We have a winner in our March Madness-style bracket to determine the SEC’s best individual season in history.
Georgia running back Herschel Walker set conference records with 385 carries for 1,891 yards and 18 touchdowns in 1981, and even though all three of those figures have since been eclipsed, his legend only grows larger.
A no-brainer No. 1 seed in the Running Back region, Walker beat Todd Gurley of Georgia, Tre Mason of Auburn, Darren McFadden of Arkansas and Derrick Henry of Alabama — with nary a challenge from each — to earn a spot in the Final Four. In his semi-final matchup, Walker did away with Auburn’s Cam Newton, who had taken the Quarterback region.
In the final round, Walker survived a late push from Alabama wide receiver and fellow 1-seed Amari Cooper to capture the championship.
Still the conference’s all-time leading rusher by a wide margin despite only playing three seasons, 669 yards ahead of the aforementioned McFadden, Walker wrapped up his Bulldogs career with 5,259 yards on the ground.
From the moment he arrived in Athens from Wrightsville (Ga.) Johnson County High School in 1980 — the town has a population just north of 2,000 — Walker changed the game with his never-seen-before combination of power and speed. As a freshman, he led the league and was third nationally with 1,616 yards rushing.
Freshmen weren’t even eligible until 1972, yet he outrushed USC’s Marcus Allen, who was a junior at the time and won the Heisman Trophy as a senior.
He was just getting started, though. Walker’s performance throughout the 1981 campaign was arguably the most consistently dominant the SEC has ever seen. Nobody before or since has been so productive week in and week out.
Walker averaged exactly 35 carries in 11 games — remember, stats from bowl games didn’t count back then — which is about twice the workload expected of a featured back nowadays. He averaged 170.9 yards per game and cracked the century mark every time. Not once did he have fewer than 23 attempts or 111 yards.
Crimson Tide fans cried foul when Walker eliminated Henry, as Henry broke Walker’s marks for rushes and yards in 2015.
That being said, Henry had 15 outings to do all that damage, as Walker didn’t have the luxury of 12 regular-season games, a conference title game and two bowl games since ‘Bama played for the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Yes, Henry set the bar awfully high with 395 carries for 2,219 yards. That being said, his per-game averages of 26.3 and 147.9, respectively, were both significantly less than Walker’s output. Also, Henry failed to run for 100 yards five times — including the CFP semi-final — and averaged less than 4.0 yards per attempt twice.
Walker averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in every contest, despite the fact that everybody in the building knew he was getting the ball.
Ironically, a convincing case can be made that 1981 was Walker’s least memorable season at UGA. In ’80, the Dawgs won the national title. In ’82, he finally claimed the Heisman after finishing third and second the previous two years.
However, if you take ignore the hardware won — be it individually or as a team — and focus solely on the down-after-down, series-after-series, week-after-week destruction caused by maybe the purest athlete to ever wear a college football uniform, then Walker running over, around and through 1981 stands alone.
Walker once said, “If you train hard, you’ll not only be hard, you’ll be hard to beat.” He hasn’t been beaten for three and a half decades.