Pac-12 Football: 10 Best Players from BCS Era
There will be plenty of time to look ahead as the Pac-12 football season approaches, but we're looking back on the BCS era that came to an end with Florida State's victory over Auburn in the championship game last January.
The Pac-12 certainly didn't stand out over the past decade-and-a-half the way the SEC or Big 12 did, but you could put an all-star squad of the league's best since 1997 up against one from any other conference and feel good about it.
But who would make up that team? Or rather, which 10 players were the very best to play in the Pac-12 over the past 16 years?
We could spend several more paragraphs listing disclaimers and trying to ease the minds of fans whose favorite teams have no representation, but that effort would be meaningless. This is one man's opinion based on a combination of stats, awards, overall level of domination against the opponent and finally, what the player meant to a program.
Our one request is that rather than simply naming a player you feel should be on the list, include who should be replaced and why. Also feel free to consider this a halfhearted apology in advance for leaving off your favorite players.
Click ahead to see our list of the 10 best players from the Pac-12 during the BCS era.
All stats via sports-reference.com. Current players not included, though we should point out that Marcus Mariota could make an excellent case even after just two years. Because this list is limited to just 10, a number of greats were left off the list, such as: Aaron Rodgers, Troy Polamalu, Sam Baker, David Yankey, Marshawn Lynch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown and many, many more. NFL production does not factor in, which is a major reason for Polamalu's exclusion, though the decision was not an easy one.
10) RB Maurice Jones-Drew, UCLA
The Pac-12 has featured many great running backs over the years, so deciding who deserves the final slot on our list wasn't easy. Ultimately, it was UCLA great Maurice Jones-Drew who made the cut due to his outstanding versatility and toughness despite a significant lack of size.
You're talking about a kid who is roughly 5'7" and yet still managed to dominate the Pac-12 for three straight years. His first season resulted in 686 total yards and five scores. As a sophomore he had 1,269 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns, and in his final year as a Bruin he had 1,367 total yards and 17 touchdowns.
When you see a player listed at 5'7" your initial thought is likely "well how fast is he?" Jones-Drew was indeed a fast running back, but he was defined by his toughness and he'll end up as one of the best pound-for-pound backs ever to play the game.
His final attribute that landed him on this list was his ability to be a playmaker by catching the ball out of the backfield. The numbers aren't mind-blowing compared with some of the crazy stats put up by backs in recent years, but if there was a running back draft that included Pac-12 players from the past 16 seasons, Jones-Drew wouldn't be waiting long to hear his name called.
9) CB Antoine Cason, Arizona
The No. 9 spot on our list might contain a name surprising to some, but it's one that is nonetheless worthy: Arizona cornerback Antoine Cason.
One of the best lockdown corners to play during the BCS era, Cason simply made play after play, year after year, and he didn't allow opposing receivers to do what they intended to do. As a freshman in 2004, Cason burst onto the scene with four interceptions.
He added three more in both his sophomore and junior seasons and another five as a senior, giving him 15 for his career. That's even more impressive when you consider the fact that quarterbacks tend to shy away from ball-hawking corners, yet Cason still dominated on both the field and in the box score.
His most famous play may be the pick-six of Oregon's Brady Leaf that helped seal the Wildcats' upset of the No. 2-ranked Ducks in 2007. Cason was selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft after being named a consensus All-American and winning the Jim Thorpe Award as a senior.
8) RB Steven Jackson, Oregon State
You don't often hear Oregon State associated with a tradition of great running backs, but up until Jacquizz Rodgers packed his bags for the Atlanta Falcons, the Beavers were on a heater with their backfield play. It started with Ken Simonton in 2000 but continued along with the next player on our list: Steven Jackson.
Given Jackson's stellar NFL career you might be inclined to think his pro production factored in here, if only a little, but you'd be wrong. His college statistics speak for themselves, as the bully of a back piled up 3,625 total yards in just three years.
He dazzled most in his junior season as he rushed for 1,545 yards, had 470 yards receiving and reached paydirt 22 times.
Jackson is one of the more punishing backs in the game at 6'2" and nearly 240 pounds, and for three years he was a nightmare out of the backfield for opposing Pac-12 defenses.
7) QB Carson Palmer, USC
Carson Palmer will forever be known as the quarterback who took USC from a place of mediocrity to the college football mountaintop. If you don't understand how important he was to the Trojans' football program, here's a quiz for you:
Who was the starting signal-caller before Palmer?
If you're like me, you had to look it up.
Can you name the starters since Palmer?
Chances are you rattled off the names Matt Leinart, John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley and Cody Kessler rather quickly. Palmer made people pay attention to USC again.
What Palmer did is turn around the program and collect a Heisman Trophy in the process. His numbers were decent until his senior season when he tossed 33 touchdowns to just 10 picks and had almost 4,000 yards through the air.
Some might have Palmer a little higher, but his entire body of work isn't quite what it needs to be to break into the top five. Still, the USC great became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft and will forever be known as one of the Pac-12's best quarterbacks.
6) DT Haloti Ngata, Oregon
How important are statistics when it comes to ranking the 10 best Pac-12 players of the BCS era? That answer will determine where you have Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, as those relying solely on numbers might leave him off entirely.
To those who saw him play even once, however, that idea sounds foolish. Ngata tallied only three sacks and nine tackles for a loss in his final season at Oregon and yet was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year as well as a consensus All-American.
If you didn't watch Pac-10 football until the late '00s, seeing an interior defensive lineman who played for the Ducks crack the list might look downright comical. But there was nothing funny about the 6'4" 340-pound Ngata who simply dominated opposing offensive lines during his time as a Duck.
The numbers will tell you a certain story, but the way Ngata clogged up space and held entire gameplans in check tells another. He's one of the best defensive players in league history, and there's no debate about whether he belongs on the list.
5) RB LaMichael James, Oregon
Running back LaMichael James built a solid case for the best Oregon player of all time. Though we'll reiterate that numbers alone do not make up one's resume, they certainly help and James' are spectacular.
In the wake of LeGarrette Blount's suspension in 2009, James had his name called and he answered with 1,546 rushing yards and 14 scores. The next season he won the Doak Walker Award and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting by rushing for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns. He tacked on 1,805 yards and 18 scores in his final season as the Ducks won the Rose Bowl for the first time in 95 years.
In his three years at Oregon, James appeared in two Rose Bowls and a national title game. Had he stayed for a fourth season, there's a great chance we'd be talking about the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing yards.
He was fast, elusive, tough and simply made more head-shaking plays each game than most players hope for in a lifetime. Though his NFL career hasn't panned out thus far, James is still one of the five best Pac-12 players from the BCS era.
4) QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
It's a credit to how great Andrew Luck really was that half the folks reading this right now probably think he's too low on the countdown. He might be.
Either way, Andrew Luck is one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play college football, and he turned around a Stanford program previously in shambles. After taking over in 2009, Luck went on to have a spectacular three-year career.
Ironically, his one downfall was failing to beat the Oregon Ducks in 2010 or 2011, both years in which he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. After a solid redshirt freshman season in which Luck threw for over 2,500 yards, the big-armed signal-caller topped 30 touchdowns, 3,300 yards and a 70 percent completion rate in each of his next two seasons.
This all occurred within a Stanford offense that likes to pound it up the middle and run the clock, too. Luck was one of those rare players who just made difficult plays look easy and turned so-so plays into water-cooler talk on Monday mornings.
3) RB Reggie Bush, USC
In short: Reggie Bush was the most electrifying college football player of the BCS era and right up there with the best ever. It may sound outlandish, but you'd be hard-pressed to find much disagreement from those who saw him play.
It's true that his career is now marred by NCAA controversy and a Heisman Trophy that no longer belongs to him, but that doesn't change what happened on the field.
Like several other players on this list, Bush's numbers aren't the best ever, but they don't tell the whole tale, either. He finished the 2005 season with 2,218 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns. One of the highlights came against Fresno State when Bush racked up a mind-boggling 513 all-purpose yards (which includes kick returns).
As mentioned, he ended up winning the Heisman Trophy that year as USC lost a thriller to Texas in the national championship. But Bush's highlight reel may never be topped. Every time he touched the ball, you felt something special could happen. Much of the time it did.
2) QB Matt Leinart, USC
If Reggie Bush was the "wow" in USC's incredible teams from 2003-05, quarterback Matt Leinart was the steady leader who never had a bad game. His consistency is quite stunning actually.
In his first year as a starter, Leinart threw for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns. In year two it was 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns. In his final season at the helm, he had 3,815 yards to go along with 28 scores. When you compare those 99 touchdown passes to just 23 total interceptions, it speaks volumes about how special Leinart really was.
He was Kellen Moore with a stronger arm, and not just because he threw it left-handed. He was just one of those quarterbacks you could always count on to make the right throw and put it on the numbers every time.
In USC's national championship victory over Oklahoma, Leinart threw for 332 yards and five scores without a pick. He is without a doubt one of the best quarterbacks ever to play college football, and certainly the best Pac-12 signal-caller during the BCS era.
1) DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State
Terrell Suggs might top this list for his 2002 season alone, which ranks right up there with the greatest in college football history. But let's backtrack for just a moment.
Folks knew Suggs was special when he was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and was placed on the First-Team All-American freshmen squad. He backed up his strong start with another great season in 2001. But what happened in his final year with the Sun Devils is the stuff of legend.
Suggs forced six fumbles all by himself. Don't laugh, we're just getting started. He had a mind-blowing 31.5 tackles for loss to go along with an NCAA-record 24 sacks. For comparison, UCLA's Anthony Barr had a great year in 2013 and had 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.
In addition to being named a unanimous First-Team All-American, Suggs also won six individual awards, including the Lombardi Award. Steve Emtman and Husky fans may beg to differ, but Suggs was the most dominant defensive player in the history of the conference, and thus he lands at No. 1.