Fifty years ago, the NCAA tied up a loose end. Having already ruled that college freshmen in other sports (and at other levels) would be eligible for varsity ball, it declared that the same rules would apply in major college football and basketball. In an effort to cut costs, it added an extra layer of lore to already lore-rich sports.
“It is not certain that all of the well known football and basketball powers will use players coaches may consider too inexperienced,” The New York Times reported in January 1972. “A recent poll of major college football coaches indicated they were 2 to 1 against using freshmen on varsity teams. … However, the N.C.A.A. members who passed this ruling were faculty athletic advisers, those members of college administrations concerned with saving money. Their feeling is that by eliminating freshman teams they will save money.”
Did this change cause a massive ripple? Not necessarily. College football wasn’t suddenly dominated by 18-year-olds. But without this change, the legend of college basketball Hall of Famer Quinn Buckner — who started for both the basketball and football teams as a true freshman at Indiana in 1972-73 — would have become less rich. Tony Dorsett wouldn’t have become the best running back in the country the moment he set foot on Pitt’s campus. Georgia wouldn’t have ridden Herschel Walker to the 1980 national title. And we would not have been exposed to quite as much greatness from some of the most incredible stars the sport has seen in the past half-century.
To commemorate the change, let’s make a list! Here are the 50 best seasons by true freshmen in major college football over the past 50 years. Some went on to illustrious careers at both the college and pro levels; others maxed out early. Let’s celebrate them all.
50. LB/RB Myles Jack, UCLA (2013)
A three-star recruit from Washington, Jack not only found enough playing time to finish fifth on the Bruins in tackles (76) and third in tackles for loss (seven) as a first-year star, he also ranked second in rushing touchdowns (seven). He had five tackles, 59 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a 41-31 win over Washington. That game alone might have gotten him on the list.
49. OL Reggie Green, Florida (1992)
Former NFL head coach Dick Vermeil, working for ABC as a TV analyst, called Green the “best freshman tackle I have ever seen in college football” during a 1992 broadcast. He was a rock, capable of shutting down Alabama’s all-world end Eric Curry in the SEC championship game. By 1993, he was All-SEC, but unfortunately injuries slowed him down from there.