Power Ranking the 10 Best NCAA Football Video Game Covers Ever

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2013

Power Ranking the 10 Best NCAA Football Video Game Covers Ever

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    Did you know that when Denard Robinson’s image hits the cover of NCAA Football 14 that he’ll become the 25th star to grace the cover of EA's collegiate video game?

    What is now NCAA Football was initially launched under the title Bill Walsh College Football back in 1992, was rebranded College Football USA in 1996 and finally picked up its current title in 1998.

    Of the 25 personalities that have been featured on the cover of the gaming franchise, 10 are Heisman Trophy winners, 14 are standout players from the year before the game’s release and one is a well-known mascot.

    The following slideshow looks back at the 25 NCAA Football video game covers presented by EA and power ranks, for your pleasure, the 10 best of the best.

    It’s important to note that EA didn’t feature an athlete on the cover of its college football game until the 1997 version and that in both 2009 and 2010 it selected a separate athlete for each different gaming console it supported (i.e. PS2, PS3e, PSP, Wii, Xbox360).

10. 1997: Tommie Frazier

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    Starting off at No. 10 we honor the very first cover athlete for the game that would eventually become NCAA Football.

    As we mentioned in our opening slide, the first edition of EA’s college football game was named Bill Walsh College Football (1992 and 1995) leading to the second run of the game which was called College Football USA (1996 and 1997).

    The game was finally rebranded NCAA Football in 1998, and though Florida’s Danny Wuerffel was honored on that cover, Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier is technically the very first cover guy by virtue of being on the 1997 College Football USA game.

    To clarify, neither of the two editions of the Bill Walsh game featured a cover athlete nor did the 1996 version of College Football USA.

    Therefore, Frazier, who played QB for the Cornhuskers from 1992-95 and led Nebraska to national titles in his junior and senior seasons, was the first collegian ever honored with the cover.

    It’s pretty easy to see the difference between this cover and the more recent offerings, making it very clear how far print and marketing technology has come in the short 16-year span between Frazier’s cover and that of, say, RGIII in 2013.

    Either way, we honor history, and a great QB, with the No. 10 slot.



9. 2009: Sparty

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    At No. 9 we commemorate the only non-athlete to ever grace the cover of NCAA Football, Michigan State’s much beloved mascot, Sparty.

    Sparty appeared in the 2009 Wii version of the game and you’ve got to figure that the folks in the department marketing at EA gave the green warrior of football the nod to attract the attention of younger aged Wii gamers.

    Interestingly, Michigan State’s Spartan mascot dates back to 1925 when the university switched gears from calling itself “Aggies” to “Spartans.”

    It’s impossible to leave big-chinned Sparty out of the top 10 because he’s the only foam guy to have ever been awarded the cover.


8. 2010: Brian Johnson

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    Coming via one of the two years where in EA selected a different star for each version of NCAA Football, Utah’s Brian Johnson was honored on the 2010 PS3 version of the game.

    Johnson played QB at Utah from 2004-08 and led the ’08 Utes to a 13-0 record that was capped off with a 31-17 upset shocker over No. 4 ranked Alabama in the BCS Sugar Bowl.

    Frankly, there’s a lot to like about this cover and it’s easy to argue that the No. 8 ranking is actually a bit low.

    First, the visual presentation of the cover itself is stunning, especially the paint-splattered background which includes a Utah celebration complete with a faded “U” flag.

    Next, you’ve got to love the fact that EA opted to honor Johnson over a slew of more media-friendly guys from the 2008-09 season such as Heisman winner Sam Bradford from Oklahoma.

7. 2006: Desmond Howard

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    In a twist that is completely unique in the history of the NCAA Football gaming franchise, EA selected Michigan’s Desmond Howard for its 2006 cover despite the fact that he hadn’t laced it up on the college grid since 1991.

    Yes, Howard won the Heisman in 1991, but still isn’t it interesting that EA chose to pay respect to him 15 years after the fact in 2006?

    This meant that standout guys from the 2004 season like USC’s Matt Leinart (who actually won the Heisman that season), Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson and Cal’s J.J. Arrington, all who would have normally been considered for the ’06 cover, were looked over in favor of Howard.

    Still, and all logic aside, it’s pretty cool that EA broke its own tradition and honored an “older” guy.

    The Howard cover itself is striking not only because of the Heisman pose, but it’s also got an edge for using a neutral-toned background that makes the blue and maize of the Michigan uniform pop out gloriously (whether you like it or not).

    Even though EA paid its respects to former Heisman greats by allowing, via a vote, Barry Sanders to grace the cover with Robert Griffin III in 2013, it would be awesome to see another “old school” player as a solo cover guy in the future.


6. 2005: Larry Fitzgerald

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    For the 2005 edition of NCAA Football EA opted to pay tribute to Pitt WR Larry Fitzgerald who exploded as a sophomore in 2003 with 1,672 yards and 22 TDs on 92 receptions.

    Fitzgerald finished second to Oklahoma’s Jason White in the 2003 Heisman voting but he finished No. 1 in the hunt for the cover of NCAA Football.

    The Fitzgerald cover is a strong No. 6 on our list for several reasons.

    First, you’ve got to like honoring a guy from a non-media loved 8-5 program that narrowly missed winning the Heisman to a guy from a 12-1 super-power team.

    Next, this offering is simply a great cover featuring the highly skilled Fitzgerald actually preparing to catch a pass. 

    With the ball in the air, Fitzgerald’s focus is obvious and alluring and if EA would have featured a bit more of the 2005 version of the Pitt uniform this one could have soared even higher in our sweepstakes.



5. 1999: Charles Woodson

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    Breaking into our top five we go backwards to the second edition of EA’s game after the rebranding to the current NCAA Football label.

    The year was 1999 and the worthy honoree for the cover of college football’s No. 1 video game was Michigan’s multi-tasking CB Charles Woodson.

    Woodson captured Heisman honors in 1997 as a mostly corner but sometimes receiver and return specialist on Michigan’s 12-0 national title team; a squad that managed to squeak out a championship just before the dawning of the BCS era in 1998.

    The cover itself is cool due to the slightly retro use of a real image of a green turf field and the backdrop of a blurry set of grandstands.

    Woodson, the only primarily defensive Heisman winner in history, has got the ball in what is a striking color photo.

    The cover and photo stand out even more when you compare it with the more recent, stylized and artistic renderings of the cover athletes.

    Putting all aesthetics to one side, the Woodson cover rocks it because it pays homage to the defensive Heisman winner and perhaps even more amazingly, the defensive Heisman winner who edged Tennessee QB Peyton Manning for the bronzed honors.




4. 2000: Ricky Williams

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    The 2000 Ricky Williams cover, honoring the 1998 Heisman winner from Texas, is the only cover in NCAA Football history which features the cover athlete in an actual football scene with a supporting cast.

    Indeed, while the ’13 cover features RGIII and Barry Sanders separately, the 2000 cover features Texas’ RB Williams being grabbed by a falling defender from Texas A&M.

    Williams played for the Longhorns from 1995-98 and racked up an insane 2,327 yards and 29 TDs as a senior in ’98 when Texas went 9-3.

    The 1998 season included a 31-27 win in Austin over super-rival Texas A&M, a team which did not have a player with the No. 50 jersey on its roster that year.

    This is significant because it leaves us with the conclusion that the Aggie defender featured on the 2000 cover of NCAA Football is a ghost player, the 12th man out of uniform or just a broad representation of all the A&M defensemen of that era.

    Either way the cover itself hits No. 4 on our list because it highlights one of the great backs in the game along with one of the great rivalries in the history of college football.

    I just wonder if the Aggies like the fact that they’re included on this specific “Texas-centric” edition or not. 

    Regardless, with Ryan Swope losing out to Denard Robinson for honors on the 2014 cover, the Aggies might have to wait until Johnny Manziel finishes at A&M to get their first stand-alone cover appearance.




3. 2013: Robert Griffin III/Barry Sanders

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    All the way up at No. 3 we have the blockbuster cover from 2013 that honored two Heisman winners for the price of one, the 2011 winner Robert Griffin III from Baylor and the 1988 winner Barry Sanders from Oklahoma State.

    Griffin was actually the EA selection for the 2013 cover while Sanders was decided on via a fan vote over Marcus Allen, Doug Flutie, Desmond Howard (who was featured individually on the ’06 cover), Charlie Ward, Andre Ware, Herschel Walker and Eddie George.

    The actual cover in this case is splendid; both guys get well represented as does the Heisman Trophy which links the two together for eternity.

    The reason the package gets a lofty No. 3 ranking in our little contest is that the cover pays tribute not only to one of the newest blockbuster stars in the new edition of the video game itself, it also pays homage to a superstar of the past.

    It’s like a fusion between the 2011 Tim Tebow cover and the 2006 Desmond Howard offering, and it works really, really well.



2. 2012: Mark Ingram

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    Perhaps the most visually striking cover in the history of the NCAA Football gaming franchise, the 2012 front piece featuring Alabama’s Mark Ingram is stunning.

    Yes, Ingram won the Heisman in 2009, and yes, this was the same year that he rushed for 1,678 yards and 17 TDs leading the Tide to a SEC crown and the BCS national championship, but in this case the No. 2 ranking is all about visual wizardry.

    Maybe it’s the blood-like paint splatter behind Ingram, perhaps it’s the outstretched hand with the “A” logo set against the plaid background or possibly it’s the small image of Ingram roaring placed to the left of the bigger picture, but this cover rocks.

    Overall, the presentation has definite “wow” factor that’s difficult to deny even if you’re not an Alabama enthusiast or an advocate of the SEC.




1. 2010: Brian Orakpo

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    Making our way all the way to the top we bestow the honor of the No. 1 NCAA Football cover, ever, to the 2010 tour de force offering featuring Texas LB Brian Orakpo.

    As we’ve already mentioned, in 2009 and 2010 EA opted to award a different athlete the cover of each version of its game so in 2010 Orakpo was featured only on the PS2 version of the game as opposed to all the editions across the board that year.

    Regardless, this is the cover that has it all.

    First, you’ve got what has to be considered the best actual artwork or rendition of a player among the covers we’ve seen so far.

    There is a real measure of emotion in the presentation, you can actually make out the fans in the background and touches like the exploding left shoulder pad are hard not to love.

    But, what sends the Orakpo cover over the top is the fact that it’s the only NCAA Football cover in history (other than the ’09 version with Sparty and a variation of the ’11 offering with Tebow) to feature a player without a football.

    Yes, Brian Orakpo doesn’t have a football in his cover shot because, as a linebacker, he’s the only guy in history to make the front of NCAA Football as a 100 percent defensive player.

    That fact, combined with the beauty of the cover itself, seals the deal on the No. 1 ranking.