College Football’s Triple Crown Level Records


American Pharoah successfully completed the Triple Crown Saturday, the first time the hallowed feat was accomplished since 1978. Plenty of horses have approached that milestone in the past 37 years, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but the Triple Crown of the Belmont Stakes avoided one after another.

The following college football records have stood anywhere from 71 years, to just a few months. Each holds its own place in the game’s history, worthy of celebration equal to that of the Triple Crown in horse racing.

Barry Sanders, 2,628 Rushing Yards and 37 Touchdowns (Officially)

Barry Sanders’ 1988 season at Oklahoma State is the single greatest individual offensive campaign ever. Period, bar-none, end of discussion. Sanders ran away with the Heisman Trophy by completing his own sort of Triple Crown, leading the nation in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns.

Sanders’ rushing yardage and touchdowns are two marks that, in particular, are as much a part of college football lore as the Triple Crown is horse racing lore.

Wisconsin backs Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon each pursued Sanders’ legendary marks in their respective Heisman-finalist campaigns, 2011 and 2014. Gordon rushed for 2,587 last season with a Herculean 7.5 yard-per-carry average.

Gordon’s total in 2014 suggests that while Sanders’ final rushing total may be a transcendent feat, it isn’t necessarily unattainable, much like the Triple Crown.

Much like his successor approached Sanders’ rushing mark, Ball went for 33 rushing touchdowns in 2011, four shorts. Ball scored 39 touchdowns from scrimmage, actually surpassing Sanders’ mark of 37 — well, Sanders’ official mark.

The caveat to always bear in mind when assessing just how remarkable Barry Sanders was in 1988 is that his 222 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a 62-14 Holiday Bowl rout of Wyoming are not counted in his final tally.

OK, maybe Barry Sanders’ 1988 records really are unattainable.

Cam Newton & Tim Tebow, 30+ Passing and 20+ Rushing Touchdowns

When Tim Tebow won the Heisman in 2007 by becoming the first quarterback ever to score 20-or-more passing and 20-or-more rushing touchdowns, he set a new gold standard in dual-threat playmaking. All buzz heading into the 2007 Heisman presentation was about that 20-20 mark, which Tebow actually extended into 30-20 with three touchdown passes in the Capital One Bowl, as one Twitterer notes:

His achievement was quickly matched by Cam Newton, who just three seasons later, threw 30 passing touchdowns and rushed for 21. The 20-20 Club is an incredible accomplishment on its own; Colin Kaepernick joined Tebow in 2010, the same year Newton gained entry into the ultra-exclusive 30-20 Club.

In an era of potent offensive styles, fueled by outstanding, two-way threats at quarterback, someone could join Newton in the 30-20 Club. But at 51 total touchdowns, it’s worth noting that Newton’s 2010 output would have tied him for the 48th most touchdowns scored by any team in college football.

Al Worley and Gerod Holliman, 14 Interceptions

College football’s record for interceptions in a season is perhaps the closest parallel the game has to the Triple Crown, because the mark was just matched in the most recent campaign.

Louisville safety Gerod Holliman picked off an incredible 14 passes in 2014, matching the 46-year-old mark of Washington’s Al Worley. Holliman’s season garnered the Jim Thorpe Award, ostensibly putting the Louisville star in the same company with another of college football’s legends.

Derrick Thomas, 27 Sacks

Arizona State star Terrell Suggs holds the NCAA’s official record for sacks in a season, recording 22 for the Sun Devils in 2002. However, sacks weren’t officially recorded in 1988, the year Derrick Thomas gobbled up opposing quarterbacks 27 times.

You read that right: Derrick Thomas made 27 sacks in one season. What a time to be a college football fan 1988 was; not only were you seeing the greatest offensive campaign of all-time, but arguably the single best defensive season ever was also afoot.

Suggs’ 22 sacks in 2002 are certainly impressive, and suggest a player can come close to Thomas’ unofficial record. But with 19 this past season, Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha is the closest anyone has come to Thomas recently.

Army, 3.9 Points Allowed Per Game

Offenses get more productive each season, both because of scheme and rules that hinder defenses. Offensive records snap routinely, but the defense that approaches Army’s 3.9-point per game mark, set in an undefeated 1944, isn’t just a Triple Crown-level achievement of team defense: it’s a Holy Grail.

There were defenses that actually allowed fewer than Army’s 35 total points surrendered in 1944 — Sewanee: The University of the South gave up 10 all year in 1899, for example, but the ’44 Black Knights are the pace-setters for post-reform college football.

While that Army defense may seem unapproachable in this year of prolific offenses, two modern teams have come relatively close: In 2011, Alabama held opponents to an average of 8.2 points per game, while the 2008 USC Trojans held teams to 9.0 PPG.

    4 thoughts on “College Football’s Triple Crown Level Records”

    1. Dear Kyle,
      Please check out how many points Alabama gave up per game in 1961 and 1962.
      I think you’ll find it interesting.

    2. Rogue Elephant  Tremendous stuff, thanks for the heads up. 32 points in ’62, 25 in ’61

    3. Rogue Elephant My first memories of football as a kid was when my dad would tell me to watch Leroy Jordan on every play. He said “If he doesn’t make the tackle he will be the next guy in the picture.”
      And it was pretty much true.

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