More than a month into this quarantine, the sports world has been left to effectively turn back the clock. Old classics, legendary players, and unforgettable moments have each taken their turns at saturating America’s sports taste. With that being said, ESPN’s Stats and Info Department recently came out with a “Position U” piece. It details which schools are in fact the best at cranking out talent by position. The Wisconsin Badgers as you’d guess, are high up on the list for the running backs position. Slated second behind Alabama, naturally Bucky has loads of high caliber names that fill out their list. Listed for the Badgers is three highly touted backs of the last two plus decades. Namely Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, and Melvin Gordon.
Maybe more notably is the fact that so many great running backs that came through Camp Randall were not on this list. Yes Dayne, Ball, and Gordon are unquestionably great. However, are they the Wisconsin running backs GOAT’s? Ultimately, that lead us to doing some thinking.
Who is the best Badger running back of all time?
This question does not have a perfect answer. There’s a plethora of Badger backs who can claim a piece of the throne.
I’d argue that rather than just one individual spot atop the list, you could divide the list into three tiers, for example bronze, silver, and gold. These tiers would honor the skills of each player, but accurately categorize those who are good enough to make the list. This article will aim to exactly that. By creating a Bronze, Silver, and Gold division, we can more accurately assess who truly are the GOAT’s of “Running Back U”, rather than identifying one sole individual. These categories will take only performance at the collegiate level, with no accolades from the NFL included in the decision making.
PJ Hill (2006-2008): Seventh all time in yards and touchdowns, Hill burst onto the scene as a freshman winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Consistency was key for Hill, as he never had less than 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns in a season. However, what keeps him from being higher on this list is that he peaked his freshman year. Compared to others on this list, he never truly became elite.
Anthony Davis (2001-2004): The stats are undeniable. Davis is currently tied for seventh all time in touchdowns, and fifth all time in rushing yards. This is in-spite of an injury riddled last two seasons in Madison. Had he stayed healthy, Davis would certainly be top three in yards, and at least top five in touchdowns. Unfortunately, these injuries prevent him from being finishing higher on the podium.
James White (2010-2013): White had the unfortunate luck of always playing second fiddle. In a crowded backfield since he arrived, White was always seen as the “change up” option to Gordon, Ball, and John Clay. At the same time, “Sweet Feet” White piled up stats every year. Receiving 200 carries only once, White finds himself still sixth all time in rushing yards and fourth all time in touchdowns. On top of that, he was also a major player in the passing attack finishing with 73 receptions in his career.
Montee Ball (2009-2012): This is where things begin to get dicey. Ball, a two time All American, had the one of the greatest seasons of all time by any running back ever. In that season in 2011, he accounted for over 2,200 total yards, and 39 touchdowns, 33 of which were rushing. His story is incredible. Climbing the depth chart in 2010, to becoming the featured star in 2011, and then finishing off with an incredible senior season. Ball still holds the all time mark for rushing touchdowns and the single season record. The only thing preventing him from being in the Gold Division is the sheer amount of outstanding running backs that have come through the program.
Alan Ameche (1951-1954): This will also anger a lot of people. Technically classified as a fullback, Ameche began the tradition of great Badger backs. The first Heisman Trophy winner for the University of Wisconsin. Ameche was a three time First Team All American and First Team All Ten Selection. Legendary performances in the 1953 season including the Rose Bowl cemented his name into Wisconsin football folklore. Why is he not in the Gold Division? The emergence of someone Badger fans might’ve heard of..
Jonathon Taylor (2017-2020): The newest member of this list, Taylor can lay a claim that he is the GOAT of all Badger running backs. In just three years, he amassed more than 6,000 yards, eclipsing the 2,000 yard mark in two of those three seasons. He sits second all time in rushing yards, and has three of the top six spots for yards in a single season. Oh, he’s also third all time in touchdowns. Again this is just three seasons. If he had decided to comeback for a final season, he could have possibly held every statistical career record for a running back in program history. On top of that, his conference and national accolades include:
2x Doak Walker Award Winner
2x Unanimous First Team All American
Big Ten Freshman of the Year
AP Big Ten Newcomer of the Year
3x First Team All Big Ten
Considering the amount of talent around the country during this era of college football, this is unprecedented. We may never see someone like Jonathon Taylor ever again.
Melvin Gordon (2011-2014): Gordon is the gold standard for explosiveness that most Wisconsin backs normally lack. Heck, he literally exploded onto the scene in the 2012 Big Ten Championship game. Some might be questioning why he’s in the Gold Division and Ball is in the Silver. It’s tough because he really only had two elite seasons in Madison. However, those two seasons bring him top four all time in yards and touchdowns. On top of that, he holds both records for rushing yards in a single season and game, and is tied atop the list for touchdowns in a single game. Oh, and he averaged just under eight yards per carry his final two years. In his final season in Madison, Gordon racked up about every award and accolade you could receive outside of the Heisman.
By the time he left campus, Gordon held ELEVEN(!!!) Wisconsin or Big Ten related records.
Ron Dayne (1996-1999): In the least surprising move, Dayne is the OG of the Gold Division. His best two seasons came in his first and his last, culminating with him winning the Heisman Trophy his senior year. That senior season is still the greatest individual season of all time for a Wisconsin player in terms of accolades.
In 1999, Dayne collected ten different awards, most notably, the Heisman Trophy, Doak Walker Award, Walter Camp Award, Maxwell Award, Jim Brown Award, and AP/Big Ten Player of the Year. To say the least, that season alone justifies his standing in the Gold Division. In total, Dayne still holds the program record for career rushing yardage, is second all time in touchdowns, and has two of the top four single season rushing totals. There are an infinite amount of reasons why Dayne is in the top tier of GOAT’s for Wisconsin running backs. These were just a few of them.