Bo Jackson was one of the most electrifying athletes college football has ever seen. Every now and then, whatever the sport, a player comes along that redefines how the game is played. For college football, one such player was Vincent “Bo” Jackson.
His strength and speed were the stuff of legends. Bo would make runs that were downright incredible. He would run by you. He would run over you. He would run around you. He would run through you. He would make an 80 yard run look routine. If he got to the corner, and all that was there to stop him was a corner, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
I regret I never had the pleasure of seeing Bo play in person, but I didn’t miss a game when he was on the tube. Bo looked like an adult playing against a team of 7th & 8th graders. It was ridiculous.
Recently I was flipping channels and came across the 1985 Iron Bowl. There was Bo, playing with cracked ribs on his birthday. Frank Broyles enlightened us with that fact (ribs) late into the fourth quarter to spice up the broadcast. But as I watched, I noticed something that I had seen many times before.
Bo Jackson was a man among boys. Literally.
Pick a football season, pre-1990. Watch old game footage…it doesn’t matter which one…and you’ve probably seen the same thing I saw. Perhaps you even thought it.
“Those players look like high school players.”
Compared to today’s college athletes, with technology and training at an all-time high, football players from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s WERE at the level most athletes in elite high school programs are at today.
To say Bo Jackson was ahead of the times in which he played would be an understatement; put him in a time capsule and bring him to 2010, and at 6’1″, 222 lbs. with 4.3 speed (though some fables have him at 3.9) he could start for the Tigers today. But dare I say, he is one of very few players in the pre-1990’s for whom you can make that distinction. You can probably travel deep into the decade of the 90’s and find truckloads of players who weren’t in playing condition in their day for today’s game. But you can’t say that about Bo.
Bo finished his senior year with 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns, leading the Tigers to an 8-4 record while edging Iowa’s Chuck Long in the closest Heisman race ever (at least at that point in history). In four seasons, though he missed a good many games due to injury, Bo finished with a career average of 6.6 yards per carry.
But let me offer you some numbers. In that 1985 Iron Bowl, which of course Bama won on the leg of Van Tiffin, here is the defense Bo was running against (numbers courtesy of RollTide.com). When Bama wanted to stack the line, here’s what they had to throw out on the field:
Curt Jarvis NG 6-2 266
Jon Hand DT 6-6 275
Brent Sowell DT 6-5 256
Cornelius Bennett LB 6-4 215
Wayne Davis LB 6-4 210
Venson Elder LB 6-2 230
Randy Rockwell LB 6-3 189
Joe Godwin LB 6-2 217
This averages to 212 lbs. per LB and 265 lbs. per lineman.
Can you for a minute imagine a 189 lb. linebacker today? And a 256 lb. defensive lineman? In contrast, Alabama’s 2009 defense:
Terrance Cody NG 6-5 365
Lorenzo Washington DT 6-5 290
Brandon Deaderick DT 6-5 287
Rolondo McClain LB 6-4 258
Dont’a Hightower LB 6-4 250
Eryk Anders LB 6-2 227
Courtney Upshaw LB 6-4 247
Nico Johnson LB 6-3 225
That’s an average of 241 lbs. per LB and 314 lbs. per lineman.
Now, enter Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy Award winner in the closest Heisman race since, yes, Vincent Jackson’s victory in 1985.
In two seasons, Ingram is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. In his 2009 Heisman campaign, Ingram finished with 17 rushing touchdowns and three more through the air. He racked up 1,658 rushing yards in ’09, and has 2,386 in his two seasons in Crimson. However, it’s not completely fair to merely compare numbers, since Bo only faced 12 opponents a year in his day, and with the SEC Championship game and an NCAA approved 12th regular season opponent a year, Ingram gets a look at 14.
But look at Ingram’s opposition. And we’ll skip the heavyweights and go with a welterweight in Kentucky:
Corey Peters DT 6-3 295
Ricky Lumpkin DT 6-4 294
Taylor Windham DE 6-4 230
DeQuin Evans DE 6-3 260
Sam Maxwell LB 6-3 248
Micah Johnson LB 6-2 258
Danny Trevathan LB 6-1 220
Ronnie Sneed LB 6-4 230
This averages to 239 lbs. per LB and 270 lbs. per lineman (though Windham’s scrawny 230 lbs. definitely brings the average down).
At 5-10, 215 lbs., this seems more like a fair fight than Bo facing Bama in 1985 outweighing the line backing corp by an average of 10 pounds. That’s not to take anything away from Bo. He could neither help his size nor the lack thereof from those around him.
But in picking on those his own size, Ingram blistered Bama’s opponents in its six wins against top twenty five opponents, going for 941 yards in those games (an average of 156 per game). This included torching the nation’s top two rushing defenses in consecutive outings.
One could also argue that the game has changed dramatically since the 1980’s. Though harder statistically to prove, just a few cursory views of old games versus today’s and it’s clear to see that one speed merchant with the ball in his hands could be the difference in a game in 1985. But today, everybody’s fast. Linebackers have sideline-to-sideline speed that make toss sweeps…an offensive staple in the 1980’s…a busted play from the start. And size? Everybody’s big. Heck, receivers top 200 lbs. today (Bama has five that do, and a sixth just four pounds shy).
Schemes on both sides of the ball are also more complex today, and players have to be more versatile to play in space. In the 1980’s the motion of the play made it much easier to predict where it was going than today. On defense, what you saw was pretty much what you got, which is why the occasional reverse could be devastating.
Remember Bama’s comeback drive in that 1985 game? With no timeouts and literally seconds to play, on their own side of the fifty, they actually ran an Al Bell reverse OFF A TOSS SWEEP that burned Auburn for about 20 yards. Defenses just flat out stunk compared to today’s game. (And yes Abarn fan, we remember the reverse in last year’s Iron Bowl, but an ungodly move by your receiver plus the worst containment mistake of the year by a seasoned DB helped that play work, not the defense being out of position…which is what reverses routinely led to in the 8o’s.)
You take Florida’s offense in 2009 and put them on the field in 1985, and they beat several teams by 100 points. And yes, even Abarn’s current Dipsy-Doo, Trickeroo offense would’ve probably banked them that much needed win at home against the Longhorns in 1983. Players were slower, and slower to react than they have to be today.
But even with sweeps, which somehow worked with Bo in the 8o’s, there wasn’t much trickery, and yet defenses struggled to overcome what they knew was coming. But I give you the 2009 South Carolina game, when McElroy couldn’t throw the ball into the stands. Everybody knew what was coming, and yet Ingram embarrassed the #22 Gamecocks in prime time for 246 yards on only 24 carries. Again, against players his own size.
What makes Ingram so brutal is his yards after contact. Bo displayed the same traits, but against the children he was playing against.
Oh yeah, and Ingram led his team to a National Championship.
Take Mark Ingram back to 1985 and he tops Bo’s numbers in twelve games. Nike develops a campaign called “Ingram Knows Football”. And, in similar fashion to 2009, he wins the Heisman trophy. Again, it’s no knock on Bo. He can’t help that he was way ahead of the times. But against big people with big speed and big schemes to stop him, give the nod to #22, not #34.