February 21, 2018

College Football’s Triple Crown Winners

Say the sports phrase, “Triple Crown” and fans automatically think of horse racing or a hitter in baseball leading his respective league in home runs, RBI and batting average.

When a back has an outstanding season, he will lead the country in rushing and scoring. And if his team needs him to catch a pass out of the backfield or return kicks, he adds value to the team by increasing his overall production.  So when a player compiles statistics in rushing, receiving and return yards, they are totaled and listed under “All-Purpose Yards.”

While there is no official Triple Crown in college football, leading the country in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards in the same season gives the player the unofficial statistics title of being a Triple Crown winner. College football statistics were first compiled—officially—in 1937.  Since that time, only 13 college football players have earned this Triple Crown.  It should be mentioned that just because a player achieves such a rare accomplishment, it does not guarantee a Heisman Trophy or even achieving All-American honors.

It’s only fitting that the first player to accomplish this feat would coincide with the first year of official stats, 1937.  Byron “Whizzer” White, led the 17th ranked—in the AP Poll—Colorado Buffaloes and the nation in rushing yards (1121), scoring (122) and all-purpose yards per game (246.3)—this mark would be the standard for 51 seasons before falling to the 12th player to claim the three-stat titles, Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988.

The last player to win the College Football Triple Crown came from White’s alma mater, Colorado, as Rashaan Salaam captured the title in 1994. The two former CU Buffs winners join a pair of New Mexico State backs as the only sets of winners from the same school. Former New Mexico State backs, Pervis Atkins and Jim Pilot, in 1959 and 1961, respectively, would claim this distinction as well.

After White’s Triple Crown, a span of 14 years would go by before the next player would accomplish this impressive milestone, San Francisco’s Ollie Matson in 1951.  In the next 10 years, four more players would claim the honor, including the first back-to-back winners, Dick Bass (1958) and Atkins.  After Pilot accomplished it in 1961, it would be another 10 seasons before college football would have a player as its next three-stat leader.

In 1971, a player out of the Ivy League would join the list as Cornell’s Ed Marinaro would lead all major college players in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yardage.  He was also the first of three backs on the list to average over 200 yards rushing per game.

Then, starting with Tony Dorsett in 1976 and through the 1994 season, six players earned this rare accomplishment.  In 1977, Texas back Earl Campbell would follow Dorsett and make them only the second set of players to attain the milestone in consecutive seasons.

Next up was Marcus Allen, the lone running back from “Tailback U” (USC) to have a Triple Crown season, in 1981 and Ohio State’s Keith Byars in 1984. After Allen’s and Byars’ accomplishments, college football would have to wait four seasons to see another Triple Crown—but it was well worth the wait.

After playing as a backup for his first two seasons at Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders exploded on the college football scene in 1988; his lone season as the featured back.  Sanders would set the standard in all three categories that year.  These marks have yet to be eclipsed—and more than likely won’t be for some time.  He ran for 2,628 yards—238.9 per game, scored 234 points—21.3 a game and his all-purpose yardage totaled 3,250 yards—averaging 295.5 per game.  Simply an incredible and historic season!

While each player was heavily depended on by their teams, he wasn’t always as noted nationally.  Only nine of the thirteen players would earn All-American laurels and just eight players finished in the top four in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy—five would win college football’s top individual player of the year award.  Furthermore, just over half, seven, would play for a team that would garner a spot in the final AP poll.  Of the seven, just one, Pittsburgh’s Dorsett, in 1976, played for a National Champion.

Salaam’s Triple Crown season came in 1994—the last heading into the 2011 season—becoming the fifth junior to accomplish this rare feat.  Rounding out by classes, the senior class has had six winners and a pair of sophomores made the list, Art Luppino in 1954 and Pilot in 1961.  A freshman has yet to accomplish a milestone season.

Here is a listing of each player and their statistics from their Triple Crown season.

1937 Byron “Whizzer” White, Colorado
Rushing Yards: 1121
All-Purpose Yards: 246.3
Total Points: 122
AA-HT-AP: Y-2-14
1951 Ollie Matson, San Francisco
Rushing Yards: 1556
All-Purpose Yards: 226.3
Total Points: 126
AA-HT-AP: Y-N-17
1954 Art Luppino, Arizona
Rushing Yards: 1359
All-Purpose Yards: 219.3
Total Points: 166
1958 Dick Bass, Pacific
Rushing Yards: 1361
All-Purpose Yards: 187.8
Total Points: 116
1959 Pervis Atkins, New Mexico State
Rushing Yards: 1556
All-Purpose Yards: 180.0
Total Points: 107
1961 Jim Pilot, New Mexico State
Rushing Yards: 1278
All-Purpose Yards: 160.6
Total Points: 138
1971 Ed Marinaro, Cornell
Rushing Yards: 209.0
All-Purpose Yards: 214.7
Points per Game: 16.4
1976 Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh
Rushing Yards: 177.1
All-Purpose Yards: 183.7
Points per Game: 12.2
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-1
1977 Earl Campbell, Texas
Rushing Yards: 158.5
All-Purpose Yards: 168.6
Points per Game: 10.4
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-4
1981 Marcus Allen, USC
Rushing Yards: 212.9
All-Purpose Yards: 232.6
Points per Game: 12.5
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-14
1984 Keith Byars, Ohio State
Rushing Yards: 150.5
All-Purpose Yards: 207.6
Points per Game: 13.1
AA-HT-AP: Y-2-14
1988 Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State
Rushing Yards: 238.9
All-Purpose Yards: 295.5
Points per Game: 21.3
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-11
1994 Rashaan Salaam, Colorado
Rushing Yards: 186.8
All-Purpose Yards: 213.6
Points per Game: 13.1
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-3

AA-Consensus All-America Selection
HT-Rank in Heisman Trophy Balloting
AP-Team’s Final AP Ranking
Y-Yes; N-No; NR-Not Ranked

From 1937-69, highest totals was declared the winner while All-Purpose Yards has always been based on Per Game Average; since 1970 all NCAA statistical leaders.

Tex Noel is the Executive Director of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association.