Brent Yarina, BTN.com Senior Editor, August 15, 2012
It's been a fast handful of years, and on Aug. 30, BTN will officially celebrate its fifth anniversary. Crazy to think, huh? To celebrate – not to mention kill time before the season kicks off – I?m spotlighting some of the great football careers during our existence. I?ll do it in the mold of ?Big Ten?s Best,? our popular countdown show that returns this fall for another season of ranking the best in Big Ten history. My second list ranks the top five running backs of the last five seasons, aka the BTN era.
Editor?s note: This list only includes players who competed during the 2007-2011 seasons, and it ranks the best careers. As for players who only played one or two seasons during the five-year period (i.e. Mike Hart), their career totals are considered but don?t always carry as much weight as guys who amassed all of their numbers during the era. NFL success and pro potential have no impact.
[BTN.com: Big Ten's top 5 WRs of BTN era]
1. Montee Ball, Wisconsin – Put it this way: Remember all those touchdowns former Wisconsin running back John Clay scored during his career? You should, because there were 41 of them. Well, Ball scored 39 times last season, tying Barry Sanders' single-season record, on his way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist. The senior star has scored multiple touchdowns in 17 of the last 19 games, a ridiculous span that includes SIX four-touchdown performances. Ball's also coming off a season in which he averaged 137.4 rushing yards per game.
BTN era stats: 3,310 yards, 5.8 y/c, 55 TDs; 49 rec., 526 yards, 6 TDs; 2-2, 57 yards, 2 TDs
2. Mike Hart, Michigan – Though much of Hart's damage was done before the 2007 season, his final in Ann Arbor, the Wolverine back compiled one of the better careers in recent Big Ten history. Hart eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in three of his four seasons, the lone exception being an injury-plagued eight-game sophomore season, and finished his career with a school-record 5,040 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns – an average of one score per game.
BTN era stats: 1,419 yards, 5.1 y/c, 14 TDs; 8 rec., 50 yards (2004-07 career stats: 5,040 yards, 5 y/c, 41 TDs; 67 rec., 566 yards, 2 TDs)
3. John Clay, Wisconsin – If it wasn't one thing (weight issues), it was another thing (fumble-itis) that plagued Clay during his Wisconsin career. But the bruising back produced through it all, and that's something no one can argue. Clay averaged 1,137 rushing yards and 13.7 touchdowns in three strong seasons, his finest coming in 2009 (1,517 yards, 18 TDs). While Clay fell out of favor late in his final season (2010), partly due to James White and Montee Ball's emergence, he and his huge frame were as money as it gets near the goal line.
BTN era stats: 3,413 yards, 5.4 y/c, 41 TDs; 11 rec., 72 yards
4. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois – Mendenhall's 2007 season in Champaign was one for the record books. The dual-threat running back totaled 1,999 yards and 19 touchdowns en route to leading Illinois to its first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season. The breakout campaign included a then-school-record 1,681 rushing yards – a record that would be topped by Mikel Leshoure three seasons later – and an incredible 6.4 yards per carry.
BTN era stats: 1,681 yards, 6.4 y/c, 17 TDs; 34 rec., 318 yards, 2 TDs (2005-07 career stats: 2,539 yards, 6.5 y/c, 22 TDs; 59 rec., 564 yards, 5 TDs)
5. Beanie Wells, Ohio State – Blessed with size and speed, Wells inflicted his share of pain and embarrassment on Big Ten foes during his three-year stay in Columbus. Amazingly, seeing as how Wells was behind Antonio Pittman as a freshman and suffered a lingering foot injury that forced him to miss three games as a junior, he only had one-plus season as the everydown back. Wells' 2007 season, one that included 1,609 yards and 15 scores, was one of the biggest reasons Ohio State made the national championship game.
BTN era stats: 2,806 yards, 5.8 y/c, 23 TDs; 13 rec., 68 yards; (2006-08 career stats: 3,382 yards, 5.8 y/c, 30 TDs; 15 rec., 84 yards)
Next five (in alphabetical order of school): Mikel Leshoure, Illinois; Shonn Greene, Iowa; Javon Ringer, Michigan State; Roy Helu, Nebraska; Evan Royster, Penn State.
Who did I miss? Who would you have No. 1? Tweet me your thoughts (@BTNBrentYarina) or leave it as a comment below.