Numbers don’t lie: Alabama RB Derrick Henry’s 2015 season better than Herschel Walker’s, Bo Jackson’s best
Two SEC rushing legends walk into a bar …
Actually, forget about the joke. Auburn’s Bo Jackson and UGA’s Herschel Walker set the bar for what every running back that came after them strives to reach. Both were Heisman Trophy winners, and both consensus All-Americans at least twice (Walker was on the list three times).
Walker and Jackson were also two of the top four running backs sitting atop the single-season yardage list in the SEC. Walker’s 1,891 rushing yards in 1981 was the best season ever for a conference rusher. Jackson (1,786 yards, 1985) sat in fourth place on the all-time list. Each was lowered a rung this season, however, by Alabama running back Derrick Henry.
In Saturday’s SEC championship game, Henry rushed for 189 yards on 44 carries. During the third quarter, Alabama’s Heisman hopeful zoomed past the 95 yards he needed to become the all-time SEC single-season rushing leader.
Henry finished the game with a season total of 1,986 yards — believe it or not, 95 more than Walker’s total from 34 years ago. Henry doubled the amount he needed to steal the record.
He may have stolen more than the record from Walker. Henry’s 2015 season has placed him in the same conversation with the best running backs ever to churn yardage in the SEC. In fact, scroll up and add Henry’s name to the joke I started earlier.
Henry just provided college football fans everywhere with the greatest rushing season in SEC history, better than Walker’s and better than Jackson’s too. The numbers do not lie.
The math isn’t easy, however. Because the three rushers didn’t play the same number of games, we can’t compare apples to apples. And we also have to skirt the all-too-famous line of comparing athletes from different eras. But just because the math looks far too similar to college calculus (which most of us avoided like the plague) and taboos tell us defenses were different in the ’80s compared to today, as were offensive schemes and even the athletes themselves, we’re not backing down from this challenge.
Henry’s best season — this season — was miles better than Walker’s best (1982) and Jackson’s best (1985). It’s not really even close.
The Regular Season (kind of)
To make things as fair as possible, we’re going to let Walker use his numbers from UGA’s 27-23 Sugar Bowl loss to Penn State that season, and we’re allowing Jackson’s stats from Auburn’s 36-16 loss to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Walker gained 103 yards and scored a touchdown in that game after carrying the football 28 times. Jackson tallied 129 yards on 31 carries.
In addition to giving each of the 1980s backs their bowl games, we’re not going to factor Henry’s SEC championship game from Saturday.
That gives each back 12 games, and us some common ground.
Jackson led the trio with 1,915 yards and also paced the group at 6.2 yards per carry. Walker was second at 1,855 yards but third in average (5.1 per carry). Henry landed at 1,797 yards and put up a 6.1 yards per carry average.
Where Henry really socked it to the legends was with his 22 touchdown runs. Jackson had just 18, and Walker only 17.
- Derrick Henry: 12 games (149.8 yards/game), 295 attempts, 1,797 yards (6.1 average), 22 TD
- Bo Jackson: 12 games (159.6 yards/game), 309 attempts, 1,915 yards (6.2 average), 18 TD
- Herschel Walker: 12 games (154.6 yards/game), 363 attempts, 1,855 yards (5.1 average), 17 TD
Versus SEC Opponents
Here’s where the comparisons start to look a little like Boolean algebra. We’re going to focus on averages now.
Henry led the way (mostly because he played against eight conference foes instead of seven (Walker) and six (Jackson). Henry outpaced Walker by 207 yards and Jackson by 634. Henry’s average (5.9) was also superior to Jackson’s (5.4) and Walker’s (5.3).
The current Alabama star also had 13 rushing touchdowns, two more than Walker and five extra than Jackson.
- Derrick Henry: 8 games (179.3 yards/game), 242 attempts, 1,434 yards (5.9 average), 13 TD
- Bo Jackson: 6 games (133.3 yards/game), 149 attempts, 800 yards (5.4 average), 8 TD
- Herschel Walker: 7 games (175.3 yards/game), 233 attempts, 1,227 yards (5.3 average), 11 TD
Versus Ranked Opponents
When an athlete faces his toughest challenges, that’s when he’s supposed to rise up and perform. Henry did exactly that when playing against ranked opponents. And his efforts were far superior to Jackson’s or Walker’s.
When comparing their best seasons, Henry was far and away the better big-game performer.
Henry played six ranked teams in 2015 (not counting the SEC championship game). He scored 12 touchdowns (more than twice the other two) and averaged just fewer than seven yards per carry. In Jackson’s four games versus ranked opponents, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry; Walker brought up the rear at 4.3 yards per carry.
Walker only faced three ranked teams and had a stinker of an outing (20 yards on 11 carries) against No. 8 Clemson.
- Derrick Henry: 6 games (178.7 yards/game), 154 attempts, 1,072 yards (7.0 average), 12 TD
- Bo Jackson: 4 games (118.5 yards/game), 96 attempts, 474 yards (4.9 average), 5 TD
- Herschel Walker: 3 games (100 yards/game), 70 attempts, 300 yards (4.3 average), 3 TD
Best and Worst
One of the more impressive aspects of Henry’s 2015 season was that at his best he was Heisman-like (and that might not be enough of a compliment). At his worst, he was still dangerous.
Both Walker and Jackson excelled in their great games, but neither were the total package when they put forth down performances.
Each running back’s best three and worst three outings of the season were compared. Jackson actually gained the most yards in his three best, followed by Henry and Walker. He also scored one more touchdown that the others.
In their worst three games (statistically speaking), Henry still scored four touchdowns, two more than Walker and four more than Jackson, who failed to score in his three worst games. Walker still had a slight advantage in yardage over Henry and Jackson, but the way Henry was able to score on his worst days was extremely impressive.
THREE BEST (attempts/yards/TDs)
- Derrick Henry: 46/271/1 (@ AUB), 32/236/2 (@ #9 A&M), 38/210/3 (vs. #2 LSU)
- Bo Jackson: 23/290/4 (vs. SW LA), 32/242/1 (@ GT), 38/240/2 (vs. MISS)
- Herschel Walker: 35/219/3 (vs. FLA), 33/219/2 (vs. MEM), 39/215/1 (@ MSU)
THREE WORST (attempts/yards/TDs)
- Derrick Henry: 13/52/1 (vs. ULM), 9/68/2 (vs. CH SOU), 27/95/1 (vs. ARK)
- Bo Jackson: 16/48/0 (vs. FLA), 14/73/0 (vs. ECU), 17/80/0 (@ TENN)
- Herschel Walker: 11/20/0 (@ #11 CLEM), 28/103/1 (vs. #2 PSU), 31/124/1 (@ BYU)
This effort was not intended to take anything away from Walker and Jackson (that’s probably not even possible). It was more so a way to examine just how powerful a season Henry had for the Crimson Tide in 2015.
Henry won’t ever be compared to Walker and Jackson based on their career numbers. Henry wasn’t the featured back for as long partly based on Alabama’s keen recruiting — more college-level math that we’re shying away from. But when arguments erupt around the South about the best running backs of the conference (and this debate will rage on for decades to come), remember that Henry’s name has to be mentioned as the greatest single-season running back the SEC’s ever seen.
SEC Country reporter Alex Martin Smith contributed reporting to this article.