Great seasons are not created equal
For players and fans alike, years will pass, stomachs will round and knees will ache. But a special season will never get old. It remains available on YouTube, or, in its more satisfying form, on a never-ending loop in the mind's eye.
The Internet affords the sublime pleasure of seeing Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State break the ankles of would-be tacklers in 1988. But it is evidence, not context. Only when you measure Sanders' 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns -- in 11 games, mind you -- against the production of every other back who ever played the game do you understand why he stands alone.
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Sanders' season is rare in more ways than one. Numbers in football are true as far as they go, but they measure different achievements in different seasons. The NCAA didn't begin to compile records on sacks and tackles for loss until 2000. It didn't count bowl statistics until 2002. Sabermetricians have elevated the baseball statistic to somewhere between science and cult. Baseball stats provide more astute analysis of today's player and provide a yardstick by which to measure players from different eras.
Football has no such luxury. Trying to measure the performance of the one-platoon player of the first half of the 20th century against the highly specialized lineups of today's game is folly. The former played only nine games a season, but played 60 minutes a game. The latter may play 14 games a season but get onto the field only to rush the quarterback on obvious passing downs.
That brings us back to context, and the mind's eye, and the romance of history. For each of the FBS schools, we select the best individual season.
We include George Gipp's 1920 season at Notre Dame because of his ability to run and pass and punt and return kicks, and just maybe because he didn't live to see 1921. We include Johnny Football's 2012 season at Texas A&M, but, as a runner-up, we also include Jarrin' John Kimbrough, who gained 1,357 yards in his entire Aggies career. However, Kimbrough finished second in the 1940 Heisman voting and led Texas A&M to 19 consecutive victories over those two seasons.
A great individual season includes so much more than stats. There is team success, and the abilities that numbers fail to capture. Marcus Allen, the USC running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1981, is one of the few players to produce a season that resides in the same zip code as Sanders in 1988.
But John Robinson's memories of 1981 don't include the numbers (2,342 yards and 22 touchdowns on a mind-boggling 403 carries). The head coach of the Trojans that season said that Allen remains the smartest player he ever coached, as well as one of the most tireless.
"He never came out," said Robinson, who lives in retirement near San Diego. "He would never make a run and look at the sideline. If he made a run and I was going to take him out, he'd look over and give me the finger. He was saying, 'Hey, I've got two more hours out here.'"
Robinson left USC after the 1982 season to coach the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL. A few years later, as Robinson prepared for the 1988 NFL draft, he went to Oklahoma State to visit a tailback who captivated him.
"I wanted to draft Thurman Thomas and we didn't," Robinson said. "We drafted Gaston Green. I almost got fired over that one.
"I went up to Oklahoma State and Pat [Jones, the Oklahoma State head coach] was sitting there. He was a soft-spoken guy. I said, 'Boy, it's going to be tough losing Thurman. What will you do?'
"And Pat said, 'Well, I got a guy I like. The backup is pretty good.'
"I walked out of there thinking, 'Yeah, right,'" Robinson said. "I walked out of there with one of those smirks on my face. Turns out the backup was Barry Sanders."
That fall Sanders put together his remarkable season. It lasted 11 games, or, depending how you look at it, 26 years -- and counting.