10 most underrated running backs in SEC history
The Southeastern Conference has produced some of the greatest running backs in college football history.
Legends like Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson come to mind immediately. Emmitt Smith led the SEC in rushing twice at Florida before becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and modern stars like Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley and 2015 Heisman winner Derrick Henry are also easily recalled.
However, there are many great SEC running backs that are often overlooked for various reasons. Some were overshadowed at their schools because they couldn’t reach the heights of program-defining players like Herschel and Bo. Others had the unfortunate timing to play during the Tim Tebow or Peyton Manning eras, or when running backs like Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne were setting NCAA records. Several played for teams that simply didn’t win very many games – or played decades ago before today’s young fans had an opportunity to see them in action.
Whatever the reason, many SEC running backs have been and continue to be underrated, or have become underappreciated over time. While we couldn’t possibly name them all, we take a closer look at 10 of the most underrated running backs in conference history.
Darren McFadden, Arkansas
Darren McFadden isn’t some diamond in the rough that toiled in obscurity. That’s not what this list is about. Most SEC football fans know about McFadden, and the majority of college football fans probably do too. After all, he was a two-time Heisman Trophy runner up, the Doak Walker Award winner and SEC Offensive Player of the Year in both 2006 and 2007. However, it’s easy to underestimate just how good Darren McFadden was – and he should be considered one of the best college running backs of all-time.
McFadden gained 1,113 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2005, and topped 100 yards in five games. He earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors, and set an Arkansas school record for rushing yards by a freshman. In 2006, McFadden exploded onto the national scene with 1,647 rushing yards and 14 TDs – both of which led the SEC. He added 149 receiving yards and a touchdown, returned a kickoff for another score, and even completed 7 of 9 passes for 69 yards and 3 touchdowns as a Wildcat quarterback. McFadden also helped the Razorbacks win 10 games for the first time as a member of the SEC, and the first time since 1989.
The vote for the Heisman wasn’t close, and McFadden lost to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, but the 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore earned his spot at the ceremony. McFadden was much closer to the Heisman in 2007, but lost to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow by 254 points. A unanimous All-American, McFadden again led the league in rushing with 1,830 yards. He added 16 touchdowns on the ground, threw 4 TD passes and caught another.
In just three years, McFadden rushed for the second most yards in SEC history – 4,590 – and still ranks No. 5 on the all-time list with 4,955 total yards from scrimmage. Those numbers are even more incredible considering the fact he shared a backfield with Felix Jones, who rushed for 1,168 yards and 6 TD in 2006 and added 1,162 rushing yards and 11 scores in ’07, and Peyton Hillis.
Had McFadden won the Heisman Trophy, he would likely be remembered as one of the greatest running backs in college football history. Instead, he finished second twice — becoming the first player in more than half a century to finish as the runner-up for college football’s greatest individual honor in back-to-back seasons.
A solid, but not flashy NFL career has made some forget how special he was in Fayetteville.
Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State
McFadden earned lots of recognition, but Anthony “Boobie” Dixon flew under the radar at Mississippi State from 2006-09. Dixon was an immediate contributor for the Bulldogs, and set school freshman records with 668 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns on 169 carries.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Dixon was a big back capable of carrying a heavy workload. As a sophomore, he set a school record with 287 rushing attempts – 51 more than the previous high mark. He became the first sophomore in school history to run for 1,000 yards in a single season.
Dixon’s production dipped slightly in ’08, but he ranked fifth in the league with 869 rushing yards. As a senior, Dixon put together his best season by gaining 1,391 rushing yards (which ranked second in the SEC) on 257 attempts – a 5.4-yard average that was a full yard better than his previous personal best. He also scored 12 times on the ground.
Dixon holds the Mississippi State records for rushing attempts (910), rushing yards (3,994), rushing touchdowns (42), touches from scrimmage (966), yards from scrimmage (4,443), and touchdowns from scrimmage (46) – having narrowly held off quarterback Dak Prescott, who rushed for 41 touchdowns and added 3 TD receptions to give him 44 touchdowns from scrimmage. Dixon ranks in the top 10 in SEC history in each category as well.
Charles Alexander, LSU
A terrific trivia question in bars across the Southeast: whose SEC career rushing record did Herschel Walker break? Charles Alexander. Also, whose single-season SEC rushing record did Walker break in 1981 – which stood until 2015? Alexander again.
There have been many great LSU running backs, including Kevin Faulk, who ranks third on the SEC all-time rushing list with 4,557 yards, and Dalton Hilliard, who gained 4,050 rushing yards and 1,133 receiving yards in four seasons from 1982-85. Fournette has a chance to become the greatest of them all, and needs just 1,571 rushing yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher. Of course, Alexander remains one of the best ever, and should be remembered as such.
After sharing the backfield with Terry Robiskie in 1975-76, Alexander set SEC records with 1,686 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior. He ranked second in the country in both categories, led the nation with 323 touches on offense, earned consensus All-American recognition, and finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The following year, Alexander added 1,172 rushing yards and 14 TDs. He pushed himself into the top five of the Heisman vote and was named an All-American for the second time. Alexander finished his career with a record 4,035 rushing yards, which Walker broke early in his junior season of 1982.
Sonny Collins, Kentucky
Prior to Alexander, Sonny Collins was the SEC’s all-time leading rusher. Collins gained 3,835 rushing yards and scored 26 touchdowns for the Wildcats from 1972-75, but played on just one winning team: The 1974 squad that finished 6-5. Collins surpassed 1,000 yards twice, including the 1973 season when he led the SEC with 1,213 rushing yards and 14 rushing TDs. Collins still ranks in the top 10 on the all-time SEC leaderboard for rushing yardage.
Johnny Musso, Alabama
Continuing our list of former all-time SEC rushing leaders, Johnny Musso gained 2,741 yards from 1969-71 to set a new league mark. He was also the first player in conference history to gain 1,000 rushing yards in two separate seasons. While Musso played on two of Bear Bryant’s worst Alabama teams in 1969 and 1970, which were a combined 12-10-1, the Crimson Tide finished 11-1 and won the SEC title in 1971 and Musso finished fourth in the Heisman voting after rushing for 1,088 yards and 16 touchdowns. Musso currently ranks No. 49 in SEC history in rushing yardage.
Errict Rhett, Florida
Herschel Walker, Darren McFadden, Kevin Faulk, Bo Jackson and Errict Rhett make up the top five rushers in SEC history. Few running backs were as consistent as Rhett, who gained 4,146 yards on the ground from 1990-93. Rhett led the SEC in rushing twice (1,109 yards in 1991 and 1,289 yards in 1993) despite being largely overshadowed because of head coach Steve Spurrier’s pass-heavy Fun ‘n’ Gun offense.
Felix Jones, Arkansas
If we’re going to list Darren McFadden as one of the most underrated running backs in SEC history, it would be impossible not to mention his running mate for three years in Fayetteville, Felix Jones. An all-purpose weapon for the Hogs, Jones gained 2,956 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, added 383 receiving yards and 3 TDs and scored 4 TDs on kick returns as well. He earned consensus All-American recognition in 2007, and like McFadden, left school early to become a first round NFL draft pick.
Tim Worley, Georgia
We’ve mentioned Herschel Walker quite a bit, but there are several other former Georgia Bulldogs running backs that are still considered legends in Athens. Garrison Hearst finished third in the Heisman voting, and he, like Rodney Hampton, Robert Edwards, Knowshon Moreno, and Todd Gurley, was a first-round NFL draft pick. One player that gets lost in the shuffle is Tim Worley, yet another first rounder, who led the SEC in rushing yards (1,216), rushing TDs (17), yards from scrimmage (1,253), total touchdowns (19), yards per carry (6.4) and points (108) in a consensus All-American season in 1988 – Vince Dooley’s final year as head coach.
James Brooks, Auburn
Before Bo Jackson arrived on the Plains, James Brooks was the best running back in Auburn football history. Brooks gained 3,523 rushing yards in four seasons with the Tigers, which was the second most in SEC history at the time, still ranks among the top 15 all-time in the league, and ranks third on the school’s all-time leaderboard behind Jackson and Cadillac Williams. A reliable kick returner all four years, Brooks also set Auburn records with 1,726 yards on kick returns, and 5,596 all-purpose yards.
Lars Tate, Georgia
Like Worley, Lars Tate’s accomplishments for the Georgia Bulldogs have been overshadowed by some of the greatest players in SEC history – and Herschel Walker in particular. Tate scored 36 touchdowns for the Bulldogs from 1984-87, which ranked fifth in SEC history at the end of his career and still ranks among the top 20 players all-time in the league. His 3,017 career rushing yards are fourth in school history behind only Walker, Gurley and Hearst.
As mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to list every overlooked and underrated SEC running back in history – but there are quite a few that deserve an honorable mention.
- Vick Ballard, Mississippi State
- Brandon Bennett, South Carolina
- Glen Coffee, Alabama
- Joe Cribbs, Auburn
- Kenneth Darby, Alabama
- Jimmy DuBose, Florida
- Brent Fullwood, Auburn
- Tony Green, Florida
- Bobby Humphrey, Alabama
- James Johnson, Mississippi State
- Rafael Little, Kentucky
- Artose Pinner, Kentucky
- Jimmy Sidle, Auburn
- Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt
- James Stewart, Tennessee
- Moe Williams, Kentucky
- Shaud Williams, Alabama
- Sherman Williams, Alabama