Oklahoma State football: Will anyone ever surpass Barry Sanders?

Oklahoma State football legend Barry Sanders will be inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor during the team’s game against TCU on Saturday night. The 1988 Heisman Trophy winner will be the second Cowboy to enter the Ring of Honor after fellow running back and teammate Thurman Thomas was inducted last year.

A Sanders statue will also go up outside of Boone Pickens Stadium to permanently honor Sanders, who went on to have a prolific NFL career with the Detroit Lions after leaving Stillwater.

Oklahoma State football will honor college football’s greatest running back ever, Barry Sanders, this weekend as the Ring of Honor’s newest member.

Will a college football running back ever do better than Barry Sanders during his magical 1988 season with the Cowboys?

The answer is no, and here’s why.

You can start with the highlights, like this video compilation posted on Tuesday by OSU’s athletic department:

The NCAA began counting bowl games after 2002 in players’ single-season record totals, and for some reason won’t retroactively apply this to players from before this season. In addition, a 12th regular-season game was added well after the 1988 season, when Sanders played 11 regular-season contests before the team’s appearance in the Holiday Bowl (where he rushed for 222 yards and scored five touchdowns).

Despite these important statistical discrepancies, Sanders owns the single-season rushing record among all NCAA Division I running backs with 2,628 rushing yards in only 11 games. Not even legends like Alabama’s Derrick Henry (2,219 yards in 15 games from 2015) or USC’s Marcus Allen (2,427 yards from 1981) can touch this record. The player closest to approaching this record was Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards in 14 games from the 2014 season.

Fun fact: the only player to crack the Top 25 single-season rushing performance totals in the past two seasons was OSU’s Chuba Hubbard, who rushed for 2,094 yards in 2019.

During the 1988 season, Sanders rushed for 238.9 yards per game, another NCAA record that still stands today. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry and scored 37 rushing touchdowns, the latter of which is another NCAA record that still stands despite many players below him in the list playing more than 11 games.

During a three-game stretch against Kansas, Texas Tech, and Iowa State, Sanders rushed for 937 yards and 13 touchdowns. For reference, 70 schools during the entire 2019 season failed to produce a player with as many rushing yards (in 12 or 13 contests).

The future NFL Hall of Famer also had four 300-yard rushing games in the 1988 season at OSU, a mark that no other player has reached in his career, let alone one season.

Sanders also scored on three kick returns and three punt returns during his OSU career, proving that he was more than simply the game’s greatest running back while on offense.

Especially with the popularity of today’s pass-happy spread offenses, it seems even more unlikely that anyone will surpass Sanders’ accomplishments as a running back and kick returner while at OSU. It’s hard to imagine a player today rushing for more than 2,800 yards in 12 regular-season games, along with some of Sanders’ other 1988 achievements.

Beyond any of Sanders’ juke moves, the highlight reel touchdowns, and the incomparable numbers, the greatest attribute about the Wichita, Kan. native might have been his personality.

He was always humble on and off the field and was not one to engage in clownishly celebrating or demeaning his opponents. Watch his highlights carefully and you’ll notice him casually handing the football to the referee after he entered the end zone untouched once again. He always deflected attention to his teammates, too, and always praised his offensive line for helping him have the best season ever for a college running back.

OSU’s honoring of Sanders in its new Ring of Honor is well deserved. There’s no other running back in college football who can match what he did in Stillwater 33 years ago, and there likely won’t be another player who will surpass his records.