- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Monday, ESPN revealed its choices for the greatest individual seasons in college football history.
We voted on several of these, including the best Big Ten seasons. As you can imagine, there were some difficult calls to make, especially at schools stuffed with rich traditions and legendary players. We didn't always agree.
Our Big Ten reporting crew offers thoughts on which decisions were the toughest for league schools.
Brian Bennett: There were lots of tricky calls once you narrowed it down to two candidates for a certain school. For example, does the best season at Illinois belong to Red Grange or Dick Butkus? (You try telling Butkus it was Grange). Lorenzo White or Bubba Smith at Michigan State? Archie Griffin or Eddie George at Ohio State? We had to not only compare the numbers but also take into account the different eras.
For me, the hardest decision on an individual season involved Wisconsin. The consensus ended up being Ron Dayne's 1999 season in which he won the Heisman Trophy. But you could make a robust argument that Dayne's own 1996 campaign was better, as he ran for more yards and more touchdowns and had a higher yards-per-carry average as a freshman than he did as a senior. I've always thought the comparisons between Dayne and Montee Ball's 2011 season are fascinating. One day, I believe, people will look back on Ball's '11 season and wonder how a guy who tied the NCAA record with 39 touchdowns -- while running for 1,923 yards and averaging more yards per carry than Dayne did in 1999 -- not only failed to gain traction in the Heisman race but somehow didn't claim the Doak Walker Award (a grievous error that was thankfully remedied in 2012). Throw in Alan Ameche, who won the Heisman in 1954, and Pat Richter's 1962 season, and you have enough material to create decades of debate.
Mitch Sherman: My toughest call involved Nebraska, the school I've watched most closely for the past 20 years. Mike Rozier made the top 16 nationally, as selected by ESPN.com writers and editors, for his 1983 Heisman campaign. Rozier's statistics earn him a clear victory among all-time Huskers in the eyes of most. But not me. I saw in 1995 what stats cannot tell us about Tommie Frazier's senior season. He rushed for 604 yards and threw for 1,362 -- pedestrian numbers compared to many on this list, though he still finished second in the Heisman voting. Sure, he was surrounded by greatness, offensively and defensively, but perhaps only Tim Tebow since that 1995 season has matched Frazier's presence and overall impact on a team. Frazier was a field general in every sense imaginable. He inspired the players alongside him in the huddle. He founds reserves of determination for the biggest games, earning recognition often among the greatest quarterbacks to play the college game. I went with Rozier because his dominance was impossible to ignore, picking against Frazier -- an act that those 13 games in 1995 taught me was most unwise.
Austin Ward: The trump card is almost always up Archie Griffin's sleeve when it comes to debates about the greatest player in Ohio State history, but at least this once it didn't work. In a conversation about the top individual season a program has ever seen, being the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner finally wasn't a deal breaker -- and the Buckeyes have plenty of incredible performances to give Griffin a run for his money. Orlando Pace made people take notice of line play and count up pancakes, and it was tough for him to even crack the honorable-mention list. It's actually Eddie George who holds Ohio State's single-season rushing record with a staggering 1,927-yard campaign that included 24 touchdowns and a stiff-arm trophy of his own. David Boston's breakout seasons in 1997 and '98 are even more remarkable in hindsight, with the wide receiver rewriting the record books with a pair of seasons that are both nearly 300 yards better than anybody else in school history. On top of that, Ohio State has four other Heisman winners to consider along with three-time All-America Chic Harley. In the end, Griffin's seasons can't be fully measured by his statistics alone, since for starters he was sharing time in a loaded backfield. But his talent was undeniable when the football was in his hands, and even without his normal trump card Griffin still walked away a deserving winner.
Josh Moyer: For me, I might have spent the most time waffling back and forth with Michigan. Sure, Charles Woodson’s 1997 campaign was one for the ages. But could we really ignore a rich history that included Fielding Yost’s point-a-minute teams and severely underrated running back Willie Heston (1904)? Or Mr. Do-Everything in Tom Harmon (1940)? Or how about a quarterback (Bennie Friedman, 1925 or 1926) and wide receiver (Bennie Oosterbaan) who helped change the face of the game? Or, if we want to get a bit more recent, how’s Desmond Howard (1991) sound?
You could make a case for any of these players and, really, not be wrong. But I think the two who give Woodson the strongest push are Harmon and Heston. Harmon not only won the Heisman in 1940, but he was also the AP Male Athlete of the Year – meaning he had a better season than the likes of MLB’s Hank Greenberg (41 homers, 150 RBI). It didn’t hurt that Harmon could rush, pass, kick, punt and tackle. But my personal vote as the best Michigan season went to Heston. The NCAA could piece stats together from just 17 of his 36 career games and, just during that 1904 season, Heston averaged 12.7 yards per carry while rushing for 21 TDs. (And he was good at defense.) Knute Rockne once said Heston was a better runner than Red Grange. Plus, Michigan went 10-0 that season and outscored its opponents 567-22. So Michigan has a lot of quality players and great seasons -- which didn’t make this an easy task -- but after a lot of thinking I personally voted for Heston in 1904. Truthfully, though, you could’ve gone with a half-dozen others.