B/R's SEC All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 20, 2021

B/R's SEC All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century

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    Alabama RB Derrick Henry
    Alabama RB Derrick HenryEric Gay/Associated Press

    When it comes to SEC football, picking an All-Conference team for a single season is challenging enough, as you're talking about a league that has produced at least 25 of the top 100 picks in each of the past five NFL drafts.

    But picking an All-SEC team spanning from 2001-Present was quite the challenging-yet-entertaining process of elimination.

    Dozens of top-15 NFL draft picks and/or top-10 Heisman vote-getters never even had a chance at making the cut. There were also dozens of unanimous first-team All-Americans who couldn't secure a "starting spot" on the roster, as the SEC has produced more than 50 such players in the past 20 years.

    It should come as no surprise that Alabama has the most representation on the SEC's All-Century team. The Crimson Tide ended up with nine of the 26 roster spots, and it easily could have been closer to 19. Florida had the second-most with four players. LSU and Arkansas each earned three spots. Georgia, Kentucky and Texas A&M each got two. And South Carolina had one—Jadeveon Clowney.

    Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:

    • The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
    • Missouri and Texas A&M did not join the SEC until the summer before the 2012 season. Any feats from those schools in the 2001-11 timeframe were not considered. 

    B/R's All-21st Century Series

Quarterback

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    Florida's Tim Tebow
    Florida's Tim TebowPhil Sandlin/Associated Press

    The Pick: Tim Tebow, Florida

    Let's just say there was no shortage of options for this spot.

    In the past two decades, an SEC quarterback has finished top-five in the Heisman vote 13 times. That includes Cam Newton and Joe Burrow winning in 2010 and 2019, respectively, Johnny Manziel winning in 2012 before finishing fifth in 2013 and Tim Tebow going first, third and fifth from 2007-09. (In addition to those Heisman winners and contenders, the SEC also produced No. 1 draft picks Eli Manning, JaMarcus Russell and Matthew Stafford.)

    But while Newton was electrifying for his one year at Auburn, Manziel was entertaining as hell for his two years at Texas A&M and the Burrow-led Tigers broke all sorts of offensive records two seasons ago, you can't even try to tell the history of the past two decades of college football without a lengthy discussion about Tebow.

    During Tebow's four years at Florida, the Gators went 48-7 and won two national championships while the jump-passing, power-running lefty became one of the most polarizing college athletes of all time.

    Many have retroactively labeled him as a bad quarterback because of quickly he flamed out in the NFL, but Tebow, Baker Mayfield and Marcus Mariota are the only quarterbacks in the past two decades to amass at least 9,000 passing yards with a career passer efficiency rating of at least 170. That's mighty fine company, and that doesn't even take into account the 2,947 rushing yards and 57 rushing touchdowns Tebow racked up.

    For what it's worth, if we were doing four teams' worth of all-conference rosterswhich we certainly could have without much of a drop in talent in the SECit would have been Burrow on the second team and Manziel on the third team, followed by a tough call between Newton and Tua Tagovailoa on the fourth team.

Running Back

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    Arkansas' Darren McFadden
    Arkansas' Darren McFaddenWade Payne/Associated Press

    The Picks: Derrick Henry, Alabama; Darren McFadden, Arkansas

    In the past two decades, there have only been two running backs to win the Heisman: Alabama's Derrick Henry in 2015 and Alabama's Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009.

    So, we pick those two and move on, right?

    Not so fast.

    Henry is a no-brainer. He carried that 2015 Crimson Tide team to a national championship with 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. He became the first (and still only) SEC player to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a single season.

    But Arkansas' Darren McFadden was the first runner-up in the Heisman vote in both 2006 and 2007, nearly edging out Tim Tebow for the stiff-armed trophy in the latter of those two years. In his three-year career, he rushed for 4,590 yards and 41 touchdowns. He also had seven passing touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns and a kick-return for a score for good measure.

    "Run DMC" was one of just three SEC running backs in the past two decades to reach 4,000 career rushing yards, along with Georgia's Nick Chubb and Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb. However, he's the only one to do it in fewer than four seasons.

    Had he played for a team that legitimately vied for a national championship, it's just about a foregone conclusion he would have won the Heisman at least once.

    I don't mean to downplay how good Ingram was—nor Trent Richardson; nor Najee Harrisbut McFadden was a consensus All-American in 2006 and a unanimous one in 2007 before getting drafted fourth overall in 2008. Leaving him off this list would be a huge mistake.

    Before we move on, let's also be sure to throw an honorable mention to Auburn's Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. They went No. 2 and No. 5 overall, respectively, in the 2005 NFL draft after combining for 6,528 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns from 2001-04.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

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    Alabama's DeVonta Smith
    Alabama's DeVonta SmithRoger Steinman/Associated Press

    The Picks: WR1 DeVonta Smith, Alabama; WR2 Amari Cooper, Alabama; TE Kyle Pitts, Florida

    The SEC has had two wide receivers and one tight end finish top-10 in a Heisman vote in the past two decades, and you're looking at them.

    DeVonta Smith won the Heisman this past season, becoming the first wide receiver in almost 30 years to do so. He got substantially better in each of his years with Alabama, culminating in an 1,856-yard, 23-touchdown campaign for the ages. He ended his career with 46 receiving touchdowns, good for first in SEC history by a 15-score margin.

    No. 2 on that list is Amari Cooper, who had 3,463 yards and 31 touchdowns in his three seasons with the Crimson Tide. Nearly half of each came in 2014, when he made 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns, finishing third in that year's Heisman vote. It also bears mentioning that Blake Sims was his quarterback and the only other player with at least 20 receptions on that team was DeAndrew White. Incredible what he was able to accomplish on that roster.

    And the most noteworthy tight end is Kyle Pitts, who easily would've eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2020 if he had been healthy enough to play for the full season. In just eight games, he scored 12 times and averaged 18 yards per reception. He placed 10th in the Heisman vote and subsequently went No. 4 overall in the draft.

    Each of those three targets was a unanimous first-team All-American during his season of dominance, as was Florida WR Jabar Gaffney in 2001, LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase in 2019 and Arkansas TE Hunter Henry in 2015. Julio Jones, Mike Evans, Jerry Jeudy and Evan Engram are also worthy honorable mentions.

Offensive Line

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    Alabama's Barrett Jones
    Alabama's Barrett JonesDave Martin/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Tackle: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M; Andre Smith, Alabama

    Guard: Shawn Andrews, Arkansas; Barrett Jones, Alabama

    Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Florida

    We'll start with guard since that's the easiest to justifyalthough neither guy actually thrived at guard in college.

    The SEC has had a bunch of offensive linemen named either consensus or unanimous first-team All-American in the past two decades, but the only ones to do it in two different seasons were Shawn Andrews (2002-03) and Barrett Jones (2011-12). Jones won an Outland Trophy, Rimington Trophy and Jim Parker Trophy. Andrews also won a Jim Parker Trophy, was an Outland finalist and was twice named the SEC's top offensive lineman (Jacobs Blocking Trophy).

    Andrews was a right tackle throughout his time with the Razorbacks; Jones played guard in his college career but switched to left tackle for 2011 and was the Crimson Tide's primary center in 2012. But Andrews was a two-time Pro Bowl guard for the Philadelphia Eagles and Jones was clearly capable of playing anywhere on the line. Considering how many great options there are for both tackle and center, we're labelling both Andrews and Jones as guards for this exercise.

    At tackle, the only argument one could make against Luke Joeckel is that he only played one season in the SEC. But he was a unanimous All-American for that season (2012) and won the Outland Trophy en route to becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

    There were a lot of options for that other tackle spot, most of them from Alabama. Cam Robinson, Jonah Williams and Alex Leatherwood are all worthy challengers who were unanimous first-team All-Americans. But let's go with Andre Smith, if only because he was awesome before Alabama emerged as the juggernaut that we know and love/hate today. When he went sixth overall in the 2009 NFL draft, he became Alabama's first first-round draft pick since 2000. Hard to believe, but the Crimson Tide didn't have a single player drafted the year before Smith.

    And at center, Maurkice Pouncey edges out the likes of Jonathan Luigs, Reese Dismukes, Ryan Kelly and Landon Dickerson. All five of those guys won the Rimington Trophy given to the nation's top center, but Pouncey went on to reach the NFL's Pro Bowl nine times. That's good enough for a tiebreaker, right?

Defensive Line

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    South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney
    South Carolina's Jadeveon ClowneyMike Stewart/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Defensive End: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

    Defensive Tackle: Quinnen Williams, Alabama; Glenn Dorsey, LSU

    With all due respect to Georgia's David Pollack and Alabama's Jonathan Allen, who won the Chuck Bednarik Award in 2004 and 2016, respectively, defensive end was a rather easy decision.

    Only three defensive players have been taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft thus far in the 21st century: NC State's Mario Williams in 2006, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in 2014 and Texas A&M's Myles Garrett in 2017. Thus, the choice here pretty much has to be Clowney and Garrett, each of whom took the world by storm in their first two seasons before sputtering a bit through injury-limited junior seasons.

    Both Clowney and Garrett were absolute forces of nature.

    Tackle wasn't quite so cut and dry, as there have been a ton of All-American defensive tackles from the SEC taken early in the NFL draft. Alabama's Marcell Dareus (2011), LSU's Tyson Jackson (2008) and Alabama's Quinnen Williams (2019) each went third overall. LSU's Glenn Dorsey (2007) went fifth. Auburn's Derrick Brown (2020) went seventh.

    But let's go with the two guys who received some Heisman love. Dorsey placed ninth for the stiff-armed trophy in 2007 while Williams landed in eighth place in 2018. The only other defensive tackle to place top 10 in the Heisman vote in the past two decades was Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Hard to argue with "the only guys besides Suh" in any defensive tackle debate.

Linebacker

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    Kentucky's Josh Allen
    Kentucky's Josh AllenBryan Woolston/Associated Press

    The Picks: Josh Allen, Kentucky; Jarvis Jones, Georgia; C.J. Mosley, Alabama

    For most of these eight position groups, the SEC has a laughably large excess of quality options.

    But linebacker took that to a whole different level.

    The Butkus Award is given annually to the nation's best linebacker, and the SEC has won six of the past 15 years. It started with Ole Miss' Patrick Willis in 2006, went to Alabama's Rolando McClain in 2009, to Alabama's C.J. Mosley in 2013 and then Alabama's Reuben Foster, Georgia's Roquan Smith and LSU's Devin White won it consecutively from 2016-18.

    In addition to that sextet, Kentucky's Josh Allen won both the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik Awards in 2018, widely regarded as the best defensive player in the nation that year. There's also Georgia's Jarvis Jones, who couldn't quite edge out Luke Kuechly or Manti Te'o for the Butkus Award in 2011 or 2012, but who placed 10th in the Heisman vote the latter year and racked up 28 sacks in those two seasons.

    As if that's not enough, Alabama's DeMeco Ryans (2005) and Reggie Ragland (2015) and Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham (2016) were each named unanimous first-team All-Americans.

    Eleven great candidates for three spots. Surely no one will get upset about this one.

    Allen gets the first spot for winning those National Defensive POY awards and for going seventh overall in the subsequent NFL draft. In guiding Kentucky to one of the best seasons in program history, Allen had 17 sacks, forced five fumbles and broke up four passes. He seemed to cover two-thirds of the field by himself.

    And for the other two spots, we opted for the guys who were consensus All-Americans one year before receiving that honor unanimously the following year. Jones led Georgia in 2011-12 while Mosley's reign of dominance came in 2012-13.

Defensive Back

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    LSU's Tyrann Mathieu
    LSU's Tyrann MathieuGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Cornerback: Patrick Peterson, LSU; Joe Haden, Florida

    Safety: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

    Alabama has had five unanimous first-team All-American defensive backs just in the past decade in Mark Barron, Landon Collins, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Dee Milliner and Patrick Surtain II. LSU has also had three in the past decade in Morris Claiborne, Grant Delpit and Patrick Peterson. Florida (Joe Haden and Vernon Hargreaves III) has had a pair of unanimous first-teamers in this century. Ole Miss (Senquez Golson) and Tennessee (Eric Berry) have each had one.

    But the one obvious pick doesn't even come from that pool of options.

    Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu won the Chuck Bednarik Award as a sophomore and was the only SEC defensive back to place top 10 in a Heisman vote in the past two decades, coming in fifth place in 2011. That year alone, he forced six fumbles, recovered five (including two touchdowns), broke up 11 passes (nine passes defended, two interceptions) and led the virtually impenetrable Tigers in tackles. It doesn't even matter that he missed the entire 2012 season after being dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules.

    On the Bednarik Award front, Peterson and Fitzpatrick also secured that honor before going early in the first round of the NFL draft. Fitzpatrick had nine interceptions and 24 passes broken up in his three seasons with the Crimson Tide. And as a junior, when Peterson wasn't busy shutting down the opposing team's best receiver and intercepting four passes, he also had a combined 1,350 yards' worth of kick returns and punt returns.

    The fourth and final spot easily could have gone to another star from Alabama or LSU, but let's go with one of Florida's phenoms in Haden. Tim Tebow and the Gators offense got most of the national attention while Haden was in town, but he was the leader of a mighty fine defense that held opponents below 13 points per game in each of his final two seasons. Haden ranked second on the team in tackles in 2008 and third in 2009 with a combined seven interceptions.

Specialists

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    Kentucky's Lynn Bowden Jr.
    Kentucky's Lynn Bowden Jr.Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Kicker: Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia

    Punter: JK Scott, Alabama

    Returner: Felix Jones, Arkansas

    All-Purpose: Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky

    From Billy Bennett to Blair Walsh and Marshall Morgan, Georgia already had a ridiculous run of quality kickers before finally finding its best one. Rodrigo Blankenship made all of his 200 extra-point attempts while also drilling 82.5 percent of his field-goal attempts. Six of his made field goals were from at least 50 yards out, including the 55-yarder just before halftime of the 2017 College Football Playoff semifinal.

    It's almost unfair thatin addition to an annually elite defenseAlabama had a punter from 2014-17 who was capable of either flipping the field with a colossal boot or pinning an opponent deep in its own territory with a coffin-corner gem. JK Scott didn't get a ton of fanfare (how many punters do?) but he was an integral part of a team that went 53-5 while he was on the roster.

    With an honorable mention to Deebo Samuel who also returned four kickoffs for touchdowns in his career at South Carolina, Felix Jones gets the nod for top return man. In addition to his nearly 3,000 career rushing yards with the Razorbacks, Jones averaged 28.2 yards per kickoff return with four scores in his three years in Fayetteville.

    The all-purpose pick very easily could have gone to Percy Harvin, Dexter McCluster or Randall Cobb, but we're going with Bowden for taking "all purpose" to another level. In his three seasons with the Wildcats, he had 1,628 kick-return yards, 1,530 rushing yards, 1,303 receiving yards, 495 passing yards and 199 punt-return yards.

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