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25 Years Later: Barry Sanders And The Greatest NCAA Season Ever

It’s no secret that Barry Sanders is universally regarded as one of the greatest NFL running backs of all time. But it was his accomplishments as a member of the Oklahoma State Cowboys in 1988 that will go down in history as the single greatest and most mind-boggling individual season in college football history.

Thurman Thomas (left) and his successor

Thurman Thomas (left) and his successor.

After a solid sophomore campaign as a backup, Sanders took over the starting role in Oklahoma State’s backfield from future NFL Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas. The Cowboys were hoping that Sanders had progressed enough under Thomas’ tutelage that he would be ready to bear the burden of carrying the Cowboys offense. No one could have predicted what followed.

Here is a game-by-game look at Sanders’ sheer and utter dominance of opposing defenses during his 1988 season.

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To recap, in just twelve games Sanders rushed 373 times for 2,850 yards. An average of 7.6 yards per carry in addition to his 42 rushing touchdowns and 2 kick return touchdowns.

Notable 1988 Accomplishments

  • Returned the season opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Miami (Ohio)
  • Scored at least two touchdowns in every game
  • Scored at least four touchdowns in seven games
  • Took only five games to record 1,000 rushing yards
  • Rushed for at least 215 yards in his final six games
  • Averaged 237.5 yards rushing per-game 
  • Winner of the Heisman Trophy

To put it in perspective, he averaged more yards rushing per-game individually in 1988 than 113 of the 125 Division 1-A schools (90%) averaged as a team in 2012.

Photo: ESPN

Photo: ESPN

NCAA Records
In total, Barry Sanders set a whopping 34 NCAA records in his 1988 season. Here are a few of his most significant record breaking achievements.

  • Most touchdowns (39) and most rushing touchdowns (37). (Note: his 5 bowl game rushing touchdowns didn’t count because the NCAA didn’t start adding bowl game statistics to season totals until 2002)
  • Most points scored in a season: 234
  • Most 300 yard games in a season: 4
  • Most 300 yard games in a career: 4
  • Most all-purpose yards in a season: 3,429
  • Most all-purpose yards per-game: 295.4. (A 50-year old record set by Byron “Whizzer” White in 1937)
Photo: Total Pro Sports

Sanders after receiving the Heisman Trophy. Photo: Total Pro Sports

Legacy 

When the dust was settled, Barry Sanders set the standard for rushing greatness. In all likelihood, we will never again see a season-long rushing performance like 1988. Some have tried, all have failed. Kevin Smith, formerly of the Central Florida Black Knights rushed for 2,567 yards in 2007. Danny Woodhead came closest with 2,757 rushing yards in 2006, albeit for Chadron State in Division II of the FCS.

Photo: Penn Live

Photo: Penn Live

Following his memorable season, Sanders was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions in 1989 and went on to post ten illustrious seasons in the NFL where he led the league in rushing four times and gained recognition as the most elusive running back in NFL history. In 1998 he became the third player ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, aided by an NFL record 14 consecutive games with 100+ yards rushing.

Before his shocking and abrupt retirement in 1999, Sanders recorded 15,269 rushing yards in the NFL, just 1,457 yards short of Walter Payton’s then record career mark of 16,726.

Whether it be the NCAA or NFL, Barry Sanders propelled himself to the likes of a rushing titan. Possessing unmatched agility and tackle-breaking might, Sanders’ football prowess literally brought opposing defenses to their knees in a wondrous spectacle that may never be seen again.

[David Ubben, Table from SportsRating, Pro-Football Reference, NCAA Div 1-A Rushing Stats]