This year marks the Big Ten's 120th anniversary so, all this week, we're cracking open the history books and looking back at some of the conference's best players. We're ranking the top 5 all-time B1G players at each position and, every day, we'll give you an offensive position and a defensive position.
These lists aren't based on NFL success or failure. They're based on each player's college career and how it was viewed in his respective time period. And, once again, we're considering every player who came from a team currently in the Big Ten. In other words, no need to remind us that Nebraska didn't officially join the Big Ten until 2011.
Up next: Running backs.
1. Red Grange, Illinois, 1923-1925: Did you really think we'd choose anyone else but the Galloping Ghost in the top spot? Grange was named the greatest college football player ever by ESPN back in 2008. One writer, Damon Runyon who watched him play, wrote: "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange." He was a three-time consensus All-American, a charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame and a staple on every conceivable all-time team. In just 20 career college games, he rushed for 3,362 yards and 31 touchdowns. Against Michigan, in 1924, he rushed 21 times for 402 yards and scored four TDs in the game's first 12 minutes. Said then-Illinois coach Bob Zuppke: "I will never have another Grange -- but neither will anyone else."
2. Archie Griffin, Ohio State, 1972-1975: He's the only player to ever win back-to-back Heisman Trophies, and he even finished fifth in the Heisman vote as a sophomore. His accolades just read as if they were pieced together from a video game: He started in four Rose Bowls, rushed for at least 100 yards in 31 straight games and led the conference in rushing for three straight seasons. Said then-coach Woody Hayes: "He is the greatest back I've ever seen." In the first season the NCAA allowed freshmen to play, Griffin wound up earning the starting job -- and he never looked back. He set the school's single-game record in his second career game by rushing for 239 yards. And then he broke his own record again the next season.
3. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin, 1996-1999: At 260-plus pounds, the Badgers' "Great Dayne" wore down opposing defenses unlike maybe any other Big Ten running back. He won the 1999 Heisman and twice surpassed the 2,000-yard plateau, as both a freshman and senior. Said former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez: "When anybody thinks of Wisconsin today, they think of us handing the ball off and Dayne running the football." Dayne started four seasons and rushed for at least 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns every year. For three years, he led the conference in both rushing yards and touchdowns. And he remains the NCAA's career leader in rushing (7,125) by nearly 600 yards. Dayne is the modern-day epitome of smash-mouth football.
4. Willie Heston, Michigan, 1901-1904: Heston might be the player this week we reach farthest back for, but it's hard to overlook his accomplishments -- even if some might be lost to history. He helped lead the Wolverines to four straight national titles and a 43-0-1 record during his career. He found a spot on four straight All-America teams -- two on Walter Camp's third-team; two on Camp's first-team -- and he scored at least 70 touchdowns as part of Fielding Yost's famed "Point-a-Minute" teams. (Yost claimed Heston had 106 scores; the College Football Hall of Fame lists it as 71 and the NCAA as 72.) Notre Dame's own Knute Rockne felt Heston was the "greatest back of all-time," even better than Grange. Official stats are hard to come by during this time but the NCAA was able to piece together rushing numbers for 17 career games. And, in that span, he rushed for 2,339 yards. As a senior, based on the data available, he averaged more than 12 yards a carry. He didn't play during an overly competitive time period, but it's hard to overlook just how truly dominant he was.
5. Mike Rozier, Nebraska, 1981-1983: We could've gone a number of directions here, but Rozier got the nod for a few reasons. For one, he's one of just three NCAA running backs to ever average more than 7 yards a carry over 500-plus career touches. Plus, he won the 1983 Heisman and finished 10th in the Heisman voting the year before. There was a definite theme when describing Rozier's running style. "He acts like he's mad every time he runs the football," former Kansas State coach Jim Dickey said. Added then-Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer: "He plays mad every down." Rozier was a two-time consensus All-American, he won three conference titles, and Nebraska finished within the top-5 of the national rankings every year he played.
Honorable mentions: Tom Harmon, Michigan; Charles "Chic" Harley, Ohio State; Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin; Leroy Keyes, Purdue; Lorenzo White, Michigan State; Anthony Thompson, Indiana; Bruce Smith, Minnesota; Nile Kinnick, Iowa; Alan Ameche, Wisconsin; Ki-Jana Carter, Penn State; Eddie George, Ohio State; Howard Cassady, Ohio State