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Athlon Sports ranks the best Big Ten running backs of the BCS Era.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The Big Ten has long been about running the ball on offense. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin have some of the best running back traditions in the nation. But so does Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State and Minnesota. In fact, to be successful in the Big Ten during the BCS Era, you probably had a great running back. Here are the top 10 running backs to play in the Big Ten during the BCS Era:
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Stats: 1,220 att., 7,125 yds, 71 TDs, 31 rec., 304 yds
Ricky Williams’ NCAA rushing record didn’t last for very long as the New Jersey native came along the very next year and put everyone in the history of the sport in his rearview mirror. Dayne is the only player in history with 7,000 yards rushing and is one of four players to score at least 70 rushing touchdowns. He carried the ball more than any player in NCAA history (1,220) and he owns multiple BCS bowl rushing records with his two Rose Bowl MVP performances. He capped his illustrious career with a magical 2,000-yard Heisman Trophy and Big Ten championship season. The consensus All-American won Big Ten Player of the Year, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker recognition in his final season in Madison. His 2,109 yards in 1996 are still a Big Ten single-season record. His career 7,429 yards from scrimmage may never be broken.
2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin (2009-12)
Stats: 924 att., 5,140 yds, 77 TDs, 59 rec., 598 yds, 6 TDs
Ball won’t ever be confused with the most talented running backs of the BCS Era but few have been as successful and productive. No one player in the history of the sport has scored as many touchdowns (77 rushing, 83 total) as the Missouri native. He also finished fourth in the Heisman balloting as a junior and won the Doak Walker Award as a senior while leading the Badgers to three straight Big Ten championships. His 39 touchdowns in 2011 tied Barry Sanders for the all-time single-season record and Ball earned consensus All-American honors in both seasons. He is fourth all-time in Big Ten history in rushing and is one of just five players in league history to top 5,000 yards in a career.
3. Larry Johnson, Penn State (1999-02)
Stats: 460 att., 2,953 yds, 26 TDs, 65 rec., 681 yds, 7 TDs, 1,181 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The State College local prospect was starter for just one season, but it was special. He rushed for 2,087 yards (second all-time only to Dayne) and 20 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry in 2002, earning consensus All-American honors as well as the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and brought elite size and speed to the backfield. His 327 yards against Indiana in '02 is the sixth-best single-game total in Big Ten history and his 2,655 all-purpose yards that year are still a single-season Big Ten record. He was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2002.
4. Anthony Thomas, Michigan (1997-00)
Stats: 924 att., 4,472 yds, 55 TDs, 79 rec., 762 yds, TD
From Louisiana originally, Thomas posted three straight seasons with at least 15 rushing touchdowns, and two seasons with at least 1,257 yards rushing. He posted 734 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns on the unbeaten 1997 national championship team. When he left school, Thomas was Michigan’s all-time leading rusher (since passed by Mike Hart and Denard Robinson) and was second all-time with 1,733 yards on a school-record (since broken) 319 carries in 2000. His 55 rushing touchdowns are tops in school history and fifth all-time in Big Ten history.
5. Chris Perry, Michigan (2000-03)
Stats: 794 att., 3,657 yds, 39 TDs, 64 rec., 569 yds, 2 TDs
Perry capped a solid Michigan career with an elite Doak Walker-winning, Heisman finalist season in 2003. He claimed Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and was a consensus All-American while rushing 338 times for 1,674 yards and catching 44 passes for 367 yards and scoring 20 total touchdowns. It was his second straight 1,100-yard, 14-TD season in a row as Michigan won 10 games in each of his final two seasons. Perry was a first-round pick of the Bengals in the 2004 NFL Draft.
6. Michael Hart, Michigan (2004-07)
Stats: 1,015 att., 5,040 yds, 41 TDs, 67 rec., 566 yds, 2 TDs
Along with Dayne, Ball, Archie Griffin and Anthony Thompson, Hart is one of five players in Big Ten history to top 5,000 yards rushing in a career. That is special territory. He is Michigan’s all-time leading rusher and carried more times than any player in Wolverines history. Hart was a tremendous leader who outworked his opponents and willed his team to victory week in and week out. He played in two Rose Bowls and capped his career with a win in the Capital One Bowl over Tim Tebow and Florida in head coach Lloyd Carr’s final game.
7. Damien Anderson, Northwestern (1998-01)
Stats: 925 att., 4,336 yds, 37 TDs, 54 rec., 490 yds
During the BCS Era, only five players rushed for more yards than Anderson did at Northwestern and one was a quarterback. His 4,485 yards are 10th all-time in Big Ten history and his 2,063 yards rushing in 2000 are fourth all-time in league history. Anderson owns ever major single-season and career rushing record for the Wildcats and he finished fifth in the Heisman voting after his memorable junior year. He was a consensus All-American and had he not missed four games his senior year, he likely would have topped 5,000 yards rushing.
8. Javon Ringer, Michigan State (2005-08)
Stats: 843 att., 4,398 yds, 34 TDs, 96 rec., 719 yds, TD
No one in Big Ten history has ever touched the ball more in a season than Ringer did in 2008 when he got it 429 times. He led the country with 390 carries (second-best in Big Ten history) and 22 touchdowns to go with 418 offensive touches and 2,051 yards that year. He split time during most of his career and showed in his final season what he could do with a full workload.
9. Laurence Maroney, Minnesota (2003-05)
Stats: 660 att., 3,933 yds, 32 TDs, 21 rec., 197 yds, TD, 667 ret. yds, TD
Had Maroney not split time with another one of the greatest Big Ten backs of the generation (more on that in a second), his numbers could have been unreal. He was just the third back in league history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2003 and then first-team Big Ten honors as a sophomore and junior. He left school early and was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 2006. He is second only to the great Darrell Thompson in Minnesota rushing history and would have blown past Thompson's records (4,518, 40 TDs) had he stuck around for his final year.
10. Shonn Greene, Iowa (2005-08) Stats
Stats: 376 att., 2,228 yds, 22 TDs, 11 rec., 72 yds
This portion of the rankings includes some of the best single seasons in Big Ten history and Greene’s 2008 campaign is among them. Greene rushed for a school-record (eighth in the Big Ten) 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns in '08. He was a consensus All-American, Doak Walker Award winner, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and finished sixth in the Heisman voting. Had he not missed an entire season while getting his grades up at Kirkwood Community College (2007), Greene probably would have been fifth or sixth on this list.
Just missed the cut:
11. Chris Wells, Ohio State (2006-08)
Stats: 585 att., 3,382 yds, 30 TDs, 15 rec., 84 yds
A five-star recruit, the player known as Beanie had big-time expectations heaped upon him when he got to Columbus. And he delivered by leading Ohio State to back-to-back BCS national title game appearances. He posted 576 yards and seven scores as a true freshman in ’06 before back-to-back 1,000-yards seasons in 07-08.
12. Marion Barber III, Minnesota (2001-04)
Stats: 575 att., 3,276 yds, 35 TDs, 21 rec., 190 yds, 1,029 ret. yds
Few players have ever been as tough to tackle as Barber. He rushed for 742 yards as a freshman before missing all but two games as a sophomore. He came back to rush for 1,196 yards and 17 TDs as a junior and 1,269 yards and 11 TDs as a senior. In short yardage and around the goal line, few have ever been more effective than this hard-charging Gophers tailback.
13. Anthony Davis, Wisconsin (2001-04)
Stats: 908 att., 4,676 yds, 42 TDs, 22 rec., 198 yds
The opposite of a one-year wonder, Davis was a stalwart for Wisconsin following Dayne and Michael Bennett. He rushed for 1,466 yards as a true freshman and 1,555 yards as a true sophomore, tempting people with a Dayne-esque start to his career. However, Davis battled injuries the rest of his career and he had to settle for the seventh-most rushing yards in Big Ten history.
14. Maurice Clarett, Ohio State (2002)
Stats: 222 att., 1,237 yds, 16 TDs, 12 rec., 104 yds, 2 TDs
People remember Clarett for many other reasons other than his stellar freshman campaign. He helped carry Ohio State to a unblemished national championship before challenging the NFL’s early entry draft rules. His career spiraled out of control but had he played three full seasons in Columbus, there is no telling what his numbers could have been.
15. James White, Wisconsin (2010-13)
Stats: 643 att., 4,015 yds, 45 TDs, 73 rec., 670 yds, 3 TDs, 750 ret. yds.
He was never the lead ball carrier for Wisconsin but his career is among the best in the history of the league. His 45 rushing TDs are ninth all-time, he played in three Rose Bowls on three Big Ten title teams and is a part of the most productive backfield in history. White (1,444 yards) and Melvin Gordon (1,609) rushed for more yards in 2013 than any backfield tandem in NCAA history.
Best of the Rest:
16. Brian Calhoun, Wisconsin (2003-05) 619 att., 2,760 yds, 27 TDs, 90 rec., 909 yds, 4 TDs
Led NCAA with 348 carries and 401 touches (53 rec.) and tied for NCAA lead with 24 touchdowns in 2005.
17. Rex Burkhead, Nebraska (2009-12): 635 att., 3,329 yds, 30 TDs, 60 rec., 507 yds, 5 TDs
Consummate professional and leader who helped Nebraska to three conference championship games.
18. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State (2010-12): 671 att., 3,346 yds, 33 TDs, 78 rec., 531 yds, TD
Led the nation with 382 carries and posted 1,793 yards and 13 total touchdowns in monster junior season.
19. John Clay, Wisconsin (2008-10): 629 att., 3,413 yds, 41 TDs, 11 rec., 72 yds
Won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2009 with 1,517 yards and 18 TDs.
20. Ladell Betts, Iowa (1998-01): 832 att., 3,686 yds, 25 TDs, 72 rec., 702 yds, 2 TDs
Had at least 188 carries in all four seasons and is No. 2 all-time leading rusher in Iowa history.
21. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois (2005-08): 388 att., 2,539 yds, 22 TDs, 59 rec., 564 yds, 5 TDs
Won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and got Illinois to its first Rose Bowl berth since 1983.
22. PJ Hill, Wisconsin (2006-08): 770 att., 3,942 yds, 42 TDs, 39 rec., 358 yds, 2 TDs
Burly two-star recruit turned touchdown machine. Topped 1,000 yards and 13 TDs in all three seasons.
23. Kory Sheets, Purdue (2005-08): 664 att., 3,341 yds, 48 TDs, 108 rec., 814 yds, 5 TDs, 789 ret. yds, TD
Do-everything producer who is sixth all-time in Big Ten history with 48 rushing touchdowns.
24. Fred Russell, Iowa (2000-03): 523 att., 2,760 yds, 17 TDs, 8 rec., 45 yds, 361 ret. yds
Posted two monster seasons as an upperclassman in leading Iowa to its first BCS Bowl (Orange, 2002).
25. Evan Royster, Penn State (2007-10): 686 att., 3,932 yds, 29 TDs, 61 rec., 562 yds, 3 TDs
Consistent performer posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons while playing all 39 games from 2008-10.