B/R's American/Big East All-Conference College Football Team of 21st Century
Neither the Big East nor the American Athletic Conference has produced a Heisman winner since Miami (Florida) QB Gino Torretta in 1992, but those leagues have churned out almost a full starting roster's worth of consensus/unanimous All-Americans thus far in the 21st century.
Though the Big East technically did not become the AAC during the summer of 2013, that's when the former ended and the latter began with six Big East programs (Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida and Temple) joining the AAC. As such, we are viewing those two conferences as one combined entity for All-21st Century purposes.
And it's a good thing, because the vast majority of players on this All-21st Century team played in the Big East during the 2001-09 window. Counting both conferences certainly made it easier to find household names.
Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:
- Only the seasons in which a program was part of the Big East or AAC count for the players on that team. For example, Miami (Florida) was in the Big East for 2001-03. Players who dominated for those Miami teams are included. Any contributions from Hurricanes in the 2004-present timeframe do not count.
- The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
B/R's All-21st Century Series
The Pick: Pat White, West Virginia
I wrestled with this decision for longer than I care to admit.
At the beginning of the century, Ken Dorsey was the quarterback for an almost unbeatable Miami juggernaut. He placed top-five in the Heisman vote in both 2001 and 2002. But he had a sub-60 percent completion rate in each season, and he was no rushing threat whatsoever. He was to the Hurricanes what Trent Dilfer was to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. There will be other players from that Miami squad on this list, but he wasn't the reason this was a tough decision.
Rather, this was a difficult toss-up between West Virginia's Pat White and UCF's McKenzie Milton.
Each quarterback was named offensive player of the year in his conference twice (White in 2006 and 2007; Milton in 2017 and 2018). White finished in the 10 in the Heisman vote in 2007, while Milton did it during both of those seasons. Each was also an excellent dual-threat option for a team that won a ton of games. The Mountaineers had a record of 33-5 in White's first three seasons on the field; the Knights won 23 consecutive games started by Milton.
But White took "dual threat" to a whole different level.
He's one of just six quarterbacks in the past two decades to amass at least 4,000 passing yards, 4,000 rushing yards, 40 passing touchdowns and 40 rushing touchdowns. Bump up each of those minimums to 4,400, 4,400, 44 and 44, respectively, and White was the only one to hit all of those marks.
The Picks: Ray Rice, Rutgers; Darrell Henderson, Memphis
Let's begin the running backs section with two extremely honorable mentions: West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Miami's Willis McGahee.
The latter had one of the most dominant seasons in recent history, rushing for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns for the 2002 Hurricanes. He was only the starting running back for that one season, and it ended with a gruesome knee injury in the national championship loss to Ohio State. However, he was so good for that one year that he still ended up getting drafted in the first round.
And considering Slaton had to split carries with aforementioned WVU QB Pat White, he put up some remarkable numbers in his three seasons with the Mountaineers. Slaton had at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns in each year from 2005-07, carrying West Virginia to 11 wins each year.
Ray Rice put Rutgers on the map for the first time in decades, though. His freshman year (2005), the Scarlet Knights played in a bowl game for the first time in 27 years. The following year, he rushed for 1,794 yards and 20 touchdowns while leading Rutgers to just its second season with 10 or more wins in school history. For an encore, he rushed for 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2007.
And what Darrell Henderson did at Memphis was just plain ridiculous. In the past 21 years, there have been just six instances of a player rushing for at least 1,100 yards while averaging at least 8.8 yards per carry. Henderson did so in both 2017 and 2018. In the latter season, he went for 1,909 yards and 22 touchdowns. The man placed 10th in the Heisman vote that year despite playing for an 8-6 team from the AAC.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The Picks: WR1 Larry Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh; WR2 Anthony Miller, Memphis; TE Kellen Winslow II, Miami (Florida)
When Alabama's DeVonta Smith won the Heisman this past season, he became the first wide receiver to do so since Desmond Howard in 1991. But Larry Fitzgerald came awfully close in 2003, placing runner-up to Oklahoma QB Jason White.
Fitz racked up 92 receptions for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. In 10 of the first 11 games of that season, he made at least six catches for 100 yards and a score. This despite having Rod Rutherford throwing passes, Brandon Miree and Jawan Walker splitting carries and Princell Brockenbrough lined up on the opposite side of the field as the No. 2 WR. Of that quartet, Miree was the only one to play in the NFL with 57 career yards from scrimmage, and yet Fitzgerald couldn't be stopped.
Despite only playing two seasons, Fitzgerald's 34 receiving touchdowns were the most in Big East history, and by a considerable margin.
Then there's Anthony Miller, who went from a walk-on to a second-round draft pick during his half-decade at Memphis. He didn't play at all in 2013 (redshirt) or 2014 (injury) and was only a part-time starter in 2015 before exploding for at least 95 receptions, 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in each of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. The only other player since 2000 to hit those marks in multiple seasons was Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon in 2010 and 2011.
At tight end, there's really no debate. Kellen Winslow II made 117 receptions for 1,331 yards and nine touchdowns between the 2002 and 2003 seasons. He was subsequently taken sixth in the NFL draft, becoming the first tight end in more than three decades to be selected in the top six.
Tackle: Bryant McKinnie, Miami (Florida); Jeff Otah, Pittsburgh
Guard: Dan Mozes, West Virginia; Brett Romberg, Miami (Florida)
Center: Jake Grove, Virginia Tech
Here's a fun fact about offensive linemen in the Big East/AAC: It has now been 14 years since the last time one was named first-team All-American by any major outlet. Moreover, neither league had a single guard named first-team All-American or selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past two decades, so we had to get a little creative.
Both Brett Romberg and Dan Mozes were consensus All-Americans at center in 2002 and 2006, respectively. The former was the linchpin of Willis McGahee's offensive line; the latter helped pave the way for Pat White and Steve Slaton to rush for just under 3,000 combined yards that year alone.
Each of those centers went undrafted, though, so we shifted them to guard to crown 2003 unanimous All-American and 2004 second-round draft pick Jake Grove as our all-conference center.
Romberg, Mozes and Grove all won the Rimington Trophy, annually awarded to the nation's top center. Two are out of position, but it would have been even more of an injustice to leave any of them off the roster, given the lack of guards from which to choose.
At tackle, Bryant McKinnie was the ultimate no-brainer. Prior to going seventh overall in the 2002 NFL draft, he placed eighth in the 2001 Heisman vote. He is the only offensive lineman in the past two decades to place top-10 in a Heisman vote.
The second tackle spot was a toss-up between Pittsburgh's Jeff Otah, Rutgers' Anthony Davis and Syracuse's Justin Pugh. All three were taken top-20 overall in the draft, but Otah gets the edge because he did receive one first-team All-American vote from Pro Football Weekly.
Defensive End: Dwight Freeney, Syracuse; Elvis Dumervil, Louisville
Defensive Tackle: Ed Oliver, Houston; Vince Wilfork, Miami (Florida)
At tackle, Ed Oliver was one of the easiest choices in this entire exercise. The former Cougar was a consensus All-American in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 prior to going ninth overall in the NFL draft. Interior linemen typically don't rack up big numbers, but he had 53 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and 11 passes defended in his 32 games played for Houston.
Vince Wilfork did not earn All-American honors during his time with Miami, but that was more of a "We can't put ALL of the Hurricanes on the ballot" problem as opposed to a lack of talent. He was a first-round draft pick who went on to become one of the greatest defensive tackles in NFL history.
Even though only one of Dwight Freeney's collegiate seasons at Syracuse counted in this century, he was a unanimous first-team All-American in 2001 with 17.5 sacks. He anchored a defense that allowed 19.0 points per game in what was easily one of Syracuse's best seasons of the past three decades. He finished ninth in the Heisman vote that year.
Four years later, Louisville's Elvis Dumervil had a similarly spectacular campaign. He had 20 sacks in 2005, which is a mark that no player has been able to reach since. He, too, was a unanimous first-team All-American and placed 10th in the Heisman vote.
That leaves South Florida's George Selvie as the super talented odd man out. He was also a unanimous All-American in 2007 with 31.5 tackles for loss and 14.5 sacks for a Bulls team that ascended all the way to No. 2 in the AP poll at one point—the only season in school history in which they ranked better than No. 10. Selvie didn't factor into the Heisman race, though, so we gave the edge to Freeney and Dumervil.
The Picks: Zaven Collins, Tulsa; Tyler Matakevich, Temple; Jonathan Vilma, Miami (Florida)
Since the beginning of the century, two players from the Big East/AAC have earned both the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards, annually given to the best defensive player in the country. Those two players were Temple linebacker Tyler Matakevich in 2015 and Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins in 2020. So, two of these three choices were pretty darn simple.
Matakevich was a tackling machine, recording 493 total tackles in his career with the Owls. Since 2005, only Luke Kuechly and Marcus McGraw have finished their college careers with more tackles than Matakevich. In that 2015 season, he also kicked things up a notch in other categories with five interceptions, five passes defended and 4.5 sacks.
Collins also routinely had his fingerprints all over the box score this past season with the Golden Hurricane. Despite only playing in eight games, Collins had four sacks, four interceptions (two pick-sixes) and two forced fumbles. He was already on the national radar long before his 96-yard walk-off interception return in a double-overtime win over Tulane, but that moment cemented his spot at DPOY.
For the third linebacker spot, Pitt's Scott McKillop, West Virginia's Grant Wiley and Rutgers' Khaseem Greene were all worthy candidates—particularly Greene, who was named Big East DPOY in both 2011 and 2012. However, the pick almost has to be Jonathan Vilma. He led the Hurricanes in total tackles in three consecutive seasons prior to going 12th overall in the 2004 NFL draft.
Safety: Ed Reed, Miami (Florida); Sean Taylor, Miami (Florida)
Cornerback: Phillip Buchanon, Miami (Florida); Adam "Pacman" Jones, West Virginia
Thank goodness the 2001-03 Miami Hurricanes played in the Big East, or this might have gotten ugly.
Only two defensive backs from the Big East/AAC were named first-team AP All-Americans in the past two decades, and those were unanimous first-team All-Americans Ed Reed and Sean Taylor. Reed had nine interceptions in 2001, returning two of them for touchdowns. Taylor one-upped his former teammate with 10 interceptions and three pick-sixes during the 2003 season. Each one was subsequently a first-round draft pick.
Sticking with the Hurricanes at cornerback, Phillip Buchanon picked off five passes in 2001 while also returning 31 punts for 464 yards and two touchdowns. He was also a first-round draft pick in 2002, coming off the board seven spots before Reed.
And while we certainly could go for a Miami clean sweep by putting Antrel Rolle or Mike Rumph in the other corner spot, let's go with Adam Jones for his two years of speedy greatness with West Virginia. Between 2003 and 2004, Jones had 165 tackles and seven interceptions on defense, plus nearly 2,000 yards as both a kick returner (1,475) and punt returner (404). He went sixth overall in the 2005 NFL draft, becoming the second-highest-drafted player in Mountaineers history.
Punter: Kevin Huber, Cincinnati
Kicker: Jake Elliott, Memphis
Returner: Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati
All-Purpose: Tavon Austin, West Virginia
With all due respect to Pitt's Andy Lee and West Virginia's Pat McAfee, each of whom went on to become multi-time Pro Bowlers in the NFL, Kevin Huber was the clear choice for punter. He was a consensus All-American in both 2007 and 2008.
At kicker, three cheers for a guy who went his entire college career without missing an extra point. Jake Elliott was a perfect 202-of-202 on those chip shots. He also made 81 field goals and is the AAC's all-time leading scorer at 445 points.
Mardy Gilyard was a great receiver for the Bearcats, accounting for 168 receptions, 2,467 yards and 22 touchdowns between the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Returns were his bread and butter, though. He had 36 kick returns for 994 yards and two touchdowns in 2008 before getting even better as a senior. In 2009, he averaged over 30 yards per kick return, amassing 1,281 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 16 punt returns for 202 yards and a score that year.
Tavon Austin's best season (2012) doesn't even count. That was the year he had 1,289 receiving yards, 643 rushing yards, 813 kick-return yards and 165 punt-return yards, averaging 223.8 all-purpose yards per game; but it was also West Virginia's first year in the Big 12. He was still pretty phenomenal in his final year in the Big East, though. WVU had not yet fully implemented him into the rushing game, but he still had a nation-best 2,574 all-purpose yards in 2011, thanks in large part to 938 yards and two touchdowns as a kick returner.