The 15 Best College Running Backs Since 1980

Anytime you would like to start a good argument among sports fans, just offer up your list of the best of anything of all time. Honestly, I don't see how you can ever do an all-time list on anything because you haven't been alive for eternity. In essence, when you say all time you can only really speak about what you have seen.

It's easier for me to keep it in my life span when putting these lists together. I know there are guys who I have heard were great like Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Ernie Davis, but I never saw them play personally so I can't really speak on it. What I can do is speak on what I have seen, and today I am going to try to put together a list that can affirm my take on the college running back.

The college running back has helped determine the success of many teams throughout the years. Evaluating the position is really tough to do because there are so many different styles of runners. For some it’s speed, and for others it’s power. Some are elusive and others are versatile. I was born in the 1970’s so I couldn't really appreciate the position until the 1980’s. I consider myself a student of the game so I am sure this list will spark some interest.

So here is my own list of college football's best running backs since 1980.

15 - Ray Rice - At Rutgers University, Ray Rice was a one-man band. The Scarlet Knights threw to him. They ran with him. They even used him on special teams. Ray Rice was dynamic and a physical guy despite his size. He has lived up to the billing as he has become a top-tiered professional, but his college accolades are as good as any that have ever played the game. Rice finished his career with 4,926 yards rushing.

14 - Cedric Benson - Benson was a multi-talented runner who often gets overlooked as a superstar in college. Benson was dynamic as a runner at Texas and made everyone forget about Ricky Williams when he took over. Benson was often criticized as being soft, but he dispelled that as he began to make defenders pay during his runs on the goal line. Benson finished his career with 5,540 yards rushing.

13 - Darren Sproles - Sproles was a do-it-all back at Kansas State. Everyone thought he was too small, but the real truth is that his heart is big enough to make up for his stature. Sproles was so exciting that many couldn't believe the moves he would make in the hole as he burst free for long runs. Sproles finished his career with 4,979 career rushing yards.

12 – DeAngelo Williams – At the turn of the century, DeAngelo Williams was a little-known back. Then he erupted on the scene with the Memphis Tigers. He was more than just a runner; Williams was a complete back wreaking havoc all over the field as a runner and receiver.

During his career, Williams ran for 6,026 yards and got into the end zone 60 times. He also held  the NCAA record for most all-purpose yards at 7,573 until it was recently broken by Brandon West.

11 – Ron Dayne – Ron Dayne was just a dominating power back for Wisconsin for four seasons. When he graduated, Ron "The Great Dayne" owned the NCAA career rushing mark. Ron Dayne is often overlooked because he wasn’t flashy, but truth be told he was a powerful back with deceptive speed. He rushed for 6,397 yards and 63 touchdowns. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1999 and is one of four players to win the MVP of the Rose Bowl twice.

10 – Eric Dickerson – As one half of the Pony Express, Dickerson was a steady force in the backfield for SMU. Many people criticized Dickerson for his upright running style, but it got the job done. You never saw anyone hit him directly, and you never saw anyone run him down from behind. Dickerson changed the way that runners looked as well as he introduced the dope box-barred face mask and the goggles.

9 – LaDanian Tomlinson - LaDainian Tomlinson has probably been the most successful running back in college since 2000. In his senior season in 2000, Tomlinson led the NCAA for the second time with 2,158 yards and 22 touchdowns. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back and was a finalist for the Heisman, but he came in fourth. He completed his college career with 5,263 rushing yards, ranking ninth in NCAA Division I history.

8 – Adrian Peterson – Peterson broke on the scene as a freshman and never looked back. His impact on the game was impeccable as he took the Big 12 by storm right out of high school rushing for 1,925 yards. Peterson only played three years in college, but he was as good as it gets when healthy.

7 – Reggie Bush – Bush was the most dynamic back of the new millennium. Reggie can do it all from running to receiving. Bush was so dynamic that he had people betting on how many people he could make miss him during runs in the games. During his time at USC, Bush accumulated quite a list of accomplishments. He was a two-time All-American, won the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy.

Bush has been stripped of most of his awards, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that he was the most dominant player on the field when he attended USC.

6 – Eddie George – Many people sleep on how good Eddie George was. When he was in prep school, he changed himself from a speed back to a power back with speed by adding more than 35 pounds of muscle. When Ohio State scooped him u,p George was primed and ready for the big time.

George peaked as a player in 1995 as he helped lead Ohio State to a 10-2 record and won the Heisman Trophy. That year George demonstrated his pure speed and power as he rushed for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns.

5 – Marshall Faulk – Marshall Faulk was a staple of the 1990’s as a dominant tailback. He was so electric that he put San Diego State on the map. He was a combination of all the good things you look for in a runner. He had speed, power and was extremely explosive in the hole. Faulk’s freshman year was incredible as he piled up over 1,400 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. He finished his three-year career with 62 of the most memorable touchdowns in college football history.

4 – Ricky Williams – Any back in the top five would be a good choice by any means as the best. Ricky Williams was a monster. He was so good that the New Orleans Saints gave up their whole draft to acquire his services. At Texas, Williams was a specimen, and his running style was so powerful that many wondered how he would hold up after heading to the NFL.

During the 1998 season, Williams rushed for 2,124 yards and 28 touchdowns and won the Heisman Trophy. Williams was labeled as a run-only guy, but he dispelled that myth using his incredible strength and vision and was one of the best backs the college game has seen.

3 – Bo Jackson – Say what you want about Bo Jackson, but the truth is we will always be left wondering how great he could have been as a pro ... but in college we saw his greatness. Never has a man drawn so much attention for being good at so many different sports, but Jackson was that guy.

He was a dominant figure in college, reportedly running sub 4.3 40-yard dashes at his size. His size and speed landed him a Heisman trophy in 1985.

2 – Barry Sanders – Had Sanders started his entire career at Oklahoma State, he very well could have been number one on this list. Sanders did put together the greatest football season a running back has ever put together in 1988.

Sanders set the single-season record for rushing with 2,628 yards and also had 3,250 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. There arguably hasn't been a season as great as the one Sanders had until Cam Newton went ballistic a couple of years ago.

1 – Herschel Walker – Never has a man entered a college campus with the expectations that Herschel Walker did when he entered the University of Georgia. Walker was expected to be the savior to a program, and he didn’t disappoint. The man was a freak of nature, and he played the game with wreckless abandon. Walker delivered during his time at Georgia and singlehandedly changed the outcome of games.

Walker changed the face of college football in 1981, in which he posted career highs in yards and touchdowns. No runner had ever put together another tremendous season after shaking up the world the year before since Archie Griffith. In fact, most of them usually ended up hurt, but Walker didn't disappoint, as he rushed for 1,752 yards and 17 touchdowns and capped off 1982 with the Heisman Trophy. Walker finished his career with 5,259 yards rushing.

I have also learned that regardless of how much time or effort you put in to putting a list together, you can’t really expect everyone to agree with your list. In fact you probably won’t agree with it after you finish it because someone will throw a name out there that totally slipped your mind while writing. Anyway feel free to fire away in the comments section.

10 Replies to “The 15 Best College Running Backs Since 1980”

  1. Very Good list - not much to argue with

    I guess Marcus Allen missed the cut since he was at USC from '78-'81. Keith Byars would have won the '84 Heisman as a junior if it wasn't for Flutie's Hail Mary. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite the same after he broke his foot senior year.

    I'm sure Rev. will have something to say about Ki'Jana Carter. His pro career flamed out (injuries and being drafted by the Bengals was too much to overcome). But he got it done at Penn State.

    Lawrence Phillips had all the tools, except the one between his ears.

    1. Sure, I'd love to put Ki-Jana Carter on this list, and I don't think that would be absurd, however I have no idea who I'd take off. This list is pretty awesome.

      Reggie Bush was the most impressive player I ever saw in person, when he was literally a professional (paid with a house and all!) among amateurs when I witnessed him go bonkers against Notre Dame in the infamous Bush Push game.

      Eddie George, while a Buckeye, is a Philadelphia guy that I always loved. Ron Dayne, beast. Ricky and Ced tore things up at Texas, though I never will forgive Cedric Benson for saying he'd rather win the Heisman than beat Oklahoma. I may have banished him from the list just for that. I'm all for going for your accolades, but not at the expense of the team. Maybe we could slip Ki-Jana in there.

      Seriously, great list. I wish I would have been old enough to see/appreciate Herschel, Barry and Bo in college.

      Well done.

    2. There were lots of guys who could have been considered. When I did the list I originally started with 1982 because I can remember those guys purely. I can honestly say that I didn't see Marcus Allen play one down in college.
      I did love Ki-Jana Carter too.

  2.  ... As a Bucs fan I wanted to get Cedric Benson instead of Cadillac always loved him at Texas. 
    Was never a believer of Ron Dayne but he put up numbers in college so I won't take that away from him. 
    Reggie Bush was probably one of the  most electrifying backs I've seen in college. Dude was soooo explosive. 
    I'm still mad Marshall didn't get that Heisman. Dude was a monster that put up playstation numbers. 
    Herschel Herschel Herschel nuff said. GOAT 
    Great read  brother. 

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