10.6 attempts. Herschel Walker led all backs with 32.3 carries per game against conference opponents.
Mike Rozier (Nebraska) 8.00 (153.4 YPG, 7.27 YPC, 13.0 ATD)
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) 9.00 (153.6 YPG, 6.02 YPC, 14.1 ATD)
LaMichael James (Oregon) 9.00 (149.5 YPG, 6.39 YPC, 14.1 ATD)
Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois) 10.25 (191.2 YPG, 6.82 YPC, 14.4 ATD)
Ahman Green (Nebraska) 10.50 (119.8 YPG, 6.74 YPC, 13.2 ATD)
Mike Rozier was No. 1 in this category by finishing at No. 24 in strength of schedule, No. 4 in yards per game, No. 1 in yards per rush and No. 3 in touchdown ratio for an average ranking of 8.00.
It should be noted that Tony Dorsett and George Rogers of South Carolina were on independent teams not affiliated with a conference. For this comparison Big East opponents were factored in for Dorsett and ACC opponents for George Rogers as their conference opponents. Ricky Williams of Texas faced the most conference opponents with 33 and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma faced the fewest with 10.
Garrett Wolfe was No. 1 in yards per game (151.1) and Billy Sims of Oklahoma was No. 1 in yards per rush (6.91). Barry Sanders had the No. 1 TD ratio with 1 every 9.5 attempts and Tyrone Wheatley of Michigan was No. 1 in strength of schedule. Herschel Walker led all running backs in this category with 31.3 attempts per game.
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State) 7.75 (107.1 YPG, 6.20 YPC, 9.5 ATD)
Ahman Green (Nebraska) 8.00 (112.8 YPG, 6.21 YPC, 16.4 ATD)
Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) 9.00 (127.4 YPG, 6.02 YPC, 12.9 ATD)
LaMichael James (Oregon) 9.00 (133.1 YPG, 6.15 YPC, 16.9 ATD)
Darren McFadden (Arkansas) 9.00 (140.4 YPG, 5.99 YPC, 23.4 ATD)
Barry Sanders tops this category with an average ranking of 7.75, including rankings of No. 4 in strength of schedule, No. 22 in yards per game, No. 4 in yards per rush and No. 1 in touchdown ratio. Charles White of Southern Cal and Bo Jackson faced the most opponents with a winning record (29). White was one of only five running backs to surpass 6,000 yards rushing at the collegiate level.
Marshall Faulk was No. 1 in yards per game with 160.8 and Tyrone Wheatley had the best average per rush with 6.62 yards. Barry Sanders had the best TD ratio of one every 10.3 attempts and LaMichael James was tied with Mike Rozier in terms of the most difficult strength of schedule. Marshall Faulk led all backs with 28.0 carries per game.
Tyrone Wheatley (Michigan) 6.75 (96.3 YPG, 6.62 YPC, 16.0 ATD)
LaMichael James (Oregon) 7.25 (109.7 YPG, 5.77 YPC, 17.1 ATD)
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma St.) 8.50 (114.1 YPG, 5.96 YPG, 10.3 ATD)
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) 9.00 (160.8 YPG, 5.74 YPC, 17.5 ATD)
Darren McFadden (Arkansas) 9.25 (115.8 YPG, 5.84 YPC, 18.2 ATD)
Tyrone Wheatley captured the No. 1 position in this category with rankings of No. 5 in strength of schedule, No. 17 in yards per game, No. 1 in yards per rush and No. 4 in touchdown ratio for an average ranking of 6.75. Tony Dorsett faced the most opponents with a winning percentage of at least .750 with 14.
Of the running backs from a BCS program Charles White had the best yards per game average with 128.3 yards per game during 12 games.
Garrett Wolfe had the best yards per game average with 211.2 yards per game during his 22 career games of 100 yards or more. Mike Rozier had the highest average per rush with 7.52 yards and Barry Sanders had the best TD ratio of 9.3. Mark Ingram faced the most difficult schedule and Herschel Walker led all backs with 32.5 carries per game.
LaMichael James (Oregon) 8.00 (168.0 YPG, 7.29 YPC, 12.7 ATD)
Billy Sims (Oklahoma) 8.25 (166.0 YPG, 7.48 YPC, 11.4 ATD)
Ricky Williams (Texas) 8.25 (189.0 YPG, 7.07 YPC, 11.7 ATD)
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma St.) 8.50 (207.9 YPG, 7.49 YPC, 9.3 ATD)
Rashaan Salaam (Colorado) 8.75 (177.8 YPG, 6.91 YPC, 13.3 ATD)
LaMichael James finished at No. 1 in this category with a No. 9 ranking in strength of schedule, No. 11 in yards per game, No. 6 in yards per rush and No. 6 in touchdown ratio. Ray Rice and Herschel Walker had the highest percentage of 100-yard games during their careers at 83.3 percent.
Ray Rice was a star at Rutgers.
Before becoming one of the premiere running backs in the NFL today, Rice averaged 124 yards on 5.4 yards per carry against the 14 BCS opponents he faced at Rutgers. Tony Dorsett had the most 100-yard games with 36 while compiling 32 of them in the 35 games he had 20 carries or more.
Ahman Green of Nebraska had the highest percentage of games with 7.0 yards per rush at 50.0 percent, but LaMichael James finished No. 1 again when combining strength of schedule. Darren Sproles of Kansas State was No. 2 in percentage of 7.0 yards per rush games incorporated with strength of schedule.
Sorting the final rankings from each category, here is the average finish of the top 10 running backs:
LaMichael James (Oregon)…………….2.6
Marshall Faulk (San Diego State)……..6.6
Bo Jackson (Auburn)…………………..7.6
Garrett Wolfe (Northern Illinois)……….8.1
Billy Sims (Oklahoma)…..……………..8.6
Barry Sanders (Oklahoma State)……..9.1
Ahman Green (Nebraska)………………9.5
Mike Rozier (Nebraska)………………....9.7
DeAngelo Williams (Memphis)………...10.6
Darren McFadden (Arkansas)………….10.8
Choosing the best running back over the past 40 years would be impossible, however, one could argue Oregon's LaMichael James is one of the most productive, or efficient, running backs over the past four decades. He finished with an average ranking of 2.6 in the 12 categories utilized for comparison, the best average ranking among the 33 running backs.
Garrett Wolfe might not carry the same name recognition as Herschel Walker, but he statistically held his own among the 33 running backs despite being penalized for a lower strength of schedule. At 5-7, 185 pounds Wolfe had a stellar collegiate career and was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. During his six games against opponents from a BCS conference, Wolfe averaged 114.5 yards per contest at 5.68 yards per rush.
Garrett Wolfe was a star in the MAC for the Northern Illinois Huskies.
In terms of quality numbers, Herschel Walker might not rate very high, but in terms of quantity he was an absolute beast. Of the 33 backs compared, Walker had the second highest career average of 155.4 yards per game. He was No. 1 among the 32 backs in 100-yard games with 30 in his 36 games. Georgia won three consecutive conference titles and a national championship during the Walker Era.
Ron Dayne's numbers are among the most impressive of any college running back.
Ron Dayne's 7,125 career rushing yardage won't likely be broken any time soon and he was the true definition of a power back, carrying the football at least 20 times in 36 games. Dayne missed only one of 48 games during his tenure at Wisconsin.
Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett was a workhorse at tailback despite being only 5-11, 190 pounds. Of the 32 running backs studied Dorsett had the second most career carries with 1,163 and he was the first running back in NCAA history to eclipse the 6,000-yard career barrier.
There is no telling what kind of career numbers Billy Sims and Bo Jackson could have produced had they run out of the I-formation during their entire collegiate careers. It should also be noted Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams of Texas were fullbacks during their freshman and sophomore seasons.
Archie Griffin remains the only two-time Heisman winner as a four-year starter for Ohio State. During his 45 career games Griffin rushed for more than 100 yards on 34 occasions as the Buckeyes produced a 40-5-1 record during his time with the team, which included four consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. Though he had 924 career carries, it resulted in only 27 rushing touchdowns, which hurt his overall efficiency ranking.
Troy Davis is a prime example of the Heisman Trophy going to the best player on the best team. Davis is the only running back in NCAA history to eclipse 2,000 yards in one regular season on two occasions. He rushed for more than 100 yards in 21 of his last 22 starts yet he never garnered the attention he abundantly deserved when it came to winning the Heisman.
Marshall Faulk, Ricky Williams, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Tony Dorsett, Marcus Allen, LaDainian Tomlinson, Eddie George and Eric Dickerson went on to have stellar careers in the NFL. All nine running backs rushed for over 10,000 yards during their professional careers. Players like Bo Jackson, Billy Sims and Earl Campbell exploded onto the NFL scene early, but their careers were cut short by injuries. Though the NFL has become a passing league, players like Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Darren McFadden are currently considered three of the best players in the league.
Editor's Note: Stuart Carter would like to thank the following sports information directors who helped with his research: Keith Meador of Oklahoma, David Abauf and Justin Dickens of Michigan, David Plati of Colorado, Daniel Apple of Florida, Roxanne Cantrell and Gavin Lang of Oklahoma State, Tim Tessalone of Southern Cal, Keith Mann of Nebraska, Steven Fink of South Carolina, Ernest Burghetti of Pittsburgh, Deanna Damon of TCU and Jerry Emig of Ohio State.)