B/R's Pac-12 All-Conference Team of the 21st Century
The Pac-12 officially has no titles in the national championship era (1998-present) of college football, as USC's BCS championship at the end of the 2004 season was later vacated.
But it hasn't been for lack of individual talent. Led predominantly by USC, Stanford and Oregon, the league has produced an average of 2.5 consensus All-Americans per year for the past two decades, routinely churning out first-round draft picks.
Thus, putting together a 26-man 21st Century All-Conference team for the Pac-12 meant leaving out a whole bunch of collegiate stars.
Heck, at quarterback alone, there were three Heisman winners and a two-time Heisman runner-up to choose from.
However, we feel confident in saying that you could sum up most of the past two decades of Pac-12 football with this roster.
Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:
- The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. This will be reiterated later, but that means the 2000 season does not count.
- Colorado and Utah did not join the Pac-12 until the summer before the 2011 season. Any feats from those schools in the 2001-10 timeframe were not considered.
B/R's All-21st Century Series
The Pick: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Four Pac-12 quarterbacks have appeared on an All-American team in the past two decades: USC's Carson Palmer in 2002, USC's Matt Leinart in both 2004 and 2005, Stanford's Andrew Luck in both 2010 and 2011 and Oregon's Marcus Mariota in 2014.
Palmer and Mariota each won the Heisman in their most noteworthy year. Luck was the Heisman runner-up in each of his two All-American seasons. Leinart, too, has one heck of a Heisman history, winning it in 2004, finishing third in 2005 and finishing sixth in 2003.
The pick has to be Mariota, though.
In three seasons, the Ducks QB threw for 105 touchdowns and 10,796 yards with only 14 interceptions. He had a career passer efficiency rating of 171.8. In all four categories, he had better marks than both Luck and Leinart. The only reason Palmer ended up with more career passing yards (11,818) is because he was with the Trojans for five years.
That's just the arm portion of Mariota's prowess, too. Factor in the 2,237 rushing yards and 29 rushing touchdowns in his career and this becomes even less of a competition.
The Picks: Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona; Reggie Bush, USC
Both Oregon and Stanford have some seriously deserving candidates for one of these two spots.
For the Ducks, both Jonathan Stewart and LaMichael James were named to at least one outlet's All-American team for two separate seasons. Of the two, though, James was way tougher to omit, as he racked up over 5,000 rushing yards and 53 touchdowns in just three seasons. Royce Freeman also had more than 5,000 career rushing yards and 60 touchdowns, albeit over the course of four years. (Washington's Myles Gaskin had similar numbers in his four collegiate years.) And Kenjon Barner was a consensus All-American in 2012.
Fans of the Cardinal are probably even more livid right now, as they had the 2009 Heisman runner-up (Toby Gerhart), the 2015 Heisman runner-up (Christian McCaffrey) and the 2017 Heisman runner-up (Bryce Love), each earning consensus All-American honors for that season. Rest assured that McCaffrey will be making an appearance later on in the list, but Gerhart and Love will have to settle for this honorable mention.
That's because Reggie Bush actually won the Heisman in 2005 and will forever be remembered as one of the most electrifying athletes in college football history. He averaged 222.3 all-purpose yards per game in 2005, and it felt like he was going to score any time he touched the ball.
It's also because Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey was a two-time consensus All-American in 2012 and 2013. Between those two seasons, he rushed for 3,814 yards and 42 touchdowns. He also made 62 receptions for 476 yards and two more scores. Carey led the nation in rushing yards per game in 2012 and ranked second in that category in 2013. Though he didn't fare anywhere near as well in the Heisman vote as most of the guys already mentioned, that's largely due to Arizona's lack of national relevance, not his lack of rushing dominance.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The Picks: WR1 Dwayne Jarrett, USC; WR2 Brandin Cooks, Oregon State; TE Zach Ertz, Stanford
Dwayne Jarrett was the Cris Carter of college football. All he did? Catch touchdowns. He had 41 of them in his three-season career with the Trojans, earning first-team AP All-American honors in both 2005 and 2006. He ended up with 216 receptions for 3,138 yards, impressively thriving even while USC made the transition from Matt Leinart to John David Booty at quarterback.
Plenty of other Trojans are worthy of consideration for the other spot at wide receiver, including Mike Williams, Robert Woods, Steve Smith and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The particularly difficult one to leave on the cutting room floor, though, was Marqise Lee, who had 118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns and 856 kick-return yards while finishing fourth in the 2012 Heisman vote. Had the 2012 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner been able to stay healthy, he might have been an all-time great.
Instead, we're going with the guy who won the Biletnikoff the following year, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks. With an honorable mention to former Beaver Mike Hass and his 3,924 career receiving yards, Cooks' 2013 campaign was just plain silly. He made 128 catches (the fifth-highest single-season mark in the past decade of college football) for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also had 32 carries for 217 yards and two more scores. Oregon State hasn't had a winning record since he left for the NFL after that season.
At tight end, there's no debate. Stanford's Zach Ertz was the league's only tight end named as a first-team AP All-American in at least two decades, securing that honor after making 69 catches for 898 yards and six touchdowns in 2012. He had nearly twice as many catches and nearly twice as many yards as any teammate that season, essentially carrying the passing game for a team that went 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl.
Tackle: Sam Baker, USC; Penei Sewell, Oregon
Guard: David DeCastro, Stanford; Joshua Garnett, Stanford
Center: Alex Mack, California
There have been surprisingly few consensus All-American linemen from the Pac-12 over the years, and—in news that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone—more than half of them were from Stanford. In the first half of the 2010s, it was almost a given that the Cardinal would produce an All-American interior offensive lineman. Chase Beeler did it as a center in 2010, followed by guards David DeCastro in 2011, David Yankey in 2013 and Joshua Garnett in 2015.
Of particular note were DeCastro and Garnett, each of whom was a unanimous All-American and subsequently a first-round draft pick. Garnett even won the 2015 Outland Trophy, which almost always goes to an offensive tackle or defensive tackle. He's the only guard to have won it since Nebraska's Aaron Taylor in 1997.
At center, Alex Mack wasn't a consensus All-American, but he was named to the Pac-12 first team for three consecutive years (2006-08) prior to becoming a first-round draft pick. With Mack leading the way, Cal saw Marshawn Lynch (2006), Justin Forsett (2007) and Jahvid Best (2008) each rush for at least 1,350 yards.
At tackle, USC's Sam Baker was named to at least one All-American team in each year from 2004-07. He wasn't named to the AP first team in any of those years, but he's the only player in the Pac-12 in the past 20 years to earn that honor from at least one outlet in four years, and he's one of only two to do it three times. (USC DB Taylor Mays was the other from 2007-09.)
At the other tackle spot, it's got to be Penei Sewell. The former Duck was a unanimous All-American in 2019 and was certainly expected to do it again in 2020 until the global pandemic happened, and he opted out of the season. But he was a force of nature for his two years of college football.
Defensive End: Terrell Suggs, Arizona State; Dave Ball, UCLA
Tackle: Haloti Ngata, Oregon; Stephen Paea, Oregon State
There were numerous difficult decisions throughout the process of putting this team together. But Terrell Suggs at defensive end? Not a moment's hesitation there. "T-Sizzle" set the college football single-season record with 24 sacks in 2002, and no one has come close to matching him since then.
The other DE spot was a good deal more difficult, in part because we cannot count California's Andre Carter. He was a unanimous All-American in 2000, but the 21st century didn't begin until Jan. 1, 2001. Without the No. 7 overall pick in the 2001 draft an option, let's go with 2003 unanimous All-American Dave Ball, who had more than 30 sacks in his career, 16.5 in that season alone. (Honorable mention to Stanford's Solomon Thomas and Washington State's Hercules Mata'afa.)
At defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata was another fairly obvious choice. The rest of Oregon's defense was nothing special, but he was an excellent lane-stuffer with an uncommon knack for blocking kicks. He had seven such rejections/deflections during his brief stay in Eugene.
A few years later and on the opposing side of college football's "Civil War," Oregon State's Stephen Paea became a star interior defensive lineman. The Beavers' big man had 14 sacks and nine forced fumbles from 2008-10, earning consensus All-American honors for that final season.
The Picks: Anthony Barr, UCLA; Rey Maualuga, USC; Scooby Wright III, Arizona
After spending his first two seasons at UCLA barely seeing the field as an offensive skill position player, Anthony Barr flipped to the opposite side of the line of scrimmage and became an unstoppable wrecking ball. Between his junior and senior seasons at linebacker, Barr racked up 41.5 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks. In his senior year alone, he forced six fumbles and recovered four.
And if you have a problem with either of the other two selections here, take it up with the Heisman voters.
In the past 29 years, there have only been two defensive players from the Pac-12/Pac-10 to finish top 10 in the Heisman vote: USC's Rey Maualuga placed ninth in 2008 and Arizona's Scooby Wright III placed ninth in 2014.
The Trojan of that duo had a monumental pick-six early in that 2008 season in an AP Top 5 showdown with Ohio State. As the senior leader of a program that had won at least 11 games in each of the previous six seasons, there were already plenty of eyes on Maualuga long before that play. But that was the major highlight in the final year of an impressive career.
Wright was more of a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was. In leading Arizona to what was easily its best season since the turn of the century, Wright racked up 164 tackles, 31 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. He won basically every trophy a defensive player can win, including the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Two honorable mentions before we move on: Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha and Cal's Evan Weaver. The former only played linebacker for one year, but he had 19 sacks in that season. (Too bad it was the same year Wright dominated.) The latter significantly helped Cal turn a corner under Justin Wilcox. Weaver had a combined 336 tackles between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, ranking either first or second in the nation in that category both years.
Cornerbacks: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon; Dante Hughes, California
Safeties: Troy Polamalu, USC; Taylor Mays, USC
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is one of the greatest "What if he hadn't suffered that injury?" guys of the past two decades. Over the course of his four years with the Ducks, he had nine interceptions and 39 passes defended. After four consecutive years of holding opponents below 25 points per game, the defense became downright terrible the year after Ekpre-Olomu graduated. He was a consensus All-American in 2014, but an ACL injury suffered before Oregon's College Football Playoff appearance ended up effectively ending his career.
In the other corner spot, Dante Hughes had 13 interceptions and a total of 36 passes defended over his final two seasons (2005-06) at California. He was an All-American in 2006 and was an integral piece of the only Golden Bears teams to finish a season in the AP Top 25 in the past quarter century.
And at safety, it's all USC, which has produced five of the Pac-12's 11 defensive backs to earn first-team AP All-American honors since the beginning of the century.
Troy Polamalu is the no-brainer choice. Roy Williams and Ed Reed understandably edged him out for first-team All-American in 2001, but he got there in 2002 after a college career of flying all over the field doing a little bit of everything.
And as previously mentioned, Taylor Mays was named an All-American by at least one major outlet for three consecutive years, including earning consensus All-American honors in 2008. The high school track star was an excellent "center fielder" in Pete Carroll's defense, starting almost every game at free safety in each of his four seasons. He never recorded a sack and finished his career with five interceptions, but the Trojans rarely allowed big plays on defense because he was always there.
Punter: Tom Hackett, Utah
Kicker: Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State
Punt Returner: Dante Pettis, Washington
All Purpose / Kick Returner: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
The Pac-12 has produced 50 consensus All-Americans in the past 20 years, but Tom Hackett is on the very short list of players to do so twice, booting his way to that honor in both 2014 and 2015. (Incredibly, Utah's Mitch Wishnowsky made it three years in a row for the Utes in 2016.) From 2013-15, Hackett had just under 10,000 punting yards, repeatedly flipping the field for an offense which left much to be desired.
Among kickers, it's hard to argue with Zane Gonzalez's 494 career points for the Sun Devils, good for fifth-place in NCAA history. He was a career 82.8 percent kicker on field goals, but he really zoned in for a 92.0 percent senior season in 2016, earning unanimous All-American honors.
Speaking of NCAA history, Washington's Dante Pettis set the all-time record with nine career punt-return touchdowns. As a senior in 2017, he took one to the house in each of Washington's first three games of the season. Kicking the ball in his direction was simply not a great choice.
And, as previously promised, we found a spot for Christian McCaffrey. The 2015 Heisman runner-up had 3,864 all-purpose yards that year. In the past 12 seasons, only one other player has even reached 3,000, and Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews (3,166 in 2012) was still a far cry from Run CMC. It's still hard to believe he didn't win the Heisman that year.