Big 12: 120604 individual seasons

Today, there are more than 100 FBS teams with rosters that often broach around 100 players. In simplified math, the game has seen more than 500,000 players take the field over the past 50 years.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma State's Barry Sanders set 25 NCAA records and rushed for over 300 yards four times during the 1988 season.
Barry Sanders' 1988 season was better than every single one of them. Nobody's really even that close.

Future NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas left the program to a little-known junior who had rushed for just over 600 yards as a sophomore in 1987.

Over the next year, Sanders wrote his legacy every single week with the single greatest season of college football ever played. His 2,850 yards are more than even some of the best running backs log in a career. That NCAA record still stands, and it's one of 34 he set that season. Winning the Heisman Trophy that season is laughably far down the list of remarkable accomplishments for Sanders in a season to remember in Stillwater.

He scored 39 touchdowns, 44 if you count his five in the Holiday Bowl. The NCAA didn't begin counting bowl stats in the official record books until 2002. He rushed for 300 yards in four games during the season, and his lowest total of the entire season came against Missouri, with a paltry 154 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.

He scored at least two touchdowns in every game, and set the tone for the entire season by returning the opening kick against Miami (OH) 100 yards for a touchdown.

He scored at least four touchdowns in seven games that season, helping Oklahoma State go 10-2, which tied what was then the best record in school history.

Sanders' hips swiveled like no one else's, and he embarrassed defenders on what seemed like every run. He was quicker than everyone, shiftier than everyone, and when he reached the open field, proved he was faster than everyone.

Sanders saved his best for last. He was awarded the Heisman before the final game against Texas Tech in Tokyo and proceeded to carry his team to a 45-42 win over the Red Raiders with a career-high 332 yards on a career-high 44 carries. His coach, Pat Jones, loved to call the Kansas native "The Wichita Comet."

When the dust settled on a blowout win over Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl, Sanders had averaged 7.6 yards per carry on 373 carries and stood alone atop the list of the greatest seasons in college football history. He averaged just under 240 yards per game. In 2011, nine teams in college football averaged more rushing yards per game than Sanders did in 1988.

Sanders' season forecasted one of the greatest NFL careers ever, though Sanders abruptly ended it in 1999, within striking distance of Walter Payton, who held the NFL career rushing record.

Sanders was a quiet personality who kept to himself and never liked to talk about his exploits, even declining to dispute his father's contention that he wasn't the greatest running back in the history of the game. That didn't stop others from acknowledging the greatness he showcased every week of the 1988 season at Oklahoma State.

After his record-breaking season, he left Stillwater for the NFL, where he spent 10 more record-breaking seasons with the Detroit Lions.


For all the bad blood spilled upon Nebraska's exit from the Big 12 and farewell tour throughout the 2010 season, Texas coach Mack Brown couldn't stop citing his most memorable interaction with the Huskers.

Ricky Williams walked into Memorial Stadium and into the Sea of Red, and walked out with an upset win and 150 yards rushing. The Huskers' invincibility -- also known as a 47-game home winning streak -- was gone. Nebraska fans knew what they had just seen, but had to show their respect. They chanted more than just Williams' first name, which became the name by which most remember him.

[+] EnlargeRicky Williams
AP Photo/Eric GayDuring Ricky Williams' record-breaking 1998 season, among his most memorable runs was this 60-yarder for a touchdown against rival Texas A&M.
They resorted to another name.

"Heis-man! Heis-man! Heis-man!" they chanted.

They were right. Ricky took home sports' most prestigious award that season, and takes the No. 3 spot on our list of the greatest individual seasons of the past 50 years of college football. Ricky rumbled his way to 2,124 yards that season, averaging just under 200 yards a game, and became the first player in NCAA history to top 300 yards twice in a single season. He scored 29 rushing touchdowns, setting a Big 12 record that still stands.

Williams was an eccentric personality off the field, but commanded respect on it. Never was that command more evident than during the 1998 season when he helped the burnt orange start Brown's tenure off in memorable fashion. Perhaps no run was more memorable than Williams' 60-yard touchdown run in the rivalry win against Texas A&M.

He needed just 11 yards to set the NCAA career rushing record, but Williams broke three tackles and did it in style, providing the nation with his "Heisman moment" and joining Earl Campbell as the second Heisman winner in Texas history.

Late in the first quarter, Williams spun through a pair of blocks by tackle Leonard Davis and guard Roger Roesler, using a couple more blocks before sprinting down the left sideline and running through safety Rich Coady at the Aggies' 12-yard line. He broke one more tackle as he reached the end zone, and the game was briefly stopped to recognize Williams' new spot in the record books.

"I had a smile on my face after I broke that one tackle. I knew I had broken the record," Williams told reporters after the game.

He also collected the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, and became the first two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award.

Williams left Texas with one of the most memorable careers in the history of the game, rushing for 1,000 yards in all four seasons in Austin. None was greater than his last, though, and only two seasons in the past 50 years were better than Williams' 1998 campaign.

"It's been a special year because of Ricky Williams. He is the best player I have ever seen. I think he is one of the best, if not the best college football player ever," Brown said of Williams.
This week, ESPN's "College Football Live" is breaking down the top 50 individual seasons of the past 50 years of college football. We couldn't leave that alone here on the conference blogs, so we're naming the league's top five individual seasons.

The Big 12 is the youngest major league, so I'll keep this list to seasons that occurred in the actual Big 12. That means the season had to come during 1996 or later. Missouri, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Colorado are all in the mix on this list. TCU and West Virginia are not.

This was really, really difficult. I'll be polling the rest of you to pitch your best seasons ever later on this week, but here's my top five for now.

1. Vince Young, QB, Texas, 2005

Young takes home this award, breaking a tough set of ties, for carrying his team to a national title. No player outside the SEC has earned a ring since Young knocked off USC (aka The Greatest Team Ever) on the Trojans' home turf in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. He completed 65 percent of his passes and threw for 3,036 yards with 26 touchdowns. He also added 1,050 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, none bigger than his 8-yard touchdown on fourth-and-5 to beat the Trojans and send Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush home without any championship hardware. Young finished that game with an absurd 267 yards passing and 200 yards rushing, his second game of the season with at least 200 yards of each.

2. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska, 2009

No defensive player was more destructive during his time on the field. Just ask Colt McCoy. Suh is the most dominant defensive player in the history of the Big 12, and let's just get this out of the way: He should have won the Heisman Trophy in 2009. Instead, Mark Ingram earned Alabama's first Heisman Trophy. Suh, whose name means "House of Spears," became the first defensive player to ever earn the AP Player of the Year honors and became the first defensive tackle invited to the Heisman ceremony since Warren Sapp in 1994. He finished fourth in the voting, but he didn't end the season empty-handed. Anything but. He had 85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 10 pass breakups and an interception that changed a season-defining, comeback win at Missouri. For his efforts, he took home the Lombardi Award, the Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award and was a finalist for the Walter Camp Award and Lott Trophy.

3. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas, 1998

Ricky ran and ran and ran. He finished his senior season with 2,124 yards, an average of just under 200 yards a game, becoming the eighth player in NCAA history to top 2,000 yards in a single season. He had two 300-yard rushing games (an NCAA record) and memorably set the NCAA career record for rushing that season with a long touchdown run against Texas A&M. That season, he earned the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award and became the first two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award. Over a decade later, Texas coach Mack Brown still talks about the time Ricky ran for 150 yards to upset No. 7 Nebraska 20-16 and break the Huskers' 47-game home winning streak. Nebraska fans responded by chanting "Heisman" as Williams walked off the field.

4. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma, 2008

Bradford broke out as a sophomore in 2008 and took home just about every piece of hardware imaginable. He threw for 4,720 yards and an absurd 50 touchdowns to just eight interceptions, while completing 328 of 483 passes (67.9 percent). For his work, he earned the Heisman Trophy (Oklahoma's fifth winner), the Davey O'Brien Award and the Sammy Baugh Trophy. Oklahoma won the Big 12 and staked its claim as the highest-scoring offense in the history of college football. The Sooners reached the national title that season but lost to Tim Tebow's Florida Gators.

5. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma, 2004

Can you imagine a true freshman leading the nation in rushing and carries, breaking NCAA freshman rushing records along the way, and being named a unanimous All-American. Well, it happened not too long ago. The latter seasons of Peterson's career were marred by injury, but Peterson broke the mold of college football in his first year on the field, steamrolling opponents and finishing second in the Heisman voting as a true freshman back in 2004, which was unthinkable. Back then a sophomore had never even won the greatest individual award in sports. He rushed for 1,860 yards and 15 touchdowns, carrying the Sooners to the national title game. He ran for 100 yards in nine consecutive games and 11 times as a true freshman, both NCAA records. He was also the first freshman finalist for the Doak Walker Award.

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