Who is the best Ohio State running back ever? Your answer probably depends on the decade you grew up watching Buckeyes games in. The 1970s had two time Heisman winner Archie Griffin to hang their hat on. The 1990s saw Eddie George bowl over anyone in his path on his way to the 1995 Heisman. Most recently, it's been Ezekiel Elliott and his blend of power and speed that led Ohio State to the 2014-2015 National Championship.
Griffin has the hardware, George has the NFL success, and Elliott has the best two season stretch out of the pack. So why bother attempting to rank three incredible running backs? Why not.
My goal here is to breakdown each of these running backs by four key categories from which I will attempt to subdue any factors that could have potentially inflated their stats. These five categories are:
- Running back versus other running backs of that year: how dominant was each running back compared to their peers?
- Running back versus Ohio State offense: what percentage of the total offense was the running back responsible for?
- Running back versus Michigan: self-explanatory.
- Running back legacy: this is where the Heismans and championships live.
All information comes from the always helpful Sports Reference, but unfortunately player game logs aren't kept before the year 2000, so I wasn't able to track how these running backs performed specifically against the entire NCAA or against ranked opponents.
With that, let's get started.
Running back versus other running backs of that year
The above chart demonstrates where the running back in that particular year ranked in the NCAA. Since George and Elliott were full time running backs for just two years, I only included Griffin's two best Heisman winning years to even the playing field. Don't worry, Griffin will get his due later.
The player's actual output for the respective stat is shown in parenthesis. 'N/A' signifies that the running back was outside the top 20 in the country. This is where Sports Reference not keeping box scores before 2000 becomes a real buzz kill.
There are going to be issues in any study that attempts to compare two players 40 years a part. The biggest misconception about Archie Griffin is that his senior year stats were not worthy of a Heisman, most notably his pedestrian four total rushing touchdowns. Why is this a misconception? Because Pete Johnson, Griffin's fullback, led the country with 25 rushing touchdowns. When I spoke with Griffin before, he told me the Ohio State philosophy was simple: Griffin's job was to get the ball inside the ten, then it was Johnson's job to pound the ball in.
With that said, these rankings require a winner and loser, and that winner is Elliott by a hair. While I understand why Griffin only had four rushing touchdowns, J.T Barrett vultured Zeke plenty of times as well. All in all, while Elliott and George are fairly neck and neck in terms of average rushing yards rank (George 6th, Elliott 4th) and average rushing touchdowns rank (George 6th, Elliott 7.5th), George never broke six yards per carry while Elliott did it twice.
Running back versus Ohio State Offense
The above chart shows the running backs total scrimmage yards divided by the Ohio State offenses total scrimmage yards. Basically, what percentage of the total offensive production was the running back responsible for?
What pops out immediately is how insane George's 1995 season was. With 2,344 total yards from scrimmage, George accounted for an unreal 37.67 percent of Ohio State's total offense. While all candidate here had strong performances, George's solid 1994 combined with his electric 1995 give him the nod.
Running Back versus Michigan
For this comparison I included Griffin's first two games against Michigan, as the fact Griffin was able to make the starting lineup as a freshman and sophomore against Michigan is impressive in its own right. Even more impressive? Griffin's 3-0-1 record against the Wolverines. George was able to salvage one win against the Wolverines during the Cooper "era", but his stats were pedestrian enough (those 81 yards were on a whopping 27 carries) to make him a non-threat in this category.
Now for the curious case of Zeke. Yes, Zeke had three more total touchdowns against the Wolverines than Griffin, and yes, Zeke averaged more yards per game (167.5) than Griffin (102.75). With that said, I'm taking Griffin. This was the heart of the 10 year war between coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, and Griffin managed to snatch three wins in four years. Zeke's dominance shouldn't go unheralded, but in a battle between Schembechler and Brady Hoke/year one Jim Harbaugh, I think it's clear which one presented the greater challenge.
Running Back Legacy
What we have above are six categories that I thought summed up the various accomplishments that these running backs should expect to compete for. All team captain and team MVP information comes from buckeyefansonly.com, and the running back had to be a first team AP All-American to earn a yes (sorry Zeke).
Despite Griffin's 1-3 record in the Rose Bowl, this is really a no brainer. Elliott and George obviously had their fair share of success, but Griffin's resume is second to none. Four rose bowl berths, four big ten championships, two time Heisman winner/All-American/Captain.
You might be asking, how did Griffin manage to not win Team MVP in 1975 despite winning the Heisman? The answer was revealed in this excellent ESPN article. As the story goes, Griffin had already won the award in 1973 and 1974, so he asked the rest of his teammates to vote for quarterback Cornelius Greene instead. Greene won, by one vote. Archie's vote.
Sometimes we can be blinded by recent events and we fail to appreciate history or even recognize history in the light it deserves. Eddie George and Ezekiel Elliott are both unbelievable Ohio State running backs who will never be forgotten. But in my opinion, they both fall behind the Ohio State GOAT: Archie Griffin.