While baseball holds its numbers more sacred than football does, there are still some gridiron milestones that are iconic. And a 2,000-yard rushing season is one of those milestones.
Once thought to be unachievable, the 2K milestone was first cracked under the legs of USC running back Marcus Allen in 1981, who rushed for 2,342 yards and left a slew of NCAA records in his wake.
"There were indications that it could happen," said John Jackson Sr., Allen's offensive coordinator and running backs coach at the time. "Like the fact that he had run for more than 1,500 yards the season before. If he improved his ability -- with the ability of that team -- that was a very strong football team -- there was no question that he could be a guy to break 2,000 yards."
"College Football Live" has named Allen's 1981 campaign the second-greatest single season in the past 50 years of college football. To go with his 2,342 yards, Allen also scored 22 touchdowns, had an average of 5.6 yards per carry and led the team in receptions with 34. (*Note: Allen also rushed for 85 yards in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State, giving him a total 2,427, though the NCAA did not factor in bowl game stats at the time.)
"Marcus was a very unique player," Jackson said. "He was a guy who had great skill running the ball, but he also had great blocking skills which carried over from when he was a fullback and he was also a great pass-catcher. I think his multiple abilities is what people should remember."
Among his 14 records that year:
Most yards in a single season (2,342)
Most 200-yard games in a career (11)
Most 200-yard games in a season (8)
Most consecutive 200-yard games (5)
His single-season rushing mark still holds as one of the best rushing years in NCAA history -- ranking third all-time. Since he set the standard in '81, 13 other players have since broken through the 2,000-yard barrier, including Barry Sanders who reached 2,628 in 1988.
A quarterback at Lincoln High School in San Diego, Allen was recruited as a defensive back. But head coach John Robinson also wanted someone who could play some tailback if needed. Allen was transitioned to fullback, where he helped Charles White win the Heisman.
"He was our third-string tailback," said Jackson, with a laugh.
Two years later, Allen won the Heisman in 1981, to go along with his conference player of the year honors, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award. After the '81 season, Allen was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL.
"He was a guy who put in the work," Jackson said. "You could see it in the weight room. Back then we couldn't have practices in the offseason or anything like that. But Marcus was always working at improving his skills, as he did throughout his pro career. The offseason was a time for him to improve himself and he did and worked really hard at it. He was a great practice player and worked at improving himself constantly."
The '81 season wasn't without its dramatics for the Trojans as a team, either. There was Fred Cornwell's last-minute touchdown catch from John Mazur to lift the Trojans over Oklahoma, and George Achica blocking Norm Johnson's 46-yard field goal attempt on the final play to preserve a 22-21 win over UCLA. Ultimately, USC was 9-3 that season, finishing 14th in the AP poll.
But it's the records that Allen set and the trail he blazed that makes his 1981 season one of the greatest in college football history.