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The 50 Greatest College Football Players of All Time

Michael Pinto

Listing the top college football players of all time is a practice easily attempted yet very difficult to complete.

Throughout over 100 years of college football, so many great players have taken the field and become legends.

But who among them are the best of the best? What separates a great player from the greatest of players throughout the many eras of the game?

Here are Bleacher Report's top 50 college football players of all time.

50. Mike Singletary, LB, Baylor

Singletary is simply a legend at the linebacker position. The only junior selected to the Southwest Conference's all-decade team of the 1970s, Singletary is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The two-time winner of the Davey O'Brien Memorial Trophy set numerous school records at Baylor, including his 232-tackle season in 1978. As a senior, Singletary led the Bears to their first ever 10-win season.

49. Billy Cannon, QB, LSU

Billy Cannon quarterbacked LSU to its first national championship in 1958 and is regarded by many to be the finest player in school history. 

Cannon won the Heisman Trophy in 1959 and was voted the UPI College Football Player of the Year after coming close to leading LSU to a second consecutive tile. 

48. Johnny Lujack, QB, Notre Dame

One of the greatest all-around athletes of the first half of the 20th century, Johnny Lujack quarterbacked Notre Dame before and after WWII and carried the team to three national championships, including the undefeated seasons of 1946 and 1947.

Considered to be the greatest T-formation signal caller of all time, Lujack put in time as a running back, punter and defensive back as well before winning the 1947 Heisman Trophy.

47. Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State

1993 was Charlie Ward's year. He quarterbacked FSU to a 12-1 record and the school's first national championship with an epic 18-16 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

That season, Ward gained the second-largest margin of victory in the history of Heisman Trophy balloting to O.J. Simpson in 1967.

Considered one of the best all-around athletes in modern times, he may have bypassed the NFL for the NBA, but Ward is still a College Football Hall of Famer.

46. Warren Sapp, DT, Miami

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Of all the great defenders who've played for Miami, it's hard to argue that Warren Sapp isn't the best of the bunch even though he missed out on bringing the Hurricanes a national championship.

Sapp was a two-time All-American, was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 1994 by the Football Writers Association of America, and won the Lombardi Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Bill Willis Award. 

45. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh

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Arguably the best college football receiver of the 21st century to date, Fitzgerald was nearly unstoppable in his two years at Pitt.

As just a sophomore, Fitzgerald won the Walter Camp Award, the Biletnikoff Award and the Paul Warfield Award after catching 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. His career numbers are the best in Panthers history.

44. Jim Brown, RB, Syracuse

Considered one of the greatest American athletes of all time, Jim Brown is arguably the greatest professional running back of all time. If not for the prevalence of racism in Heisman voting during the 1950s, he would have likely won the Heisman in 1956.

That season, he rushed for 986 yards and 14 touchdowns in just eight games, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. In the regular-season finale, Brown rushed for 197 yards and six touchdowns and kicked seven extra points.

Brown is a member of the Pro Football and College Football Hall of Fames, as well as the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

43. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, TCU

One of the greatest running backs in NFL history, Tomlinson is under-appreciated for his college career at TCU.

Tomlinson helped TCU win its first bowl game in 41 years in 1998, led the nation in rushing in 1999 and 2000 with over 4,000 yards over that stretch, finished fourth in the 2000 Heisman voting, and is the sixth-leading career NCAA rusher with 5,263 yards.

42. Steve McNair, QB, Alcorn State

McNair set the NCAA record with 5,799 total yards in 1994 while playing at Alcorn State in Division I-AA, but if you doubt he could have been as good playing against tougher competition, here's a quote from former Auburn coach Larry Blakeney, who coached Bo Jackson:

"He'd be the best player on any team in Division I-A. He's that good. He can do more to beat you with his abilities than anyone else I've ever seen. That includes Bo."

There's a reason McNair finished third in the '94 Heisman voting and went on to an All-Pro career in the NFL.

41. John Hannah, OG, Alabama

Hannah is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, offensive linemen in the history of the game. He was a two-time All-American at Alabama in 1971 and 1972.

He was named to the Alabama All-Century Team and inducted into the College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fames. Bear Bryant called him the greatest lineman he ever coached.

40. Lee Roy Selmon, DT, Oklahoma

The best of the famous Selmon brothers, Lee Roy was one of six defensive tackles selected to Sports Illustrated's NCAA Football All-Century Team.

He anchored the Oklahoma defense during the '74 and '75 national championship seasons, won the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy in '75 and was named the 39th-best college football player of all time by College Football News.

Barry Switzer called him the greatest player he ever coached.

39. Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas

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McFadden is the most decorated running back in Arkansas school history and from 2006 to 2007 was, by far, the most exciting and dynamic rusher in the nation.

He's the only player to ever finish second in the Heisman voting two years in a row, is one of only two players to win the Doak Walker Award twice, was Sporting News' National Player of the Year in 2007 and is the No. 2 rusher in SEC history behind Herschel Walker.

38. Mike Reid, DT, Penn State

Penn State has had seven undefeated seasons, with two of them coming in 1968 and 1969. You can argue that simply wouldn't have been the case if not for a dominating defense spearheaded by Mike Reid in the middle of the defensive line. 

The All-American defender won the Outland Trophy and the Maxwell Award as a senior, finishing fifth in the Heisman voting. 

37. Tom Harmon, RB, Michigan

Tom Harmon is one of the greatest players in Michigan's long and storied history. Leading the nation in rushing in 1939 and 1940, his 1940 season was outrageous by the standards of the time and is considered one of the all-time great performances.

That year he combined to account for over 3,400 yards passing, rushing, receiving and kick returning to win both the Heisman and Maxwell Awards. He also served as Michigan's kicker and was a solid defensive back as well.

36. Davey O'Brien, QB, TCU

TCU has only one Heisman winner in its long history of college football. That would be famed quarterback Davey O'Brien. His best year came in 1938, when he threw for a then-record 1,457 passing yards and 19 touchdowns.

He led the Horned Frogs to an undefeated national championship season and became the first player in history to win the Heisman, Maxwell and Walter Camp trophies in the same year.

Today, the Davey O'Brien Award given annually to the nation's top quarterback is named in his honor.

35. Rich Glover, DT, Nebraska

Glover is part of a long line of successful Nebraska defensive tackles. He was the first Cornhusker to win both the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award and was a key member of the 1970 and 1971 undefeated national championship teams.

Bob Devaney called Glover "the greatest defensive player I ever saw," and Sports Illustrated must have agreed, naming Glover as the starting defensive tackle of its NCAA Football All-Century Team in 1999.

34. Doc Blanchard, RB, Army

We'll get to "Mr. Outside" shortly, but first let's meet his running mate at Army.

Doc Blanchard, "Mr. Inside," was half of one of the best backfield duos in the history of the game and a critical piece of Army's 1945 squad considered to be an all-time great.

Blanchard was the thunder and Glenn Davis was the lightning. Davis would take home the Heisman in '46, but 1945 was Doc's year; he scored 19 touchdowns on the season, leading the Cadets to a national championship. He was the first junior to ever win the Heisman Trophy.

33. Anthony Carter, WR, Michigan

Carter "The Darter" might have been the best home-run hitter in college football history. Playing in a Michigan offense that heavily favored the run, Carter was still able to leave the Wolverines heavily decorated with records.

After his senior season, Carter held the Michigan school record for career total touchdowns, receiving touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards, punt return yards and kickoff return yards.

His career average of 17.4 yards per play was an NCAA record.

32. Reggie Bush, RB, USC

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Reggie Bush's legacy is a tainted one, as he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for his 2005 Heisman-winning season and voluntarily forfeited his trophy.

Add in a massive upset to Texas in the the 2005 national championship game, and Bush's college career has quickly become one that is highlighted by negativity rather than the brilliance with which he played offensively.

31. Billy Sims, RB, Oklahoma

Billy Sims is arguably the best running back in Oklahoma history, and that's saying quite a lot considering the players who've taken the field for the Sooners.

In 1978, Sims rushed for 1,762 yards and 20 touchdowns on a 7.6 yards-per-carry average to become the sixth junior to win the Heisman Trophy. He followed that up by leading the nation in rushing as a senior and nearly winning a second Heisman in his final collegiate season.

30. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska

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In 2008 and 2009, Suh was simply an animal in the trenches, becoming one of the most decorated defensive linemen in the history of college football.

After becoming the first defensive lineman to lead Nebraska in tackles since 1973 as a sophomore, Suh was every bit as good in 2009, winning the Associated Press College Football Player of the Year Award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy.

29. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas

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While Vince Young headlines the discussion of the best quarterbacks in Texas history, it's actually Colt McCoy who dominates the school's record books.

With 13,253 passing yards, 112 passing touchdowns, 1,589 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns, McCoy holds the UT record for career total yards and touchdowns as well as passing yards and passing touchdowns.

But maybe most impressive is his NCAA record of 45 career wins by a starting quarterback.

28. John Elway, QB, Stanford

Elway is the greatest Cardinal quarterback in a long line of star passers. While Stanford didn't see too much team success during Elway's tenure, he graduated with nearly every Stanford and Pac-10 career record for passing and total offense.

With 9,349 yards passing and 77 touchdowns over his career, Elway finished second to Herschel Walker in the 1982 Heisman race and was later ranked No. 15 on ESPN's Top 25 Players in College Football History.

27. Ernie Davis, RB, Syracuse

Before Ernie Davis, Jim Brown was as good as it got at Syracuse. Davis didn't just break all of Brown's rushing records by the time he left the Orangemen, though; he broke through the color barrier as well.

Compared to today's statistics, Davis' 823 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 1961 don't seem too impressive, but he didn't have nearly the rushing attempts modern backs do.

Davis became the first African American to win the Heisman, taking home the honor that so many before had paved the road to.

26. Mike Rozier, RB, Nebraska

Rozier was the primary weapon in one of the best offenses in the history of college football at Nebraska. Though he showed flashes of greatness as a freshman and sophomore and then broke the Cornhuskers' single-season rushing record as a junior, it's his senior season that stands alone.

Rozier's numbers were staggering, as he rushed for 2,148 yards and 29 touchdowns with a 7.8 yards-per-carry average that still stands to this day as the NCAA record.

25. Charles Woodson, CB, Michigan

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Michigan's 1997 national championship team can thank Charles Woodson for its place in history. That season, he recorded eight interceptions and scored touchdowns as a receiver, running back and return man.

Woodson became the first and only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman Trophy; it is possible no defender will ever join him, though many have been deserving of the honor as well.

24. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin

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The NCAA's all-time rushing leader, Ron Dayne ended his career at Wisconsin with 6,397 rushing yards and the 1999 Heisman Trophy; those numbers scarily don't include his postseason statistics. 

As a freshman, Dayne rushed for 246 yards in the 1996 Copper Bowl, went for 246 again as a junior in the 1999 Rose Bowl and finished his college career with a bang as he rushed for 200 yards in the 2000 Rose Bowl.

23. Randy Moss, WR, Marshall

Moss' college career got off to a bumpy start, but his two years at Marshall were arguably the most impressive stretch of production from any wide receiver in history.

After playing in Division I-AA in 1996, Moss proved he could be just as good in Division I-A in 1997. That year, Moss had 1,820 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns.

He finished his career with 4,706 all-purpose yards and 55 touchdowns in just 28 games, an average of 168 yards and nearly two touchdowns a game.

22. Dave Rimington, C, Nebraska

Considered the greatest college football center of all time, Rimington had a career at Nebraska filled with about as many awards as any lineman to ever play the game.

He was a consensus first-team All-American in 1981 and 1982, is the only two-time winner of the Outland Trophy, won the Lombardi Award in 1982 and finished fifth in the Heisman voting that same year.

He was selected as the starting center in Sports Illustrated's NCAA Football All-Century Team.

21. Glenn Davis, RB, Army

Back to Army's epic 1945 team with "Mr. Inside," Doc Blanchard, and "Mr. Outside," Glenn Davis, dominating competition on the ground throughout the year.

While Davis had his best statistical seasons as a sophomore and junior playing alongside Blanchard, it was in 1946 that he would finally win a well-deserved Heisman.

From 1944 to 1946, Davis' teams would go a combined 27-0-1.

20. Orlando Pace, OT, Ohio State

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Pace is considered by many to be the greatest college and professional offensive tackle in history, and he's earned the accolades to prove it.

After starting as a true freshman for the Buckeyes, Pace later became the only two-time winner of the Lombardi Award.

In 1999, he was named the starting left tackle on Sports Illustrated's NCAA Football All-Century Team.

19. Bo Jackson, RB, Auburn

Bo Jackson is one of the top athletes in American sports, but his downfall was injuries, especially a career-ending injury suffered in 1990 that put an end to his days in the NFL so unfortunately prematurely. But he missed significant time in college as well.

He is still considered the top player in Auburn school history, though, with 4,303 rushing yards, the fourth-highest mark in SEC history, and an SEC-record 6.6 career rushing yards-per-carry average that led to the 1985 Heisman Trophy. 

18. Tony Dorsett, RB, Pittsburgh

Tony Dorsett led Pittsburgh to the national championship on his way to becoming the NCAA's all-time leading rusher, averaging over 200 yards a game over the final seven contests of his Heisman-winning 1976 season.

He is the only football player in history who has won the Heisman Trophy, the Super Bowl and the national championship, and been enshrined in the College Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

17. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas

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Ricky Williams was the NCAA career rushing leader for just one season before Ron Dayne beat his record, but with 7,206 yards from scrimmage and 75 touchdowns, there's no denying Williams is one of the most productive players in college football history.

Williams had nearly 4,500 total yards and over 50 touchdowns in 1997 and 1998 and holds 20 NCAA records.

16. O.J. Simpson, RB, USC

Simpson only played two years at USC, starring for the Trojans in 1967 and 1968 and leading the nation in rushing both seasons. While many believe he should have won the Heisman in '67, he simply could not be denied the honor in '68.

That year, Simpson rushed for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns with another 211 yards receiving. His Heisman victory was the most lopsided in history as he took the vote by a 1,750-point margin.

15. Peyton Manning, QB, Tennessee

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Arguably the greatest player in Tennessee history, the Vols never won a national championship under Manning but, ironically, would go undefeated in 1998 just a year after Manning's final collegiate season and win the crown.

While he didn't win a title, Manning did rewrite the record books for the SEC, setting marks in career total offense and passing yards, as well as the NCAA record for the lowest career interception rate.

14. Roger Staubach, QB, Navy

Roger Staubach might be best known for his time with the Dallas Cowboys, but his contribution to college football simply can't be overstated. 

Statistically, the numbers don't wow, but in 1963 Staubach led Navy to a 9-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in the country behind Texas.

He was the most accurate quarterback in the nation, but it was his relentless nature and leadership that really stood out. Staubach was one of those rare talents that just refused to lose and lifted the morale of his teammates any time he took the field.

13. Earl Campbell, RB, Texas

Legendary Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer once said that Earl Campbell was the only player he'd ever seen who could have gone straight from high school to the NFL and immediately been a star.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in 1977 he became the first Texas Longhorn to ever win the Heisman Trophy while leading the nation in rushing, playing so well that his team was practically unchallenged in the regular season that year.

12. Deion Sanders, CB, Florida State

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Every athlete that came to Tallahassee after Sanders was undoubtedly compared to the cornerback who had come to define the Seminoles of the late 1980s.

Sanders wasn't just a lightning-fast cornerback with better cover skills than maybe any to ever play the game; he was possibly even better as a return man, with a school-record 1,429 career punt return yards to add to his already impressive defensive résumé.

11. Tommy Nobis, LB/OG, Texas

Maybe the best two-way player in college football history, Tommy Nobis was a true warrior who started on both offense and defense for his entire career. He was called "the finest two-way player I have ever seen" by former Texas coach Darrell K. Royal.

Nobis started for three years at Texas, averaging nearly 20 tackles per game and finishing his career as one of the most decorated all-around players in NCAA history. In 1965, he won the Knute Rockne Award, the Outland Trophy and the Maxwell Award.

10. Vince Young, QB, Texas

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In 2005, Vince Young was the first player to ever pass for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in the same season, and while he would finish second to Reggie Bush for the Heisman, it was Young who got the last laugh.

His performance against a heavily favored USC team in the 2006 Rose Bowl was one of the all-time greats, and was absolutely pivotal in delivering Texas the national championship.

Considering Young started just two seasons for the Longhorns, his career numbers are really astonishing and would have been even better had he stuck around for his senior year.

9. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida

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Tebow emerged as one of the greatest college players to ever step on a football field in his time at Florida, and it began right from the start. As a sophomore in 2007, Tebow would account for 3,970 yards and 51 touchdowns.

He would follow that up by leading the Gators to the 2008 national championship and coming up just short in 2009, as Florida would lose just once.

For his career, Tebow had a 35-6 record as a starter, 12,232 total yards and 145 total touchdowns.

8. Marcus Allen, RB, USC

Marcus Allen was the first player in college football history to rush for over 2,000 yards. His 1981 performance was so good that it kept Herschel Walker from winning the Heisman during his best season.

Along with Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne, Allen's 12 200-yard games are tied for the all-time NCAA record.

USC coach John Robinson called him "the greatest player I ever saw."

7. Howard Cassady, RB, Ohio State

Of all the players that have been part of Ohio State's grand tradition, perhaps no one has been more important to the school than Howard Cassady.

He scored 37 touchdowns in 36 career games from 1952 to 1955, ridiculous totals at the time, as the nation's premier rusher. As a cornerback, Cassady did not ever allow a single pass completion.

With a national championship and Heisman Trophy, he is arguably the greatest pre-1960 college football player in history.

6. Dick Butkus, LB/C, Illinois

Considered by many to be the best college linebacker of all time, Butkus was nearly as good playing offense as he was at shutting offenses down.

Not only did Butkus star at linebacker—with 373 career tackles in three seasons at Illinois—he also started at center during that stretch and was the undeniable anchor of the offensive line.

Butkus was named the sixth-best college football player of all time by College Football News in 2000.

5. Barry Sanders, RB, Oklahoma State

Sanders started only one season in his college football career, but his 1988 season was one of the most impressive statistical outings in sports history and marks him as arguably the greatest running back of all time.

From a backup in 1987 to the starter in '88, Sanders shattered the record books with 2,628 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns—and that doesn't even include the 222 yards and five touchdowns he scored in the 1988 Holiday Bowl.

4. Hugh Green, DE, Pittsburgh

Considered by many to be the finest defensive player in college football history, Green was a nearly unstoppable force from 1977 to 1980, leading Pitt to a 39-8-1 record and recording 460 career tackles, 53 sacks and 25 forced fumbles.

In his senior season, Green won the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award and the Lombardi Award, and was the Sporting News Player of the Year.

He finished second in the Heisman voting to George Rogers, though many felt the honor should have gone to Herschel Walker above them both.

3. Tommie Frazier, QB, Nebraska

Frazier is considered by many to be the greatest college football player of all time, leading Nebraska to two straight national championships in 1994 and 1995—the only quarterback to do so since the 1950s.

By the time Frazier left Nebraska, he held school records for career total offense, career touchdown passes and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season. He also set numerous NCAA records before finishing second to Eddie George in the 1995 Heisman voting.

2. Archie Griffin, RB, Ohio State

Griffin is an Ohio State legend and has a status close to that of folklore for his achievements on the field for the Buckeyes.

He's the only two-time Heisman winner in history, taking the honor in 1974 and 1975, though many feel that his 1975 Heisman was an undeserved honor presented more for reputation than production on the field.

1. Herschel Walker, RB, Georgia

Herschel Walker's 1980 season made him the NCAA's most productive freshman running back in history at the time. He rushed for 1,616 yards with 15 touchdowns as he helped Georgia go undefeated and win a national championship.

In his three-year career, Georgia would lose only three games and fall two Sugar Bowl losses away from three straight national championships.


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