Running Back U. - The Best College RB Schools
O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, & Charles White
O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, & Charles White
Posted Apr 30, 2009

What schools are the best when it comes to cranking out great running backs? Based only on college production and not looking at pro prospects, talent, and anything that happened in the NFL, Pete Fiutak gives his take on the top 25 Running Back Universities over the last 40 years.

Running Back U. - College Version

The Running Back Factories

By Pete Fiutak | Richard Cirminiello Version of RB U. (College & Pro)
Richard Cirminiello version of QB U. |
Pete Fiutak version of QB U.

Unlike Richard Cirminiello, I don't care a lick about pro production when it comes to schools producing great running back. Is San Diego State a great running back school because Marshall Faulk went there? Is UCF great because of Kevin Smith? All I care about is college production in college careers. 

Also, forget about NFL-type talent and go by what actually happened on the field. Go back to 1970 and knowing what you know now, which schools had the best running back production at the highest level? 

Running back is college football's glamour position with the most stars, the biggest names, and the most legends. Players like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Ron Dayne can elevate the history of a whole program, while some schools have consistently cranked out great back after great back. 

So without further ado, here are the 25 schools that produced the best college running backs since around 1970, along with the five greatest backs for each team. Once again, this is based on production and not just talent.

1. USC

Even if you didn't take players from the 1960s like O.J. Simpson and Mike Garrett, USC would still be number one with Heisman winners Charles White, Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, and should've-been-winners Ricky Bell and Anthony Davis. I'm counting O.J. but for the purposes of this exercise, but I'm not counting Garrett with his fantastic career ending in 1965. You know a list is strong when Sam Cunningham, who would've made the top five of almost every other team, doesn't come close to cracking the USC elite, and neither does LenDale White. You really know the top five is amazing when Bell doesn't make the cut. All Bell did was run for
a 1,957 yards and 14 touchdowns in his junior season, when he should've won the 1975 Heisman over Archie Griffin, and he was strong in 1976 with a 1,433-yard, 14-touchdown season. That just happened to be the year that Pitt's Tony Dorsett went nuts.

USC's fab five ...  

1. O.J. Simpson - Before he became an NFL legend, a ground-breaking advertising pitchman, a tireless searcher for his wife's murderer, and a convicted criminal, Simpson was one of the greatest college football players of all-time. He should've been the first two-time Heisman winner, cranking out a 1,543-yard, 13-touchdown junior season leading USC to the 1967 national title. He won the 1968 Award by the largest margin ever at the time with a 1,880-yard, 23-touchdown campaign. 
2. Charles White - The star of some of the greatest USC teams ever, White tore off 6,245 yards and 49 touchdowns along with the 1979 Heisman. He set 22 NCAA, Pac 10, USC and Rose Bowl records.
3. Marcus Allen - A fullback for White in 1978 and 1979, Allen blossomed into a star of his own ripping off a 1,563-yard, 14-touchdown season before his record-setting Heisman campaign in 1981 with 2,427 yards and 22 touchdowns.
4. Reggie Bush - No, he almost never ran inside, but he was one of the greatest all-around players in college football history finishing with 6,541 all-purpose yards. He ran for 3,169 yards and 25 touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry, caught 95 passes for 1,522 yards, and was a legendary kick returner. He won the 2005 Heisman and almost won it in 2004.
Anthony Davis - Davis ran for over 1,000 yards for three straight seasons finishing with 3,724 yards and 44 rushing touchdowns. Even more impressive were his talents as a kick returner averaging 34 yards per try with six touchdowns. He also caught 47 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns.

2. Auburn

Think of Auburn running backs and most college football fans will instantly recall Bo Jackson. The Tiger running attack has enjoyed a ton of fantastic performers other than just the two-sport superstar, and few backfields have had as many good runners splitting time. Imagine having Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown to choose from (and, for a little while, Brandon Jacobs). How about Lionel James and Brent Fullwood to go along with Bo? How about James Brooks, Joe Cribbs and Willie Andrews? It's nearly impossible to narrow the list down to a top five leaving out players like Rudi Johnson and Stephen Davis from the loaded program.

Auburn's fab five ... 

1. Bo Jackson - The 1985 Heisman Trophy winner was actually more dangerous in his 1983 sophomore season when he averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Injuries kept him from reaching his full potential over his final two seasons, getting knocked out of two of the biggest games of the 1985 season against Tennessee and Florida, which made the Heisman race closer than it should have been.
2. Carnell Williams - The Cadillac would put up mega-numbers if he didn't have to split time with Ronnie Brown. While other great Tiger backs could lay claim to the number two spot, Williams was a star on a 2004 team that probably should've been playing for the national title.
3. Joe Cribbs - After seeing a little bit of time in his freshman season, Cribbs took off with 3,056 yards in his final three campaigns finishing with 34 touchdowns. He was the school's all-time leading rusher before James Brooks barely passed him in 1980. 
4. Brent Fullwood - The program's most spectacular back not named Bo, Fullwood averaged 7.2 yards per carry with a scary-good 8.3 average in his senior year. An argument could be made that he was a better home-run hitter than Jackson.
5. James Brooks - Rudi Johnson and Stephen Davis probably deserve this spot, but Brooks was the school's all-time leading rusher before Jackson came along. He ran for 3,523 yards and 24 touchdowns averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

3. Georgia

Even though Georgia hasn't been a pure running program like Oklahoma, USC and Wisconsin were when they cranked out top rushers, a frightening array of productive talents came out of Athens. An argument could be made that Herschel Walker was the greatest college player of all-time, while some Bulldog teams were so loaded that future NFL starters like Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary had a hard time seeing the field and Robert Edwards doesn't make the top five list. While there were many great backs in Georgia history, Walker is the reason the program is this high in the rankings.

Georgia's fab five ... 

1. Herschel Walker - If Superman had stayed for his senior year, he would've set the NCAA rushing record going at least 500 yards past where Ron Dayne ended up setting the bar. If ever a player could've gone straight from high school to the pros, it would've been No. 34. 
2. Garrison Hearst - The only back to come within ten miles to many of Walker's records, Hearst finished his career with 3,232 yards and 35 total touchdowns. He won the 1992 Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting. 
3. Lars Tate - Often overlooked, Tate had a nice and steady career finishing with 3,017 yards and 36 touchdowns.

4. Knowshon Moreno - While he was never in the Heisman hunt and struggled to get any All-America recognition, he had a nice career running for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns while catching 53 passes for 645 yards and two scores.
Rodney Hampton - Despite splitting carries in most games with talents like Tim Worley and Lars Tate, Hampton still finished with 2,668 yards and 22 touchdowns averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He was also a great receiver and kickoff returner.

4. Texas

Talk about your big-time producers, Texas has cranked out two Heisman winners (Ricky Williams and Earl Campbell), a third-place finisher (Roosevelt Leaks), and Cedric Benson, who deserved more consideration in 2004. Williams finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher and Campbell was the star of the devastating Longhorn wishbone attack. How loaded is the list? Great backs like Priest Holmes, Eric Metcalf, "Jam" Jones, Hodges Mitchell, and Heisman finalist Steve Worster didn't make it. Jamaal Charles

Texas' fab five ...

1. Ricky Williams - Earl Campbell might be a bit more of a legend for Longhorn fans, but Williams had the better career finishing with 6,279 yards and 75 touchdowns. There were few more charismatic, dramatic, and exciting players in college football history.
2. Earl Campbell - A star from day one, the Tyler Rose was only slowed down by a bad hamstring in his junior year. He came roaring back with a 1,744-yard, 18-touchdown senior season on his way to the Heisman.
3. Cedric Benson - The superstar recruit blossomed into a superstar with four straight 1,000+-yard seasons, 65 career touchdowns, and the 2004 Doak Walker Award. Williams and Campbell didn't rush for 1,000 yards in all four of their seasons (although Williams did it if you count his 62-yard day against Virginia Tech in the 1996 Sugar Bowl, which the NCAA doesn't).
4. Jamaal Charles - One of the fastest backs in Texas history, he finished with 3,328 rushing yards with 36 touchdowns and caught 49 passes for 539 yards and three scores.
5. Roosevelt Leaks - Leaks finished third in the 1973 Heisman race as a junior with 1,415 yards and 14 touchdowns averaging 6.2 yards per carry. His senior year should have been his shining moment, but a freshman from Tyler, Texas had arrived to take away the workload. 

5. Ohio State

From a two-time Heisman winner in Archie Griffin, to pounding backs like Pete Johnson, Eddie George, Jim Otis and many others, Ohio State runners have always cranked out yards and production as well as any backs in college football. While there aren't too many flashy stars, there are so many good, productive players that the Buckeyes could have easily finished in the top three. Maurice Clarett, Beanie Wells, and Antonio Pittman are just three of the great players who didn't make the top five cut.

Ohio State's fab five ...

1. Archie Griffin - Griffin shouldn't have won two Heismans. USC's Anthony Davis should have won in 1974 and Cal's Chuck Muncie, Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett and USC's Ricky Bell were better backs in 1975. It doesn't matter; facts are facts, and Griffin is the only two-time winner finishing his career with 5,589 yards and 26 touchdowns averaging six yards per carry.
2. Eddie George - George capped off a stellar career with the 1995 Heisman rushing for 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns highlighted by a 314-yard performance against Illinois. He finished with 3,768 yards and 45 scores.
3. Keith Byars - All set for a huge Heisman run in 1985, Byars suffered a foot injury holding him to a mere 208 yards and four scores. His sophomore and junior seasons were legendary tearing off 2,963 yards and 46 touchdowns while leading the nation in scoring in 1984. 
4. Pete Johnson - Known as a top blocker and the other back behind Archie Griffin, Johnson was deadly around the goal line with a whopping 58 career touchdowns. "Big Pete" wasn't bad outside of the red zone with 2,308 career yards and a 1,058-yard junior season. He was an automatic short-yardage man on third downs.
5. Tim Spencer - The Ohio State ground game in 1981 and 1982, Spencer ran for 2,755 career yards and scored 15 times in his senior year.

6. Penn State

While Nittany Lion backs have mostly turned out to be disappointing pros, that doesn't make a difference to college fans. Joe Paterno's runners have always been among the top college backs with a Heisman winner in John Cappelletti and finalists in Lydell Mitchell, Ki-Jana Carter and Larry Johnson. How good have the Penn State running backs been? Players like Johnson, Franco Harris, Blair Thomas, and D.J. Dozier don't make the list. 

Penn State's fab five ...

1. Curt Warner - Warner finished his career as the school's all-time leading rusher with 3,398 yards and 24 touchdowns leading the Nittany Lions to the 1982 National Championship. He was the consistent rushing threat to balance out Todd Blackledge and the Penn State passing attack.
2. Ki-Jana Carter - Known now for the unfortunate breaks in his NFL career, Carter was a blur of a college back finishing second in the 1994 Heisman race averaging a serious 7.8 yards per carry rushing for 1,639 yards and 23 touchdowns.
3. John Cappelletti - He won the Heisman in 1973 with 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He had a two-season total of 2,639 yards and 29 touchdowns.
4. Lydell Mitchell - While he was decent during his first two years, rolling up 1,367 yards, his senior season was something special rushing for 1,567 yards and 26 touchdowns averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
5. Curtis Enis - Larry Johnson, Blair Thomas and D.J. Dozier could be here as well. Enis was phenomenal over his final two seasons rushing for 2,573 yards and 32 touchdowns, but Penn State fans have a hard time forgiving him for his involvement with an agent keeping him out of the 1998 Florida Citrus Bowl.

7. Oklahoma

The Sooners have enjoyed some of the most exciting and talented backs college football has ever seen. Getting to play in one of college football's premier rushing attacks during the 1970s and 1980s, players like Billy Sims, Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington and Marcus Dupree were some of biggest stars in the game, while Adrian Peterson was one of the greatest running back talents the game has seen since Herschel Walker. Even though the offense became more pass oriented under Bob Stoops, there were still some decent non-Peterson backs, highlighted by the underrated Quentin Griffin.

Oklahoma's fab five ...

1. Billy Sims - The two-time All-American and 1978 Heisman winner was one of the greatest players of all-time. He ran for 4,108 yards and 53 touchdowns scoring a whopping 45 times in his final two seasons. Most impressive, along with his hair, was his career 6.9 yard-per-carry average. Yes, he probably should be knocked down the list a few pegs after Boomering it up when Sam Bradford won his Heisman.
2. Steve Owens - Yeah, he breaks the 1970 rule for these rankings, but he comes close enough. The 1969 Heisman winner was a touchdown machine setting the OU record with 57 in his three seasons to go along with his 4,041 yards.
3. Adrian Peterson - Injuries kept him from fully reaching his potential, especially after finishing second in the 2004 Heisman race with 1,925 yards and 15 scores as a freshman. He finished with 4,057 career yards and 41 touchdowns, and is on the short list of the greatest players to never win a Heisman.
4. Joe Washington - The two-time All-American ran for 3,995 career yards and scored 39 touchdowns finishing his career as OU's all-time leading rusher. "Little Joe" finished third in the 1974 Heisman race, but he led the Sooners to the national title.
5. Quentin Griffin - Flip a coin between Greg Pruitt, who was an All-American in 1971 and 1972 and ran for 3,122 yards and 38 scores, and the diminutive Griffin. Griffin never received the credit he deserved after amassing 4,732 total yards over his last three seasons to go along with 41 rushing touchdowns and a national title. Even with all of his touches, he almost never fumbled.

8. Wisconsin

Regularly cranking out 1,000-yard rushers, with one hitting the mark every year from 1993 to 2002, Wisconsin has boasted some of the nation's most productive backs over the last few decades. The system and the offensive lines have had a lot to do with the numbers, but the backs really have been great. Ron Dayne, the greatest ground gainer in NCAA history, is just one of the stars while Michael Bennett, Brian Calhoun, Anthony Davis and Billy Marek were all among the nation's best players in their respective seasons. There were also 1,000-yard seasons from Terrell Fletcher, Rufus Ferguson and Carl McCullough. P.J. Hill and John Clay have kept the tradition rolling.

Wisconsin's fab five ... 

1. Ron Dayne - The most disrespected superstar in college football history because he was boring, and he happened to take over the spotlight a year after the flashier Ricky Williams, Dayne is the NCAA's all-time leading rusher leading the Badgers to two Rose Bowls and three bowl victories in four years.
2. Anthony Davis - The little star can started his career out with 3,021 yards before suffering a setback his junior year with an ankle injury. He finished with 3,994 career yards and ran for 11 scores as a senior.
3. Billy Marek - Marek tore off three straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1972 to 1974 as the focal point of the Badger attack. He held all the UW records before Dayne and Davis came along.
4. Brent Moss - The first big star of the Barry Alvarez era, Moss was the workhorse for the 1993 Big Ten championship run working with Terrell Fletcher in the devastating ground attack. He finished his career with 3,428 yards and 34 touchdowns.  
Terrell Fletcher - Rufus Ferguson and Michael Bennett could take this spot, but Fletcher was the better performer for four years finishing with 3,414 yards and 25 touchdowns. He averaged an excellent 5.6 yards per carry. 

9. Miami

Remember, this list is based on actual college production and not pro potential. If you're going by NFL caliber backs, Miami would be near the top with pro talents like Clinton Portis, Ottis Anderson, Willis McGahee, Alonzo Highsmith, Edgerrin James, Cleveland Gary and several others. Ten Hurricane backs have been first round picks. Without a Heisman winner (even though McGahee was robbed) and without a ton of big-time stats, it's hard to put Miami too much higher than this based on college careers.

Miami's fab five ...

1. Edgerrin James - While he didn't play on national title teams and didn't get the spotlight that Willis McGahee and Clinton Portis received, James was still a force averaging 6.2 yards per carry with 2,960 yards and 35 career scores.
2. Ottis Anderson - In the rush of great Hurricane running backs it's easy to forget about Anderson. He held the school's all-time leading rusher with 3,331 yards and second in all-purpose yards with 4,265.
3. Willis McGahee - He only had one season as the starter, but it was a big one with a school record 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns. He wasn't just consistent, he was clutch making the big runs when needed to keep a march for a second straight national title appearance alive.
4. Clinton Portis - The workhorse for the 2001 national champion, Portis finished his career with 2,523 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns.
5. Stephen McGuire - A scoring machine, McGuire tied for the career lead in total Miami touchdowns with 35 while rushing for 1,953 yards as a key cog in two national title winning attacks.

10. Nebraska

The Huskers should probably be higher than this with several All-Americans to go along with Heisman winner Mike Rozier. The Big Red rushing machine was one of the most devastating offenses in all of sport, before it all got scrapped, thanks to one of the best offensive lines year-in-and-year-out and quarterbacks that knew how to run. All-Conference caliber players like Jarvis Redwine, Roger Craig, I.M. Hipp, Jeff Smith, Jeff Kinney, and Derek Brown don't make the cut, but certainly could've. As a side note, for this piece, Johnny Rodgers is considered a receiver rather than a running back.

Nebraska's fab five ...

1. Mike Rozier - A devastating rushing star for three seasons, Rozier capped off his career with all of the 1983 all-star hardware after rushing for 2,148 yards and 29 touchdowns. He finished averaging 7.16 yards per carry with 4,780 yards and 52 total scores and amassed 5,445 all-purpose yards.
2. Ahman Green - Nebraska's number two all-time leading rusher when he finished his career, Green ran for 3,880 yards and helped lead the Huskers to a share of a national title. He averaged a whopping 6.76 yards per carry with 42 rushing scores.
3. Tom Rathman - Call this a nod to all the great Husker fullbacks that were so instrumental in making the Big Red Machine go. Rathman wasn't a bad ball-carrier with 881 yards and eight touchdowns in 1985. 
4. Lawrence Phillips - Yeah, he was far more trouble than he was worth, but he was a brilliant college runner with 2,177 yards and 21 rushing scores. It's a shame he couldn't stay under control off the field with as much talent as any Nebraska runner.
5. Calvin Jones - While not a sexy pick, Jones was an effective producer finishing his career as the school's number two all-time leading rusher (before Green and Eric Crouch passed him by) with 3,153 yards and 40 touchdowns.

Honorable U.

The next 15 greatest running back schools since 1970 (remember, based on college production)...

11. Tennessee - The main man: Jamal Lewis
12. Oklahoma State - The main man: Barry Sanders
13. Iowa - The main man: Ronnie Harmon
14. Florida - The main man: Emmitt Smith
15. Michigan State - The main man: Lorenzo White
16. Michigan - The main man: Mike Hart
17. North Carolina - The main man: Amos Lawrence
18. SMU - The main man: Eric Dickerson
19. Colorado - The main man: Rashaan Salaam
20. Pitt - The main man: Tony Dorsett
21. Arkansas - The main man: Darren McFadden
22. California - The main man: Chuck Muncie
23. Minnesota - The main man: Darrell Thompson
24. West Virginia - The main man: Steve Slaton

25. LSU - The main man: Joseph Addai