Is former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders’ 1988 Heisman Trophy-winning season the best season ever in college football?
Actually, it is.
Sanders’ season was recently named the winner of ESPN.com’s “The Season” fan poll.
Sanders won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns in 1988. He averaged 237.5 rushing yards per game and had four 300-yard rushing games.
His talent remains unmatched to this day and prior to even starting at Oklahoma State, there was at least one guy who knew that there was something special about the 5-foot-8 tailback.
University of Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer took a watchful eye to Sanders a year prior to facing the Cowboys. While the rest of his staff and the country was pondering how his Sooners would stop then-starter for Oklahoma State, Thurman Thomas — Switzer had began to wonder how he would stop Sanders.
“I saw this back run a kickoff back 100 yards. Then a little while later, he did it again,” Switzer once recalled. “I walked over to our coaches in another room and I told them, ‘You’d better hope Thurman Thomas doesn’t get hurt.'”
The staff wondered aloud if their head coach had lost his mind. But soon enough, Switzer’s prescience would be affirmed.
Thomas would go on to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
But a year later, Sanders would produce the greatest individual season college football had ever witnessed. And a season that stands unmatched to this day.
(video note — playback starts at :14)
Sanders set 34 NCAA records in 1988 on his way to capturing the Heisman Trophy. He also rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, while adding two special-teams scores. The NCAA didn’t begin including bowl game statistics until 2002, but with 222 yards and five touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming, he totaled 2,850 yards and 44 touchdowns. No player since has come close to touching either mark.
Thomas, a four-year starter had rushed for 4,847 yards and totaled 45 touchdowns over his career, which included a pair of top-10 finishes in the Heisman voting. any people feared that the Cowboys would have a difficult time replacing him.
Up to the 88′ season, Sanders was primarily a special teams player, returning kicks and punts for the Cowboys. He had occasionally relieved Thomas of his backfield duties, and was aware that one day he would replace him permanently.
“They had tried to play them in the backfield together, but it never worked for whatever reason,” said Hart Lee Dykes, who was an All-American wideout on Oklahoma State’s 1988 team. “When Thurman left, if you took a poll, nobody would have predicted Barry would have that kind of year. He had been a playmaker on punt returns and kickoffs. But nobody had really seen him run the ball because he played behind Thurman. He was such an unassuming guy. He just blended in with the rest of the guys.
“So nobody saw that kind of year coming. I know I didn’t.”
Sanders was built to be a phenomenal running machine. Standing 5-foot-8, he was hard for opposing defenses to find at the line of scrimmage. He also had a very low center of gravity and possessed great strength in his short, yet stout legs. It is said that Sanders could bench 360 pounds ands squat 560.
“He wasn’t big and he wasn’t tall, but he had such an unbelievable change of direction. He could change direction in a heartbeat and be right back in full speed again,” said former Oklahoma defensive tackle Scott Evans, who faced off against Sanders in the 1988 Bedlam game. “He had this unique way of taking a play that would’ve been a 2-yard loss and turning it into a 20-yard gain.
“He was just phenomenal.”
All of the great running backs that have come and gone at the collegiate level have never come close to the magical season that Sanders put together in 88′. It’s also extremely likely that college football will never see another season like it.
Sanders was one of 16 selections for the poll, which was set up in a seeded bracket format with players going head-to-head. Sanders received the No. 1 overall seed and defeated former Tulsa receiver Howard Twilley in the first round, Pitt running back Tony Dorsett in the second round, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in the semifinal and Texas quarterback Vince Young in the final.
More than 50,000 votes were tallied in each of Sanders’ matchups, with 1,355,898 total votes cast in the bracket. Sanders defeated his opponents with a 97, 91, 78 and 72 percent majority, respectively.