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College Football's Greatest Season: 25 Years Later

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Running back Barry Sanders averaged 237.5 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per game in 1988, but did not receive crazed national attention due to a personality that shunned the spotlight. Photo by Oklahoma State/Getty Images.
Running back Barry Sanders averaged 237.5 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per game in 1988, but did not receive crazed national attention due to a personality that shunned the spotlight. Photo by Oklahoma State/Getty Images.

There are random, stupid moments from my life growing up that I remember clear as day. The first song I ever heard on the radio after getting my driver’s license was “Dammit” by Blink 182. 

I know. Don’t judge me.  It was 1997 and you couldn’t go more than 10 minutes without hearing that song on the radio. 

The 1988 college football season is a great example of this. Most people remember it as the last time Notre Dame won a National Championship. 

Twenty-five years later, the one thing we don’t talk about enough? Arguably the most dominant offensive season by an individual player. Ever. 

Simply remembering that Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy 25 years ago is an injustice. Describing his statistics that year as “video game numbers” is an insult. 

He cracked 1,000 rushing yards by Oct. 15 (five games) and double-digit touchdowns by Oct. 8. Sanders had 20 rushing touchdowns by Oct. 29 (seven games) and eclipsed 2,000 yards with two regular-season games remaining.

When it was over, Sanders broke the records for most rushing yards in a season (2,628) and rushing touchdowns in a season (37).  Both records still stand.

In 1988, the NCAA didn’t include bowl statistics in the season totals the way they do now, so these numbers don’t include the 222 yards rushing and five touchdowns Barry notched in three quarters against Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl. Had Sanders done this after 2002, his season totals would have been 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns. 

If you require this in more digestible numbers, Sanders averaged 237.5 yards and 3.5 touchdowns per game

None of the numbers above are typos.

How is it that this season for the ages has remained a relative unknown?

Nobody saw it coming, for starters. At 5-foot-8 and 197 pounds — and because he didn’t start playing tailback until his senior year of high school — Sanders was overlooked by nearly every major college in the country. He then spent his first two years at Oklahoma State playing behind two-time All-American Thurman Thomas.

Sanders had shown flashes of brilliance, leading the nation in kickoff return average and spelling Thomas for more than 600 yards in 1987, but even then-Cowboys head coach Pat Jones admitted to The New York Times that he “had no idea he was this good.”

And, really, who foresees dominance at that level?

The media certainly didn’t. Had Sanders run roughshod over college football in today’s media environment, there would be at least three 24-hour sports channels dedicated to debating where Sanders’ junior year ranks in the pantheon of great seasons.

Media coverage was a lot different in 1988, though. Most of Oklahoma State’s games didn’t even make it to TV.  Anybody trying to follow OSU only had the occasional SportsCenter highlight and a box score in the USA Today, which looked like an editor must have confused Sanders’ rushing yards with a quarterback's passing yards. 

The other reason Sanders’ season never stuck out was because Sanders himself never really stuck out when he wasn’t on the field. We all know Sanders to be the one of the most humble and unassuming people to walk this planet. These are admirable qualities to have — especially when blessed with so much talent — but headlines like “Barry Sanders spends all of his free time in Bible Study” don’t make for as good of a story as “Johnny Football Caught Bringing Brownies and Mushrooms into a Phish Concert.” (Before we get all crazy, I made Johnny Football headline up. I don’t think Manziel would be caught dead at a Phish show.) 

Sanders simply wasn’t good media fodder. Even when his amazing season should have taken up all of the attention, fate had a way of pulling the junior running back out of the spotlight. On the day the Heisman Trophy was awarded to Sanders at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City, he was in Tokyo preparing to play a game against Texas Tech. He was only made available to media via satellite.

It’s not as though we’re dusting off some archaeological find here. Nobody should suggest that Sanders was robbed of college glory. He did, after all, win the Heisman Trophy by nearly 1,000 total points and he was selected third overall by the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft.

It simply seems that when we try and put modern performances into a proper historical context, we have a tendency to mention Hershel Walker or Marcus Allen before Sanders. Maybe it’s because the Cowboys weren’t in contention for a national title. Maybe it’s because football isn’t as attached to numbers the way that baseball is. 

I think we may just be looking at numbers that we can’t wrap our heads around because there really isn’t a historical context for this kind of performance. It gets pushed into the background because the numbers are almost too unbelievable.

Then again, I might remember it a bit better if I could just get that stupid Blink 182 song out of my head.