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Monday, December 1, 2003
Updated: December 15, 10:46 AM ET
Best individual college football seasons

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White may win the Heisman, but he won't make this after his disastrous game against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship. While White finished with an amazing 40 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions for over 3,700 yards, it's tough to crack the list of greatest individual college football season of all time.

As is often the case, our simplest list ideas often turn out to be the toughest to compile. We decided to consider just the post-1930 greats. Red Grange, George Gipp, Bronko Nagurski, Jim Thorpe -- it's too mind-boggling to leave one or two off the top-10 list but difficult to judge their results against more modern players. So we wimped out, and left them all off -- they're in a category all by themselves.

Barry Sanders
High school numbers: Sanders had 39 TDs in 1988.
Here's our Top 10:

1. Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State (1988)
The only serious question when composing this list was "Who's No. 2?" Sanders season was the only college football player's campaign to rank in ESPN.com's "End of the Century" list covering all sports. Rattle this off next time your bar buddies say someone's having a great season:

  • Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards, an NCAA record.

  • He had 3,249 total yards, an NCAA record.

  • Sanders scored 39 TDs (37 rushing, 1 kick return, 1 punt return), an NCAA record.

  • He averaged 7.6 yards per carry.

  • He rushed for 300+ yards in four games.

    That was during the 11-game regular season. In the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming, he ran for 222 yards and 5 TDs. In three quarters. He sat out the fourth, as OSU won 62-14.

    Sanders had replaced Thurman Thomas at Oklahoma State, and nobody expected that kind of season from the junior, who had rushed for 603 yards the year before. But who'd expect that kind of season from anyone?

    2. Steve McNair, Alcorn State (1994)
    McNair's incredible season, in which he led his 1-AA team to an 8-2-1 record, will always be suspect -- he was playing on a pass-giddy team against smaller competition.

    But the heck with the doubters. Troy State head coach Larry Blakeney, who coached Bo Jackson during his 12 years at Auburn, told the L.A. Times, "Steve McNair is the best football player I've ever seen. ... He'd be the best player on Colorado's team or Nebraska's team, too. He'd be the best player on any team in Division I-A. He's that good. ... He can do more to beat you with his abilities than anyone else I've ever seen. That includes Bo."

    McNair's stats: 4,863 yards passing, 936 yards rushing for an NCAA record 5,799 yards in total offense. QB rating: 155.4. TD passes: 44. And in the Heisman voting, he managed to finish third despite the doubters, and received 111 first-place votes.

    Marcus Allen
    Opponents knew Allen was getting the ball and still couldn't stop him.

    3. Marcus Allen, Southern Cal (1981)
    Allen had a spectacular season for USC, becoming the first college runner to break the 2,000 yard barrier (he rushed for 2,342 yards). He accomplished this by rushing for 200 yards in five straight games, and averaging 212.9 yards per game. He carried the ball 403 times, averaging 5.8 yards. He was also USC's leading receiver, with 34 catches. Allen scored 23 TDs as the Trojans finished the season with a 9-2 record. His average of 36.6 carries per game is still an NCAA record.

    4. Ricky Williams, Texas (1998)
    It's a cliché, but it's also the highest compliment you can get in sports: "He's like the Michael Jordon of college football. He can run around you, he can run over you, he can catch, kind of like Michael can shoot, dunk on you, anything." That's what Texas A&M safety Dante Hall said after Williams pounded A&M for 259 yards on 44 carries in his final regular-season game.

    Williams rushed for 2,124 yards and 27 TDs his senior year, setting the career 1-A rushing record. Against Rice, he ran for 318 yards and six TDs; the next game, against Iowa State, he ran for 350 and five TDs. And in his last game, the Cotton Bowl, when Texas rolled over Mississippi State, Williams ran for 207 yards and two TDs.

    Williams won the Heisman, capturing the third-highest total of first-place votes ever: 714. Kansas State QB Michael Bishop, who finished second in the voting, received only 41 first-place votes.

    5. Steve Emtman, Washington (1991)
    Emtman was such a great defensive lineman in 1991 that despite his disappointing injury-laden pro career, he's still revered by many Husky fans, for whom the 1991 national championship season will always be treasured.

    It's hard to find the right stats to convey how great an inside defensive lineman is, but we'll give it a shot. Emtman compiled 6½ sacks and 19½ tackles for a loss, despite the fact that he was usually double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed and that every offense ran away from him. He led Washington's great defense, which surrendered only 9.2 points per game. Emtman finished "only" fourth in the 1991 Heisman voting, but many thought he deserved it. "I was just overwhelmed by Emtman's tremendous ability," said Corky Simpson of the Tucson (Ariz.) Citizen. "He is so dominant on the football field. I normally will not pick a lineman No. 1, but I had to."

    The Colts had to, too. Indianapolis picked Emtman, who decided to forgo his senior year, No. 1 in the 1992 NFL draft.

    6. Sammy Baugh, Texas Christian (1936)
    It's hard to pick between Baugh's 1935 season -- when he led TCU to a national title -- and 1936, when the Horned Frogs, beset by injuries, finished fifth in the nation. But we'll say 1936. Baugh led the country in passing, completing 104 of 206 for 1,196 yards and 12 TDs. Besides continuing to revolutionize the passing game, Baugh punted 89 times, averaging 38.8 yards per kick. A great defensive back, he also returned punts like a madman. And he led the Horned Frogs to a win over undefeated Santa Clara, punting 17 times for an average of 43 yards in a 9-0 win.

    But stats don't really tell the story for an all-around superstar like Baugh. After Sports Illustrated, in 1991, came up with a formula to rank college QBs, they found Slingin' Sammy finished in the 49th spot. But the magazine took care to quote NCAA official Dave Nelson in comparing Jim McMahon (No. 3 in SI's ranking) to Baugh. "I'd take Baugh," said Nelson. "Wouldn't everybody?"

    7. Jim McMahon, BYU (1980)
    As a junior in 1980, McMahon was both flashy (How could he not be? See the Holiday Bowl's final four minutes and the Hail Mary for evidence) and efficient -- in fact, the most efficient QB in Division 1-A history, with a passer rating of 176.9. He completed 284 of 445 passes for 4,571 yards and 47 TDs in 12 games, surrendering a relatively meager 18 interceptions. The 47 TD passes set a 1-A record that stood for 10 years. McMahon also rushed for six TDs.

    McMahon's Cougars averaged 46.7 points a game and went 12-1. McMahon was a first-team All-America selection, but finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year.

    Herschel Walker
    If Walker hadn't turned pro after his junior season, he would likely hold the career rushing record.

    8. Herschel Walker, Georgia (1981)
    Walker won the Heisman in 1982, his junior season, but had his finest season in 1981, when he set a bunch of NCAA records -- including most yards rushing by a sophomore (1,891) and most 100-yard games (11, to tie the record). He averaged 172 yards rushing per game, and scored 20 TDs. And he was so spectacular he even had the opponents cheering. Against Ole Miss, he ran for 265 yards in a Georgia romp, and had the Ole Miss fans canting, "Herschel, Herschel, Herschel."

    Although he didn't win the Heisman (he was runner-up to Marcus Allen), many thought during the season that he had a chance to become the first soph to win the coveted award.

    9. Hugh Green, Pittsburgh (1980)
    Green, a defensive end, won the Maxwell Award in 1980, and finished second to George Rogers in the Heisman voting. Only 6-2 and 222 pounds, Green was considered by many to be the best player in college football in 1980. The Sporting News named him player of the year. "He is that rare commodity, a defensive player who can control a football game," wrote TSN's Bob Smizik, who quoted Kansas Don Fambrough as saying, "You cannot run straight at him, or even around him. With him on the field, it's tough to maintain any running game."

    Pitt went 22-2 in Green's junior and senior years, and the defensive end got most of the credit for the great record, as Pitt led the country in rushing defense. In his career, Green made 441 tackles and 53 sacks.

    10. Nile Kinnick, Iowa (1939)
    Iowa's iron man did it all, often in stunning fashion. For example, against No. 1-ranked Notre Dame, he punted 16 times, averaging 45.5 yards, and scored the only Iowa TD (and drop-kicked the essential extra point) as the Hawkeyes beat the Irish, 7-6. During the season, Iowa scored 19 TDs; of those, Kinnick passed for 11 and rushed for five.

    All told, his stats are pretty impressive for the era, especially considering they were compiled in only eight games. Kinnick completed 31 passes for 638 yards and ran for 374 in 106 carries. He punted 73 times, averaging 38.9 yards a kick. He also returned punts and kickoffs for 616 yards. A two-way player, he played all 60 minutes in six games.

    His impassioned, patriotic speech after winning the Heisman capped a great season. He said, in part, "I thank God I was warring on the gridirons of the Midwest, and not on the battlefields of Europe. I can speak confidently and positively that the players of this country, would much more, much rather struggle and fights to win the Heisman award, than the Croix de Guerre and the Iron Cross."

    At year's end, Kinnick became the first football player to be named the AP outstanding athlete of the year, beating out Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis. And Kinnick would see action during World War II: he died in 1943 when his Navy fighter plane crashed. He remains the most revered hero in the state of Iowa.

    Also receiving votes:
    Whizzer White, Colorado (1937)
    Doak Walker, SMU (1948)
    Roger Staubach, Navy (1963)
    Howard Twilley, Tulsa (1965)
    O.J. Simpson, Southern Cal (1968)
    Ed Marinaro, Cornell (1971)
    Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh (1976)
    Earl Campbell, Texas (1977)
    Mike Rozier, Nebraska, (1983)
    Steve Young, BYU (1983)
    Doug Flutie, Boston College (1984)
    Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State (1984)
    Ty Detmer, BYU (1990)
    Danny Wuerffel, Florida (1996)
    Randy Moss, Marshall (1997)