Imagine trying to set a dinner table for the 10 greatest college football players of all time.
You would need a big table, and it’s an almost-impossible task to limit that reservation to just 10 monuments to the sport. Sporting News tried anyway. We conducted a poll of 54 voters — comprised of former players and media members from across the country — and asked for their top 10 players of all time. Players were given points from 10-1 based on that vote (first place received 10 points, 10th place received one).
This list, of course, won’t make everybody happy. Even with such an expansive polling method, it’s not a perfect science. For example, Virginia Tech’s Michael Vick received no votes. Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne received one. USC’s legendary running backs Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson and Charles White combined for 99 points, which would have been enough to ensure a position in our top 10, if they’d all gone to one player.
And yes, this list is running back-heavy — but that is the position that has dominated the sport most throughout most of college football’s 150-year history. Perhaps that will slant more toward quarterback when we get to 200 years, but for now that is the reality of this entry. That doesn’t mean our table isn’t loaded: You would need room for eight Heisman Trophy awards, nine national championship banners and 17 consensus All-American selections (10 unanimous) before you set the table. These are the best of the best.
We even have an honorable mention list for those that finished on the outside looking in. With that in mind, here are Sporting News’ top 10 college football players of all time.
Who wouldn’t love to sit at this table?
The following players received at least 20 points:
Bronko Nagurski, FB/OT, Minnesota
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn
Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State
Derrick Thomas, LB, Alabama
Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois
Earl Campbell, RB, Texas
Hugh Green, DE/LB, Pitt
Jim Brown, RB, Syracuse
John Hannah, G, Alabama
Lee Roy Selmon, DE/DT, Oklahoma
Marcus Allen, RB, USC
Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State
Randy Moss, WR, Marshall
Reggie Bush, RB, USC
Roger Staubach, QB, Navy
Vince Young, QB, Texas
10. Jim Thorpe, RB, Carlisle
Imagine an athlete winning the gold medal in the pentathlon and decathlon in the Summer Olympics, then leading his college football team to a 12-1-1 record in the fall. Thorpe did that in 1912. He is one of the greatest athletes in the history of American sports, and that materialized over two seasons with legendary coach Pop Warner at Carlisle. Thorpe played running back, defensive back and did the place-kicking and punting for the Indians. Thorpe scored all of his team’s points in an 18-15 upset of Harvard in 1911 then knocked off Army 27-6 in 1912. Thorpe scored 25 touchdowns that season for a team that averaged 36.1 points per game, and he set a high bar for other college football stars to follow.
9. Tony Dorsett, RB, Pitt
When the 5-11, 192-pound running back became the first freshman since Doc Blanchard in 1944 to be named an All-American in 1973, you knew the rest of his story would be amazing. Dorsett’s improvisational style would later be emulated by running backs such as Barry Sanders, but his four-year career would be almost impossible to duplicate at the college level today, part of the reason his place among the all-time great running backs is secure. He was the first college running back to top 1,000 yards in all four seasons. He finished with 6,526 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns (bowls included), and games like his 303-yard masterpiece against Notre Dame will always be a part of history. He saved the best for last as a senior, when he won the Heisman Trophy with 2,150 yards and 22 touchdowns while leading the Panthers to a 12-0 season and a national championship. He didn’t slow down in the NFL either.
8. Tommie Frazier, QB, Nebraska
Fraizer finished fourth among SN’s top-10 quarterbacks earlier this fall, but a wider panel clearly valued Frazier’s position as best player on one of college football’s best dynasties. He is also, arguably, the greatest option quarterback of all time. Frazier was the ultimate winner at quarterback for the 1990s Nebraska dynasty under Tom Osborne. He was 33-3 as a starter and led back-to-back national championship runs in 1994-95. Of course, it’s that run against Florida in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl — the one where Frazier keeps churning through the Gators’ defense until he breaks away down the sideline — that nobody will ever forget. He was the leader of a relentless rushing attack, and he piled up 3,521 passing yards, 1,955 rushing yards and 79 touchdowns. He never won the Heisman Trophy, but everybody still remembers who the biggest winner from that decade was.
7. Red Grange, RB, Illinois
To say Grange was poetry in motion wouldn’t be an understatement, because legendary writer Grantland Rice literally wrote a poem about Grange after he scored four of his eventual five touchdowns in the first quarter against Michigan on Oct. 18, 1924. Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown nicknamed Grange “The Galloping Ghost,” and the sport’s first megastar was born. Grange was the star halfback at Illinois from 1923-25, and the Illini won a national championship with an 8-0 season in 1923. Grange starred for three seasons, compiling 2,074 rushing yards, 575 passing yards and 11 interceptions. He still holds the Illinois record with 30.2 yards per kickoff return. Grange’s celebrity at the college level helped legitimize the NFL, and that is why the legend of “The Galloping Ghost” still lives on today.
6. Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan
Woodson was a 1990s mix of Thorpe and Grange, and his efforts in all three phases of the game propelled Michigan to a share of the 1997 national championship. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr’s decision to incorporate Woodson in the offense in 1997 started the Heisman Trophy bid, but it was his knack for making the big play at the right time — with flair — that made the difference. The one-handed interception against Michigan State. The big catch down the middle of the seam against Penn State. The 93-yard punt return against Ohio State. The game-turning pick against Washington State in the end zone. He made plays in all three phases, but it wasn’t just that season. Woodson finished his career with 16 interceptions and averaged 17.9 yards a play every time he touched the ball on offense.
5. Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State
Yes, Griffin is the only college football player to win the Heisman Trophy award twice, but that’s not the only reason he made the top five on this list. Griffin was the anchor of Woody Hayes’ legendary “three yards and a cloud of dust” teams, but the halfback doubled that with 6.0 yards per carry for his career. Ohio State compiled a 40-5-1 record in that four-year stretch, and Griffin racked up 5,589 yards and 26 touchdowns. Griffin was consistent, and perhaps the stat that doesn’t get enough attention is the fact he rushed for 100 yards or more in a FBS-record 31 straight games. He led Ohio State to a 3-0-1 record against Michigan and four Rose Bowl appearances. He remains one of the best ambassadors for college football, the Heisman Trophy and the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
4. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn
Even at 6-1, 229 pounds, Jackson was — and still is — a Paul Bunyan-like figure. The thing is, most of the unbelievable legends were true. And if they weren’t, you wouldn’t know the difference, like his claim he ran a 4.12 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. By the numbers, Jackson was incredible. He rushed for 4,303 yards and 43 touchdowns at Auburn on an average of 6.6 yards per carry, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985. He means even more than that in his home state. In 1982, “Bo over the top” gave the Tigers their first win against Alabama in a decade. Auburn split the four meetings with the Crimson Tide with Jackson on campus and set the tone for the Iron Bowl today. Jackson, meanwhile, went on to more exploits in the MLB and NFL, which have somewhat overshadowed his incredible college career.
3. Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State
Video games still do not do Sanders justice, and that’s saying something considering it has been 30-plus years since he put together the greatest single season in college football history. Video games just can’t replicate what Sanders did — no one can. He put up 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns in 11 games, then tacked on another 222, with five touchdowns, in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming. The 1988 game logs have double-take stats all over the place. Four 300-yard games? Seven games with four touchdowns or more? He started the season with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown? The superlatives for that season are part of a career where Sanders finished with 3,797 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns, bowls included. That’s even more impressive considering he shared a backfield with fellow College Football Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry for his career, and the 1988 Heisman Trophy voting could not have taken long to compute. It still reverts back to Sanders’ one-of-a-kind-style. The 5-8, 200-pound running back darted, spun and weaved through traffic with acrobatic grace we really haven’t seen since.
2. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
Winner. Leader. Champion. Tebow checked every box for the Gators through part of a dominant career in which he totaled 12,232 yards of offense and 145 total touchdowns. He was a winner: His 35-6 record as a starter under Urban Meyer helped him become the best player in the best conference at the height of its power during the Bowl Championship Series era. He was a leader: “The Speech” after Florida’s loss to Ole Miss spurred a national championship run, and will forever be remembered by Florida fans. He was a champion: Tebow was a role player on the 2006 national championship team and the starter for the 2008 national champions. He was the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy in between in 2007, and he left the college game with a legacy as one of the all-time greats.
1. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia
Larry Munson’s call still rings in every college football’s fans ears — and perhaps Tennessee’s Bill Bates’ too — when Walker is mentioned. “My God, a freshman.” It was that freshman season that elevated the running back era of the 1970s to the next level. Walker led Georgia to a national championship with 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1980, finishing third in the Heisman voting. That was just the start of a prolific career in which he totaled 5,259 yards and 49 touchdowns, though it took him three years to finally win the Heisman Trophy in 1982. He is the only player to finish in the top three in the Heisman voting three times, and was a three-time unanimous All-American selection. The truth is, everybody knew who the best and most intimidating player in college was for those three seasons, and it still registers in the college football memory bank 40 years later. Consider that, of the 54 voters in Sporting News’ panel, 31 voted Walker in the top spot. His is an immutable legacy that sees him stand above all others as college football’s greatest.