In 1988, Barry Sanders produced the greatest individual season in college football history.
Sanders didn’t just break records in 1988, he demolished them. In a season unmatched to this day, he set 34 NCAA records on his way to capturing the Heisman Trophy. Sanders was unstoppable, amassing 3,249 all-purpose yards, and broke Whizzer White’s 50-year-old record for highest all-purpose yards per game average, with 295.5. The speedy Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards and 37 touchdowns, while adding two special teams scores. The NCAA didn’t begin including bowl game stats until 2002, but with 222 yards and five touchdowns in the 1988 Holiday Bowl, Sanders totaled 2,850 rushing yards and 44 TDs.
No player has come close to touching either mark. “It’s obviously the greatest season any individual has had,” said Sanders’ college coach, Pat Jones. “Hell, maybe in any sport.”
In Barry Sanders’ unrivaled season, he averaged 7.6 yards per carry. He had five straight 200-yard games, averaged 237.5 yards per contest, and posted four 300-yard performances. One of the most elusive runners in history, Sanders set an OSU school record for single game rushing yards in Week 3, then broke it twice more during the course of the season. The shifty scatback played in 12 games in 1988. He scored five touchdowns in two of them, and tallied four TDs in four others.
College football has produced some spectacular running backs over the years. Tony Dorsett. Marcus Allen. Hershel Walker. Bo Jackson. “There’s never been anybody like him,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who was also Sanders’ quarterback. “There have been some great backs. But none like him.”
Sanders, who would declare for the NFL Draft following his junior season, had the perfect build for a running back. Standing only 5’8”, he was difficult for defenses to find. Possessing uncanny strength for a man his size, he could bench-press 360 and squat 560. A shifty open-field runner, Sanders was nearly impossible to tackle in space, leaving defenders grasping at air. “He wasn’t big and he wasn’t tall, but he had such an unbelievable change of direction,” said former Oklahoma defensive tackle Scott Evans, who faced Sanders in the rivalry Bedlam Game. “He could change direction in a heartbeat and be right back at full speed again.”
At Wichita North High School, Sanders did not become the starting running back until four games into his senior season. Despite earning All-State honors, he was largely overlooked, receiving scholarship offers from only Emporia State, Tulsa, and Oklahoma State. He chose OSU, where he backed up future hall of famer Thurman Thomas in his first two seasons in Stillwater. Barry Sanders’ only experience was returning punts and kickoffs [he led the nation in yards per kickoff return in 1987], and occasionally spelling Thomas in the backfield.
The Cowboys came into 1988 wondering how they were going to replace Thurman Thomas. A four-year starter, he’d rushed for 4,847 yards and 45 touchdowns, twice finishing in the top ten in Heisman Trophy balloting. “Nobody saw that kind of year coming,” said All-American wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes, who played with both Thomas and Sanders at OSU, of Barry’s junior year. “I know I didn’t.”
In the first game of the 1988 season against Miami of Ohio, Sanders returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, just as he had done one year earlier. He finished the day with 178 yards and two touchdowns. The following week against Texas A&M, Sanders got the ball on a draw play just 72 seconds into the game, then outraced Aggie defenders for a 58-yard score. At the end of the third quarter, Sanders returned a punt for his third touchdown of the game, then sat down for the night as OSU rolled to a 52-15 win.
The Cowboys’ Week 5 opponent was Nebraska, which had not lost to OSU since 1961. Playing at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, the Huskers jumped out to a 42-0 lead before Sanders charged back, scoring four touchdowns and giving the hometown fans a scare before NU sealed a 63-42 victory. It was the most points Nebraska had ever surrendered at home. OSU’s first nationally televised game of the season came against Oklahoma one week later. Barry Sanders entered the Bedlam Game with 1,141 rushing yards over the first five weeks, an NCAA record. After falling behind, 14-0 Sanders led the Cowboys back, scoring a fourth-quarter TD to put OSU up, 28-24. Oklahoma rallied to win, 31-28, but Sanders’ legacy had been cemented.
Against one of the nation’s best defenses, he couldn’t be stopped, rushing for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders rushed for 312, 293, 332, and 222 yards in OSU’s final four games, all blowout victories. “He was just phenomenal. He averaged only three quarters a game,” said Evans. “That’s what’s scary. If he had played full games, he might have rushed for 4,000 yards.”
In his junior season, Barry Sanders easily beat out two quarterbacks – USC’s Rodney Peete and UCLA’s Troy Aikman – for the Heisman Trophy, capturing 78 percent of the first-place votes. At the Heisman dinner in New York City, 1978 winner Earl Campbell asked Sanders to sign a handful of programs he’d collected. After the former Texas All-American left, Sanders turned to Coach Jones in disbelief and said, “Earl Campbell just asked for my autograph.” According to Jones, that’s when the magnitude of the season – and his remarkable performance — hit the humble Sanders.
On this date in 2003, Mr. Sanders was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2014, an ESPN.com poll voted his 1988 season the best individual campaign in college football history. Barry’s older brother, Byron, was a senior running back for Northwestern in 1988, where he piled up 1,062 rushing yards to become only the third NU back in history to gain more than 1,000 yards in a season. Their combined total gave the Sanders brothers the NCAA record for most yards in a season by two siblings.
College football had never seen a season like the one Barry Sanders had in 1988. And it may never again.