College football top 150: Was Archie Griffin better than Jim Thorpe?
ESPN released its top 11 college football players of all time this week. Syracuse’s Jim Brown was No. 1 on the list, and while Brown was before my time, both in college and in the NFL, I never have once come across solid reasoning as to why Brown would not be No. 1 on both the college or the all-time NFL running back list.
In fact, of the 11 players announced at halftime of the LSU-Clemson game Monday night, I have no real argument with 10 of them.
Only one of the 11 seemed out of place.
Ohio State’s Archie Griffin. The 1974 and 1975 Heisman Trophy winner was voted No. 4 by the panel, which included dozens of coaches, players, administrators and journalists, including our own Jenni Carlson.
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Here is the top 11, along with the ESPN-supplied biographies:
1. Jim Brown, RB, Syracuse: 1956 unanimous all-American, scored six touchdowns and kicked seven extra points in a game; in College Football, Pro Football and Lacrosse halls of fame.
2.Herschel Walker, TB, Georgia: 1982 Heisman winner (three-time finalist); three-time unanimous all-American; SEC-record 5,259 career rushing yards.
3. Bo Jackson, TB, Auburn: 1985 Heisman winner; two-time consensus all-American; Auburn-record 4,303 career rushing yards.
4. Archie Griffin, TB, Ohio State: Only two-time Heisman winner (1974, '75); 100 yards in 31 straight games, still a national record.
5. Jim Thorpe, B, Carlisle: Inaugural College Football Hall Fame class inductee in 1951; 53 touchdowns in 44 career games, named Greatest Athlete of Half-Century in 1950.
6. Red Grange, RB, Illinois: Inducted in inaugural College Football Hall of Fame class in 1951, three-time consensus All-American, rushed for 3,362 career yards.
7. Earl Campbell, TB, Texas: 1977 Heisman winner; 1,744 rushing yards in 1977 (a then-record); College Football Hall of Fame inductee.
8. Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois: Two-time consensus All-American; finished third in 1964 Heisman vote.
9. Barry Sanders, TB, Oklahoma State: Won 1988 Heisman; FBS-record 2,628 rushing yards in 1988; FBS-record four straight games with 300 rushing yards.
10. Gale Sayers, RB, Kansas: Two-time consensus All-American; first FBS player with 99-yard rush; had 11 of first 15 100-yd rushing games in Kansas school history.
11. Roger Staubach, QB, Navy: 1963 Heisman and Maxwell winner; Navy-record 63.1 career completion percentage.
An impressive list. But only Griffin stands out, because he doesn’t rise to the level of the others.
Nothing against Griffin. Winning two Heismans is a monument to an outstanding career. But Griffin clearly was elevated to this status because of those Heisman elections, and Heisman winning can be overstated. Heisman voting is an excellent barometer to measure a season or career. But the difference between first and second or first and third in any given year is minimal.
Southern Cal’s Anthony Davis was runnerup to Griffin in 1974. Was Griffin a better college football player than was Davis? Maybe. Probably. I’m not convinced. Davis was a game-changing tailback who ran back kicks like the wind; Davis had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons for SC. Griffin had monster numbers, but he was a consistent workhorse.
California’s Chuck Muncie was the runnerup to Griffin in 1975. Griffin had a better career than did Muncie. But was Griffin a better ballplayer? You’d be hard-pressed to get many people who saw them both to say so.
Again, I feel bad just popping Griffin in any manner. But the idea that Griffin was a better football player than Jim Thorpe? Or Dick Butkus? Or Roger Staubach? Please.
If you want to give Griffin credit – and he deserves lots of it – for career consistency, fine. He was a great player. But was he even the best tailback in Ohio State history? I’ll leave that to the Columbus crowd. But from an outsider’s point of view, Griffin didn’t look like the equal of Ezekiel Elliott or Eddie George. Together, those two won one Heisman. Griffin won two by himself.
But some of this has to be the eye test. I don’t much like the eye test for comparing contemporaries, be it players or teams. But the eye test is a good fallback when comparing teams and players of decades, generations and even centuries apart.
And the idea that Griffin was a better football player than Barry Sanders or Gale Sayers or Earl Campbell? Come on. We all know better.
The Sooners on the list were:
No. 20 Billy Sims;
No. 34 Lee Roy Selmon;
No. 45 Adrian Peterson;
No. 95 Steve Owens;
No. 107 Keith Jackson;
No. 128 Greg Pruitt;
No. 142 Tommy McDonald;
No. 150 Baker Mayfield.
Interesting list. Eight Sooners. Seven from the offense. You’d have thought it was all-Big 12, circa 2017.
No Tony Casillas? No Brian Bosworth? No Roy Williams? Sorry, all were better college football players than was Peterson. And it’s not particularly debatable.
Any list of the 10 best Sooners would include all three, and that wouldn’t rank 8-9-10, if you get my drift.
The best way to compile the best 150 players in college football history would be for each school to provide its own top 10 list, then work off that.
A panel that determines that Peterson was a better college football player than was McDonald isn’t really up to date on college football history.
But oh well. It’s an impossible undertaking. Like comparing Army 1945 with Southern Cal 2004. Like comparing Pop Warner with Nick Saban. There are few things that are resolvable. I still think Jim Thorpe is better than Archie Griffin.