The history of college football has featured many terrific individual seasons by all-time greats. In that elite company, however, are some players who stood out brighter among their elite peers, and whose exploits became a little larger — and, in some cases, the stuff of myths and legends — even as time passed.
When discussing the impact and scope of college football, it's impossible to overlook how its biggest, brightest stars — the players — helped impact the game. How so? By dazzling us with their play to such a degree that, even now, we'd swear they could still play, and dominate the way they do in our memories and highlight reels. So impressive is this list that it leaves out the likes of Marcus Allen, Johnny Manziel and Ndamukong Suh, players who regardless have rightfully earned a permanent place in college football lore.
With that said, Sporting News presents its second in a series of lists celebrating college football's 150-year history: Pulling from the best Heisman Trophy winners and All-Americans across positions over 15 decades, SN has whittled down college football's top 10 individual single-season performances in an extra special decuplet:
Honorable mentions: First five out
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin, 2014
2,587 rushing yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, 153 receiving yards, three rushing touchdowns
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
3,706 passing yards, 26 passing touchdowns, 1,410 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns
Steve McNair, QB, Alcorn State, 1994
5,377 passing yards, 47 passing touchdowns, 904 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009
85 tackles, 12 sacks, 24 tackles for loss
Randy Moss, WR, Marshall, 1997
96 receptions, 1,820 receiving yards, 26 receiving touchdowns, 534 kick/punt return yards
10. Reggie Bush, RB, USC, 2005
Stats: 1,740 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 37 receptions, 478 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, 493 kickoff return yards, 179 punt return yards, punt return touchdown
Bush was the first player to forfeit the Heisman after an investigation into improper benefits didn't go in his favor. But although history now shows a vacated trophy, it can't erase how special a contributor Bush was for the Trojans that season, when his team went 12-0 before losing a thriller to national champion Texas in the Rose Bowl. Bush was equally impressive as a power back, receiving back and return man, adding up to a dazzling all-purpose player who was a threat to score every time he touched the ball, either in tight quarters or in the open field.
9. Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan, 1997
Stats: Seven interceptions, 231 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, one rushing touchdown, 283 punt return yards, punt return touchdown
Woodson became the first — and, to date, only — defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997. Through 2019, he still stands as the most recent non-quarterback, non-running back to get the award. He got plenty of help from his highlights on offense and special teams to beat out Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning.
For his work as a defensive back, Woodson also swept the Bronko Nagurski and Jim Thorpe awards. In becoming the third Wolverines' Heisman winner of all time, Woodson saved his best clutch plays for the biggest moments, helping Michigan to a 12-0 record during the regular season and a share of the 1997 national title with a red-zone interception in the Rose Bowl victory over Washington.
8. Derrick Thomas, DE/OLB, Alabama, 1988
Stats: 27 sacks, 39 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, four pass break-ups, one blocked field goal, one blocked punt
The late great future Chiefs Hall of Famer began his prolific edge-pass-rushing for the Crimson Tide, putting together an absurd 27 sacks in 1988, part of an equally absurd 52 career sacks in three seasons in Tuscaloosa. So prolific was Thomas' edge-rushing prowess that he managed to stand out on a defensive front that also included fellow top-four NFL draft picks Cornelius Bennett and Keith McCants.
While Thomas' 27 sacks get the most notoriety from that stellar 1988 season, he also added 12 non-sack tackles for loss to accumulate what would be considered 39 tackles for loss today. Those metrics (27 sacks, 39 tackles for loss) are both more than the official NCAA records, since it did not keep those stats at the time he played. Thomas, who won the Butkus Award and finished 10th in Heisman voting in 1988, also was integral to Bama's win over Army in the Sun Bowl. Thomas also holds the record for most sacks in a single NFL game with seven.
7. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia, 1981
Stats: 1,891 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns
Walker had his best overall season in Athens following up his team's 1980 national championship — and before he won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. His amazing three-year stretch of dominance which started as a prolific, explosive true freshman All-American had to be represented here in some form. Walker finished second in Heisman voting as a sophomore in 1981 and lifted the Bulldogs to a 10-2 record. At 6-1, 215 pounds, one of the most-hyped high school results ever exceeded expectations for his home state program as one of the best athletes — period — to step on a college campus. No one has ever translated track-star status into such speedy running on the field so seamlessly.
6. Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh, 1976
Stats: 2,150 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns, receiving touchdown
Dorsett put Pitt on his back during his Heisman Trophy-winning senior season. He capped off his brilliant Panthers career by powering his team to a national championship. The ultimate spike in numbers stamped his three-time All-American career, in which he rushed for at least 1,000 yards in all four seasons. Dorsett left the game as the all-time leading rusher in NCAA Division I FBS, a mark that wouldn't be topped until Ricky Williams 22 years later.
5. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida, 2007
Stats: 3,286 passing yards, 32 passing touchdowns, 895 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns
Tebow, between his Gators national championship runs as a freshman gadget player and junior venerable leader, became the first sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy. He was also the first player in FBS history to produce at least 20 touchdowns passing and 20 touchdowns rushing in the same season. He did all that consistently producing against SEC defenses with his unique blend of size (6-2, 236) and speed. Before Newton exploded, Tebow made "touchdowns responsible for" a more commonplace term to measure the true MVP worth of an elite college QB.
4. Dick Butkus, ILB/C, Illinois, 1963
Stats: 145 tackles, 10 forced fumbles
Before he did his lasting damage to NFL offensive opponents as a Chicago Bear, Butkus was a two-way, one-man wrecking crew down the road, right down the middle in Champaign. He was a first-team All-American at both center and inside linebacker to lead the Fighting Illini to an 8-1-1 record and a Rose Bowl victory over Washington. He finished sixth in the Heisman voting, which looking back seems low given how he created his own brand of ferociously taking over games.
3. Cam Newton, QB, Auburn, 2010
Stats: 2,854 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, 1,473 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns, 42 receiving yards, receiving touchdown
Newton got his one SEC chance after his troubled time at Florida behind Tim Tebow, and he took full advantage. A physically dominant force at the most important position, he was something the game had never seen before in such a complete package at 6-5, 245 pounds. Faster than most speeding edge-rushers, more powerful than most linebackers and able to leap defenders in a single bound, he cemented his Superman status by carrying the Tigers to an undefeated 14-0 season and a national championship with both his arm and legs.
2. Joe Burrow, QB, LSU, 2019
Stats: 5,671 passing yards, 60 passing touchdowns, 369 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns
Burrow didn’t have one bad game in the most prolific combined scoring season ever for a major college quarterback. He had complete command of the downfield passing game, boosted by his footwork and athleticism, to break NCAA single-season records for touchdown passes (60) and touchdowns responsible for (65). That allowed him to run away with the Heisman Trophy as early as LSU's Nov. 9 win over Alabama, the team's first since 2011. His leadership and toughness also delivered a national championship — LSU is only the second team in the modern era to go 15-0 — as he saved his best for the biggest games. He threw 27 touchdowns to only two interceptions against a combined seven top-10 opponents in 2019. That clutch play skyrocketed him to No. 1 overall status for the 2020 draft.
1. Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State, 1988
Stats: 2,628 rushing yards, 37 rushing touchdowns, 515 kick/punt return yards, two return touchdowns
Sanders put together a dazzling Heisman Trophy-winning season that will be hard for any running back — or any other player at any other position — to best. His record rushing yardage has been challenged by players who've had more games to make a run at it, but it remains one of the most unbreakable marks in college football, 31 years later. That's saying something, considering the game's evolution to more favor the offense.
The fact Sanders also starred on special teams for the Cowboys, combining for 515 combined kickoff/punt return yards, coupled with a touchdown on both kickoffs and punt returns, fast-tracked him to the top spot. Sanders' is a style of play that will stand timeless among his peers, regardless of era.