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May 8, 2009

Olin's mailbag: Best back ever a great debate

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There was Nile, Doak and Doc.

Later, there was O.J., Herschel and Bo.

There is a long list of legendary running backs in college football. In fact, 39 running backs have won the Heisman, college football's most prestigious individual award. But who is greatest back ever?

Well, that's a matter of opinion and a matter discussed in this week's mailbag.

Best of the best

From: Brian in San Leandro, Calif.: Who is the greatest college running back ever?

Love the question, Brian. Although wide-open football is fun and I like throwing deep as much as anyone, I most enjoy watching talented running backs. Maybe that just goes back to my background in Texas.

Anyway, asking 10 people that question may result in 10 different answers.

Old-timers and historians might ordain Red Grange, who last year was named the greatest player in college football history by ESPN. Grange rushed for 2,071 yards in his career at Illinois (1923-25). Those were staggering numbers at the time.

More contemporary fans might say Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders. Sanders only started for one season for the Cowboys, but it was an epic season. He set NCAA single-season records with 2,628 yards and 39 rushing touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman.

And speaking of the Heisman, some might argue Ohio State's Archie Griffin was the best. Some dismiss him because of a non-descript pro career, but he was amazing in college and is the only player to win two Heismans.

Others would suggest Auburn's Bo Jackson, Texas' Earl Campbell, USC's O.J. Simpson, Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson or Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett.

But my vote would be for Georgia's Herschel Walker, who is the single most dominant player I have seen.

Walker, who won the '82 Heisman as a junior, should have joined Griffin as a two-time winner. He was the nation's best player when he rushed for 1,616 yards in 1980, but Heisman voters were reluctant to give the hallowed trophy to a freshman.

He would also have been the favorite entering the '83 season, but instead signed a pro contract with the United States Football League.

Walker rushed for 5,259 yards in his career, which ranks eighth on the NCAA's all-time list. But Walker only played three seasons. The seven players ahead of him all played four. Walker averaged 1,753 yards per season, and had he played his senior season and hit his average, he would have finished with 7,012 yards, which would exceed Ron Dayne's NCAA career record by 615 yards.

Walker's legacy was even more about wins than stats. Georgia was 33-3 in his three seasons, won a national championship and finished in the top 10 the other two times.

When Georgia defeated Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to clinch the 1980 national championship, Walker rushed for 150 yards and scored two touchdowns. The Bulldogs only had 127 yards of total offense (consider yards lost on sacks) and quarterback Buck Belue was 1-of-12 passing for 7 yards.

Walker was as close to a one-man team as anyone ever has been or will be.

Capital of college football

From: Isa in Orlando.: With Florida, Miami, Florida State, USF and UCF, is the state of Florida officially considered the college football capital of the world?

You left out Florida International and Florida Atlantic. That gives the state seven FBS teams. So, yes, Florida officially is recognized as the college football capital by Floridians.

Texans will disagree, though. That state has 10 FBS programs, more than any other state in the country. Ohio has eight, and California also has seven.

Last season, the state of Florida again produced the national champion and state teams were a combined 53-37 for a 58.9 winning percentage. That's a better percentage than any state with at least five teams.

But no city in Florida strikes me as deserving of the distinction as the capital of college football. There's just not enough history. Remember, Florida was a virtual college football wasteland until Bobby Bowden, Howard Schnellenberger and Steve Spurrier turned it into prime real estate.

While we're referencing states that have multiple college football programs, the word "capital" is associated with a city or town.

The task of choosing college football's capital can't be taken lightly. It's too important. The capital should be an area that embraces the game and its history. Therefore, the finalists for capital of college football should be Tuscaloosa, Ala.; South Bend, Ind.; Pasadena, Calif.; and West Point, N.Y.

Tuscaloosa brings thoughts of Bear Bryant and Alabama's multiple national championships. South Bend represents Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, The Gipper and The Four Horsemen. West Point means Army's "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside" and all the great teams of Red Blaik. Pasadena is the home of the Rose Bowl the first bowl game and has two successful football programs (USC and UCLA) in its general vicinity.

Optimism running wild

From: Ryan in Carrollton, Texas.: Baylor is getting a lot of positive publicity this spring. Looking at the Bears' schedule, I can realistically see them going 7-5 because of anticipated drop-offs at Missouri and Texas Tech. What are your thoughts?

Whoa, whoa, whoa; slow down there a little bit, Ryan.

Last season, the Bears were obviously improved in their first year under coach Art Briles, when three of their eight losses were by seven or fewer points. And they have an exciting quarterback in Robert Griffin.

But it's a big leap from four victories to seven, even with eight starters back on both sides of the ball. That list of starters doesn't include last season's starting offensive tackles, Jason Smith and Dan Gay. Smith was the second player selected in the NFL draft, so he obviously leaves big shoes to fill.

If Baylor played a cupcake non-conference schedule, as is the case with many Big 12 teams, seven victories wouldn't be a stretch. But the Bears open at Wake Forest, then play Connecticut. That's not an easy start.

Even though the Bears no longer are a punching bag, I just don't see them having a chance against Oklahoma, Texas or Oklahoma State. That's three losses there. The key is to win the games they should (Northwestern State, Kent State, Iowa State), win a couple of toss-up games (Connecticut, Missouri, Texas A&M) and upset Wake Forest, Nebraska and/or Texas Tech.

I agree that because of the significant personnel losses at Missouri (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Ziggy Hood, William Moore, Stryker Sulak, Chase Coffman) and Texas Tech (Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, Brandon Williams), Baylor has a chance to avenge '08 losses to those teams. But there is a big difference between having a chance and actually doing it.

Still, your enthusiasm is understandable. Baylor hasn't had a winning season since 1995. Go ahead and be optimistic.

Tough to figure Terps

From: Ryan in Ellicott City, Md..: Do you think Maryland has a chance to play in the ACC title game or go 9-3?

Maryland is a tough team to figure, especially after last season's schizophrenic showing. The Terps followed a loss to Middle Tennessee with an upset of California. They were blown out 31-0 by Virginia, then came back to blank Wake Forest, 26-0.

Da'Rel Scott is an exciting running back. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kevin Dorsey is highly regarded. Linebacker Alex Wujciak is a tackle machine. Still, there are too many questions to be overly optimistic about the Terps. Nine wins seems like a stretch with a schedule that includes a trip to Cal and a home game against Rutgers in non-conference play, and ACC road trips to Wake Forest, Florida State and N.C. State. The Terps also face preseason ACC favorite Virginia Tech.

It's foolish to completely dismiss a program that has had past success, and last year's 8-5 finish wasn't bad. But the guess here is the Terps would have a better chance to win the Atlantic Division than to post nine victories. That said, Florida State is my pick in the Atlantic.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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