It’s that time of year again. The college football offseason is in its dullest point, after spring practices but before conference media days. What better way to celebrate than what will surely amount to definitely be the least controversial editorial this site has ever seen. College football has been played since 1869 through wars and pandemics alike, and hundreds of thousands of players have attempted to be granted the honor of being placed on this, the one true list of the greatest college football players, but only 25 players have made the final cut and been granted the privilege of being included on some random internet nerd’s rankings.
As a quick disclaimer, there will be no accounting for differences in era. For instance, Glenn Davis dominated the college football world during World War II with Army, and he has made the list. This list is more a function of who dominated their respective competition the most. This also means that a couple players who played in what today would be considered FCS are included. One, namely Randy Moss, just narrowly missed this list, but two FCS players did make it. One player on this list even went to a college that no longer exists. All that out of the way, here is the updated ClutchPoints top 25 college football players of all time.
Greatest College Football Players Of All Time
25. Jim Thorpe, Carlisle
For a lot of his life, Jim Thorpe encapsulated what the pinnacle of being an American athlete was like in just about every sport, winning Olympic gold in track and field while also later playing professional football, baseball, basketball, ballroom dancing (he won a national championship in this!) and almost hockey as well. Playing under the tutelage of Pop Warner while in college, Thorpe would put up legendary displays in the late 1900s and early 1910s, but records aren’t fully available, so no stats are included here out of fear they may be proven incorrect by time. However, there are some on his Wikipedia page, if you’d like to see.
24. Dick Butkus, Illinois
Dick Butkus was such an incredible player at every level that the national award given to the top linebacker in the country at the high school, college and pro levels are all called the Butkus Award. His time at Illinois was no different. The two-time All-American also finished third in Heisman voting in 1964 after capping off a college career with 374 tackles while guiding his Fighting Illini to a Rose Bowl win in 1963. He’s victim to a time before the sack was a statistical category, and thus his stats feel incomplete, but knowing the pro career he would later have, it’s not hard to see why he ended up on this list.
23. Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota
To this day, the Nagurski Award is given to the best defensive player in the country, but the man himself actually excelled on both sides of the ball while at Minnesota. Unfortunately, stats are really poorly kept from the pre-Depression era of college football, but we can tell you that Nagurski was selected as an All-American at both defensive tackle and fullback When the go-to sports writer of the day, Grantland Rice, spoke of him, he said he’d take 11 Bronko Nagurskis over 11 of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, or Red Grange.
There is, of course, legitimate legend surrounding Nagurski, but you can hop over to his Wikipedia for that. We’re only here for Nagurski the football player, not Nagurski the myth. Nagurski the player was well-loved enough to garner a spot on this list.
22. Steve McNair, Alcorn State
You may know Steve McNair as the tough-as-nails Titans quarterback of the early 2000s. Perhaps you remember some of the things he did when they were still the Oilers, and even when they drafted him while still in Houston. But there’s good reason he was drafted so high.
Steve McNair has been mythologized in a lot of ways in Nashville since his tragic death in 2009, but there’s no bigger mythology surrounding Steve McNair than the stories that sent thousands of Mississippians flocking to unincorporated Lorman, Mississippi, to see him every Saturday.
His final season at the HBCU would be easily his most prolific, as you can see by his stats: 4,863 yards passing, 44 TD passes, 155.4 QB rating, 936 yards rushing.
This stat line led McNair to finishing third in Heisman voting in 1994, behind only KiJana Carter and Rashaan Salaam, and he did this while in FCS. Expectedly McNair ran away with the Walter Payton Award, given to the best FCS player in the country.
21. Glenn Davis, Army
World War II was, to say the absolute least, a huge advantage for the service academies. In fact, really from the end of World War II to the end of the Vietnam War, service academies had a bit of a leg up on the rest of the country, due to the fact that attending them was a gateway to putting off your draft mandatory service by four years.
Davis used his time to finish in the top two in Heisman voting in three consecutive seasons, finally winning it his senior year in 1946. His stats that year, while not super impressive by today’s standards, need to be judged with the knowledge that he and Doc Blanchard, who we’ll get to in a moment, operated as a two-headed monster of a backfield, with Davis being nicknamed “Mr. Outside” and Blanchard “Mr. Inside.” They also played in an era where points were very hard to come by and should be treated as such.
Davis’ Heisman year totaled 1,068 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns, along with 396 passing yards and four more scores.
20. Doc Blanchard, Army
Mr. Inside to Davis’ Mr. Outside, Blanchard took the first of the two Heismans he and his backfield partner would win, with Blanchard’s coming in 1945. Again, remember the era and the fact that Blanchard split duties with Davis when looking at his stats. Blanchard’s 1945 season, head of potentially the greatest college football team ever assembled, looks like this: 101 carries, 722 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 166 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.
19. Red Grange, Illinois
Red Grange would become the first player to really put the NFL on the map when he turned pro, but he only did that because of the fame he garnered at Illinois. The Galloping Ghost as he was known (please bring back wild nicknames like this) lit up defenses across a blistering 20-game career that would set up his time with the Chicago Bears.
In his 20 games, Grange notched 3,362 rushing yards, 253 receiving yards, 575 passing yards and 31 all-purpose touchdowns. If we average Grange’s rushing total out to a modern day 13-game season (12 regular season + bowl game), he would’ve had 2,185 yards, which would leave him tied for eighth all-time in single-season rushing.
18. Doak Walker, SMU
Another player who regrettably didn’t have his stats kept very well due to his era, Doak Walker did pick up back-to-back-to-back Consensus All-American selections between 1947-1949 with a Heisman trophy to boot in 1948. Walker was a do-it-all player for the Mustangs, even as the award named after him currently signifies the best running back in the country. Walker played at halfback, on defense, as kicker, and punter, and even returned both kicks and punts. His 1948 season, while none of the stats individually jump out, must be taken as a whole, and viewed through the lens of Walker being an iron man.
1948: 122 carries, 598 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 284 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns, 383 passing yards, 5 passing touchdowns, 3 interceptions (playing defense), 42.1 yard punting average, 22 points as kicker, 88 total points.
17. Jim Brown, Syracuse
Jim Brown is considered by many to be the greatest player to ever pick up a football, and while his college career doesn’t jump off the page at you like his pro career does, he’s still easily one of the greatest college players of all time.
Picking up a Consensus All-American pick in 1956 on a national championship-winning Syracuse team (yes, in football), Brown notched 1,042 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns. His successor, which we’ll get to in a bit, outdid him, though, which is why he ranks so low on this list.
16. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Many consider Ndamukong Suh’s 2009 campaign to be the most dominant a defensive lineman has had in recent memory. There were times that Suh would be triple teamed and find his way to the quarterback, and it’s a shame he lost out on the Heisman that year. What’s lost in that is that Suh had a very good 2008 as well, even scoring twice that year, though it’s undoubted that his senior year was his best.
His 2009 season included 85 total tackles, 20.5 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage, with 12 sacks to boot. However, the stats don’t tell the story of that season for Suh. You really just have to have seen it to know how dominant he was that year. Truly, not many defensive lineman have ever had an impact quite like Suh in 2009.
15. Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State
Another player considered by many to be the greatest football player of all time, Jerry Rice came from much more humble beginnings. Mississippi Valley State is hardly a school that registers on the radar, but if anyone has ever put the HBCU on the map, it was Rice Despite playing FCS ball at an HBCU in an era where HBCUs were looked down upon by the rest of the college football world, Rice still managed to finish ningth in Heisman voting his senior year in 1984. That 1984 season set records that still rank very highly in their respective categories, even almost 40 years later.
Here’s what they looked like: 103 catches, 1,682 receiving yards, 27 touchdowns.
That touchdown mark, by the way, is still tied for the record, which was equaled by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998. For any stat line to stand the test of time like Rice’s that year is incredible, even moreso because it set off a chain reaction kickstarting one of the greatest football careers anyone has ever or will ever have.
14. Cam Newton, Auburn
After a first two seasons at Florida that involved a paltry 27 touches, Cam Newton traansferred to Blinn College, a JUCO, where he excelled to say the least. This landed him a job heading Gene Chizik’s offense at Auburn, and one final chance to make a mark and potentially turn pro. Boy did he ever. Cam Newton’s 2010 season was undoubtedly one of the most dominant displays any football player has ever put on at the FBS level.
Just look at his stats: 2,854 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 264 carries, 1,473 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns.
Those are figures that wouldn’t be out of place in a video game, and that’s certainly what it felt like to witness that season from Newton, capped off with a national championship. All-time great moments by Newton peppered that season, and he certainly deserved his trophy and his No. 1 overall selection in the following draft.
13. Roger Staubach, Navy
Everyone knows of Roger Staubach’s heroics as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys when they became America’s Team, but lost in his incredible NFL legacy was a college career that convinced the Cowboys to wait out his mandatory five-year military service to have him lead them. His 1962 was fine by the standards of the time, with Staubach’s numbers again being victim to his day, and by this point, his program’s offense, which was slowly becoming obsolete compared to the rest of the country.
However that didn’t stop Staubach from breaking out in 1963 en route to a Heisman. Again, remember these stats came in 1963, where points and chunk yardage were harder to come by, especially in a triple option.
1963: 1,702 passing yards, 7 passing touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 168 carries, 371 yards, 9 rushing touchdowns
These stats left Staubach in the top five in yards, completions, completion percentage (he was No. 1), and top 10 in every other passing category. He followed it up with a 1964, which was less productive in volume, but still kept him in the top 10 in every passing category.
12. Dave Rimington, Nebraska
Dave Rimington is a player for whom stats cannot really cover for, given his position. Rimington is, without even a shadow of a doubt, the greatest interior offensive lineman college football has ever seen. To put it in perspective, before we talk about his legacy, the Outland Trophy has only ever been won multiple times by a single player once. That player is Dave Rimington, for whom the Rimington Trophy is named, which is given to the top center in the country.
Rimington may not have had the ideal pro career, but he absolutely had the greatest college career of any interior lineman to ever play the game, and it’ll be hard work for anyone to come close.
11. Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
Tommie Frazier enjoyed success at the back end of Nebraska’s decades-long dominance at the pinnacle of college football, and is probably the greatest quarterback of the 1990s. Frazier operated in a triple option, perhaps harming his stats, and thus his chances of a Heisman, but he did finish second in the voting in 1995 off the back of a national championship run.
His 1995 looks like this: 1,362 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 604 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns
Readers of a certain generation will remember Frazier’s time in Lincoln at the end of Tom Osborne’s career with great fondness, as he truly was a joy to watch week in and week out. Much like his fellow Cornhusker Suh, it’s really a shame his performance wasn’t met with a Heisman to honor it.
Greatest College Football Players Ever
10. Ernie Davis, Syracuse
Imagine for a moment being asked to follow in the footsteps of potentially the greatest football player of all time regardless of position, at a school that at the time was competing for (and winning!) national championships.
Now imagine doing it so well at Syracuse you get asked to do it all over again with the Browns in the NFL. And succeeding at it there too. That was Ernie Davis. His career culminated in a Heisman in 1961, along with, according to some pollsters, a national championship, though remember the era and remember this is only over the course of a 10-game season.
1961: 150 carries, 823 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 157 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.
It undoubtedly took a lot to come after Jim Brown, but Ernie Davis never skipped a beat.
9. Earl Campbell, Texas
Earl Campbell, like many players on this list, had an incredible college career overshadowed by an even better pro career. It feels a bit hard to say that about a bunch of Heisman winners, Campbell included, but that’s simply due to how incredible these players were. Earl Campbell, before he was a Houston Oiler, led the backfield in Austin at Texas. Gathering 928 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman, followed by a sophomore campaign with 1,118 yards and 13 touchdowns, Campbell looked like a favorite for the 1976 Heisman, but injuries limited him to just seven games.
However, in 1977, Campbell came back for his senior season with a vengeance. Just take a look at what he did, and remember this is over a season that lasted just 11 games: 267 carries, 1,744 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, 111 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.
8. Eric Dickerson, SMU
Fire up your gold Trans-Am, we’re heading down to college football’s Wild West, also known as the Southwest Conference in the 1970s and ’80s. Many of you may have seen the ESPN 30 for 30 “Pony Express,” which talks about SMU’s shady recruiting tactics and resulting death penalty from that era, but the documentary, while it does do a solid job, could have done a better job illustrating just how dominant Eric Dickerson was. Dickerson really broke out his junior year, but he lit the world on fire his senior campaign.
1982: 232 carries, 1,617 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns
Dickerson had a rare mix of size and speed that allowed him to either power through defenses or simply glide past them as if they weren’t there. If you ever get a chance, have an eye at his college highlights, they’re quite the sight to behold. He was simply unstoppable at SMU, and that might be a bit of an understatement.
7. Archie Griffin, Ohio State
How could the only player to ever win multiple Heisman trophies not make this list? Barring his freshman season, Griffin rushed for at least 1,400 yards in all three of his years as feature back in Columbus. His two Heisman campaigns were legendary.
1974: 256 carries, 1,695 yards, 12 touchdowns
1975: 262 carries, 1,450 yards, 4 touchdowns
Maybe not enough to win you a Heisman today, but Archie Griffin was without a doubt the best player in the country in both of those seasons, which is all you can really ask of a Heisman winner.
6. Bo Jackson, Auburn
Readers of a certain age will tell you Bo Jackson was the greatest athlete of all time before his hip injury. They may have a case given Jackson’s incredible talent in football and baseball, and he first started getting national recognition for it at Auburn.
For our purposes we’re going to stick to football, but if you’d like, feel free to imagine putting up these stats en route to a Heisman, and then going and being able to not only play with but match Frank Thomas in baseball. That was Bo Jackson.
Bo Jackson was the kind of player who still casts a shadow on Toomer’s Corner, and to this day occupies a completely different pantheon from even other football greats such as Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton. Bo knew a lot of things during his career, and now Bo knows this list too.
5. Herschel Walker, Georgia
Before he was included in the largest and most influential trade in NFL history, and even before he was one of the premier players in the original USFL, Herschel Walker lit up defenses behind the hedges in Athens, Georgia, for three illustrious seasons with the Bulldogs.
Walker had such an insane career he tallied at least 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns in each of his three seasons at Georgia, with his Heisman-winning 1982 campaign being the most recognized. However, despite putting up 1,841 all purpose yards and scoring 17 times, his sophomore year of 1981 was actually the better statistical campaign, and it looks like this: 385(!) carries, 1,891 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, 84 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.
Imagine putting up those kinds of numbers and not winning a Heisman. Sure he got it the next year, and perhaps there was some trepidation in the voting process about giving the trophy to a sophomore, something that wouldn’t happen until Tim Tebow did it in 2007, but it’s hard to deny that Walker was a contender, finishing second to Marcus Allen.
4. Marcus Allen, USC
The man who would later go on to become one of the best running backs of his generation had a bit of a slow start to high-level football at USC.
Marcus Allen took a couple years to burst onto the scene, but when he did, boy did he ever break out. His junior season at USC looks great, with 1,794 all purpose yards and 15 touchdowns, but that’s completely overshadowed by his Heisman-winning 1981. There’s not really much I can say in words to describe how jaw-dropping Allen’s stats are for that year, so just take a look: 433(!!!) carries, 2,427 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns, 256 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.
Don’t rub your eyes. Marcus Allen really kept up 5.6 yards per carry across 433 carries. Read it as many times as you need.
3. Tony Dorsett, Pitt
Tony Dorsett is another player who kept up his incredible form over the course of his entire career, much like Herschel Walker, except Dorsett’s lasted an extra year. Tallying at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in every season he played at Pitt, Dorsett capped off his college career with a Heisman in 1976, with jaw-dropping stats to boot. To put his career in perspective, Dorsett was good enough to be considered by most as ahead of Dan Marino for the title of best Pitt player of all time.
That 1976 season I mentioned? You can see why people think this: 370 carries, 2,150 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns, 67 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.
2. Tim Tebow, Florida
Regarded by some as the greatest college quarterback of all time, Tim Tebow, 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, certainly has the accolades to put himself in the conversation. Two national championships, the already mentioned Heisman, what more can I say?
Here’s his 2007 stat line if you’ve never seen it: 66.9% completion percentage, 3,286 pass yards, 32 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, 210 carries, 895 rushing yards, 23 touchdowns.
Truly the first great season from a quarterback with today’s “modern” style of play, Tebow lit the world on fire in that sophomore season, his first as full-time starter after the departure of Chris Leak.
This stat line carried Tebow to a Heisman trophy and into the minds of the American public forever. Tebow would go on to finish his career at Florida as an absolute legend, and not many quarterbacks before or since can match his accolades.
1. Barry Sanders, Oklahoma St.
Owner of perhaps the single greatest season any player has ever put together on a college football field, Barry Sanders’ career actually began fairly pedestrian. Perhaps victim of his time, Sanders had almost double the carries in his Heisman-winning 1988 campaign as he had in both of his first two years in Stillwater combined.
Speaking of that 1988 season, feel free to sit down if you’re not already, this stat line is going to shock you, and I promise this isn’t from NCAA 14: 344 carries, 2,628 yards, 7.6 YPC, 37 touchdowns.
Alright, I’ll pause for a second, feel free to read over that as many times as necessary. Scratch your eyes, pinch yourself, whatever you need to do. Now that we’re back and settled for a bit, let’s try and come to terms with what we just read. 344 carries is actually not atypical for heavy-usage backs, even in the modern era, as even Jonathan Taylor was getting over 300 a season at Wisconsin. What’s staggering is the fact that he averaged 7.6 yards every time he did get a carry. It’s the most yards any running back has ever put up in a single season in college football history. With the advent of spread offenses and only a very select few backs even hitting 2,000 yards since 2000, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely anyone ever touches that single-season mark. Only Melvin Gordon in 2014 has come particularly close.
That puts Sanders on top of this esteemed list.