B/R's Big 12 All-Conference College Football Team of the 21st Century
In case you somehow haven't noticed, Big 12 football has been in the news a ton over the past week with Oklahoma and Texas reportedly planning on leaving for the SEC. The league narrowly survived the conference realignment madness in the early 2010s, but losing those flagship programs might be more than the Big 12 can handle.
But as we wait with bated breath to find out what the future holds for the Big 12, let's look to the past at the league's most dominant players of the 21st Century.
With Oklahoma and Texas responsible for 12 of the 26 spots on this roster, it's easy to see why their departure would be a major problem.
Two housekeeping notes before we dive in:
- The 21st century began on January 1, 2001. That means the 2000 season does not count.
- Only seasons in which the program was part of the Big 12 counted. That means players from Nebraska and Colorado from 2001-10, Missouri and Texas A&M from 2001-11 and West Virginia and TCU from 2012-Present were eligible for consideration, but not for the years outside of those ranges.
B/R's All-21st Century Series
The Pick: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
In the past two decades, the Big 12 has produced more Heisman-winning quarterbacks (six) than any other conference. (The SEC has seven Heisman winners during that time, but only four were quarterbacks.)
Nebraska's Eric Crouch won the first one of the 21st century, Baylor's Robert Griffin III won one a decade later and Oklahoma secured the stiff-armed trophy in each of 2003 (Jason White), 2008 (Sam Bradford), 2017 (Baker Mayfield) and 2018 (Kyler Murray). Factor in Texas producing two guys who were both consensus All-Americans and Heisman runners-up (Vince Young and Colt McCoy), and you've got quite the list of worthy candidates for this spot.
The pick has to be Mayfield, though.
The former walk-on at Texas Tech transferred to Oklahoma and got increasingly better in each of his three seasons there. He had a 189.4 passer efficiency rating from 2015-17, racking up 12,292 yards and 119 touchdowns against 21 interceptions. He set the all-time single-season PER record (196.4) in 2016. He then broke that record with a 198.9 the following year. (That record has since been broken in each of the past three seasons.)
And while he wasn't anywhere near the level of Young with his legs, Mayfield was clearly an effective scrambler with 893 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground.
Not only did he win the Heisman in 2017, but he also placed third in 2016 and fourth in 2015, leading the Sooners—an 8-5 team the year before he became the starter—to three consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins.
The Picks: RB1 Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma; RB2 Darren Sproles, Kansas State
It's a darn shame Adrian Peterson couldn't stay healthy during his time at Oklahoma, because he had a chance to become one of the greatest running backs in college football history.
Despite a dislocated shoulder his freshman year, a broken foot his sophomore year and a broken collarbone his junior year, Peterson rushed for 4,041 yards and 41 touchdowns in 31 games. He began his college career with nine consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing and set the all-time freshman rushing record (1,925 yards; since broken by Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor). He finished second in the Heisman vote that year—the only Big 12 running back to place top-four in the past 20 years.
There was one guy who placed fifth, though. That was Kansas State's Darren Sproles in 2003. He is one of just five players since 2000 with at least 800 career rushing attempts at an average of at least six yards per carry.
From his sophomore year into his junior year, he had a 10-game streak of 100-yard performances. From his junior year into his senior year, Sproles had five 200-yard performances in the span of eight games. And with help from his impact in both the receiving and punt/kick-return games, he racked up 6,602 all-purpose yards (169.3 per game) in his final three seasons with the Wildcats. Stanford's Christian McCaffrey had 6,987 career all-purpose yards, just to put some perspective on Sproles' number.
On the honorable mentions front, Texas' D'Onta Foreman (2016), Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard (2019) and Iowa State's Breece Hall (2020) were each unanimous All-Americans, and Hall may well deserve to supplant Sproles if he has another dynamite year in 2021.
Cedric Benson's 5,540 rushing yards and 64 rushing touchdowns—both Big 12 records—certainly need to be acknowledged, as well. Everyone remembers the 2005 Longhorns team that won it all, but they rode Benson hard in the four years prior to that, winning at least 10 games in each of those seasons. He averaged 22.7 carries per game for his 49-game collegiate career.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The Picks: WR1 Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State; WR2 Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech; TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
With all due respect to the likes of Dez Bryant, CeeDee Lamb, Jordy Nelson, James Washington, Dede Westbrook and Terrance Williams, the choices for wide receiver were about as easy as it gets.
The only real debate is whether Justin Blackmon or Michael Crabtree should be WR1.
In both 2007 and 2008, Crabtree was a unanimous All-American. He redshirted in 2006 while transitioning from a high school quarterback to a college wide receiver. And in that year "off," he developed into an unstoppable machine.
Not only did he lead the nation in receiving yards in '07 as a redshirt freshman, but his mark of 1,962 yards is also the most in a single season by any player in the past 20 years. He averaged slightly more than 150 yards per game and scored 22 touchdowns. He wasn't quite as dominant the following year (1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns), but he placed fifth in the Heisman vote as the biggest star of a Texas Tech team that started out 10-0 and climbed all the way to No. 2 in the AP poll.
Blackmon was also a unanimous All-American in back-to-back years (2010-11), also placed fifth in a Heisman vote (2010) and also played for a team that darn near scored its way to a national championship. He had at least 100 receiving yards in all 12 games played in 2010 and had a combined total of 3,304 receiving yards in 25 games between those two years.
It's splitting hairs, but we're going with Blackmon at WR1 because he was much more of a one-man operation on a team that wasn't as pass happy. Don't get me wrong, Mike Gundy's Cowboys passed a ton—more than 40 attempts per game in both seasons. But the Red Raiders were at 58.7 attempts per game in 2007, plus they had Danny Amendola. That doesn't diminish what Crabtree accomplished, but I'm presenting it as a rationale for a tiebreaker.
And as a gesture of goodwill to any Texas Tech fans irrationally upset about that decision, let's go with Jace Amaro as the best Big 12 tight end of the 21st century. Both Missouri's Martin Rucker (2007) and Oklahoma's Mark Andrews (2017) were unanimous All-Americans, but so was Amaro in 2013 when he broke the NCAA's all-time record for receiving yards by a tight end in a single season. That year, he made 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns.
Offensive Tackle: Jammal Brown, Oklahoma; Russell Okung, Oklahoma State
Offensive Guard: Duke Robinson, Oklahoma; Cyril Richardson, Baylor
Center: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma
The Big 12 has had more than its fair share of dominant blockers in the trenches, producing nine unanimous first-team All-American offensive linemen, plus nine more of the consensus variety.
The lone double dip of unanimous honors was Oklahoma's Duke Robinson in 2007-08. He flamed out almost immediately in the NFL, but the left guard was the linchpin of a line that paved the way for a whole lot of points. His senior year, the Sooners entered the BCS Championship against Florida averaging 54.0 points per game.
The other guard spot on the Big 12 All-Century team goes to Baylor's Cyril Richardson, who won the Jim Parker Trophy (nation's best offensive lineman) in 2013. Much like Robinson at Oklahoma, Richardson was the often unsung hero of a ridiculously potent offense which averaged 52.4 points per game. Also, much like Robinson, he was a fifth-round draft pick who barely saw the field in the NFL.
Sticking with Jim Parker Trophy winners, the other two from the Big 12 in the past two decades were tackles Jammal Brown and Russell Okung.
Along with Ndamukong Suh, Brown was also one of just two Big 12 recipients of the Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman). Adrian Peterson's freshman year coincided with Brown's senior year, and the outcome was magical. While Okung didn't have a generational talent behind him, he did an excellent job of keeping his quarterback clean, even against the likes of Texas A&M's Von Miller. Both tackles became first-round draft picks and were named to two Pro Bowls.
And then it's back to Oklahoma for center, where Gabe Ikard was a consensus All-American in 2013. Even though the Sooners didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher on the roster that year, Ikard helped lead them to 224 rushing yards per game and an 11-2 record.
Defensive End: Brian Orakpo, Texas; James Lynch, Baylor
Defensive Tackle: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska; Tommie Harris, Oklahoma
The Big 12 has had four defensive linemen named unanimous first-team All-Americans in the past 20 years, so let's be sure not to overthink this one.
The biggest star of that bunch was Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Suh had 36.5 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks, three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and three blocked kicks. The latter of those two seasons, Nebraska led the nation in scoring defense (10.4 PPG) and Suh placed fourth in the Heisman race with a total vote count of 815. With the exception of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o in 2012, that's the highest vote total for a defensive player since Charles Woodson won the Heisman in 1997.
Suh was named a starting defensive tackle on Sports Illustrated's college football all-decade team in 2009, but so was fellow Big 12 interior lineman Tommie Harris. The Sooner was a consensus All-American in 2002 before receiving that honor unanimously in 2003. Both Harris and Suh won the Lombardi Award in their respective senior seasons, annually given to the nation's best lineman (offensive or defensive) or linebacker.
Texas' Brian Orakpo also received that honor in 2008, racking up 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as the defensive leader of a Longhorns squad that went 12-1 and spent a good chunk of the season at No. 1 in the polls.
And though Baylor's James Lynch started out as a defensive tackle, he moved over to end as a junior in 2019 and became a phenom for a team that unexpectedly flirted with making the College Football Playoff. He had 13.5 sacks that season to go along with five passes defended, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Let's also extend a great big honorable mention to Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, who received some first-team All-American votes in both 2008 and 2009 prior to going third overall in the 2010 NFL draft.
The Picks: Derrick Johnson, Texas; Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma; Von Miller, Texas A&M
Derrick Johnson was a wrecking ball masquerading as a linebacker. He had at least 120 tackles in each of his final three years with the Longhorns, during which time he also accumulated 10 forced fumbles, nine interceptions, six sacks and three fumble recoveries. Nine of those forced fumbles came in 2004 alone, helping him earn unanimous All-American honors and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's best defender.
The year before that, Oklahoma's Teddy Lehman won the nation's other best defender honor, the Chuck Bednarik Award. He was a consensus All-American in 2002 and a unanimous one in 2003, leading an Oklahoma defense that held opponents below 16 points per game in each season. The Big 12 DPOY had 19 tackles for loss in his senior season.
But the brightest star was Von Miller, who thrived no matter the defensive scheme.
He was a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense as a sophomore, a jack linebacker as a junior and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense as a senior, but he shredded would-be blockers regardless of where he lined up. He had 17 sacks and four forced fumbles as a junior and had another 10.5 sacks as a senior, despite suffering a high-ankle sprain early in the year. He was a consensus All-American the latter year and was taken No. 2 overall in the 2011 draft en route to becoming an eight-time Pro Bowler.
A few others worth mentioning: Oklahoma's Rocky Calmus, Colorado's Jordon Dizon and Nebraska's Lavonte David.
Cornerback: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska; Aqib Talib, Kansas
Safety: Roy Williams, Oklahoma; Earl Thomas, Texas
Only one of Roy Williams' seasons at Oklahoma counts as part of the 21st Century, but that one season was more than enough. His hard hits and horse-collar tackles are all sorts of illegal now, but they made him a unanimous All-American and the seventh-place finisher in the Heisman vote in 2001. He will be forever lauded in Norman for his game-sealing Superman dive against Texas in the 2001 iteration of the Red River Rivalry.
Speaking of Texas, the other safety spot was a tough call between two Longhorns: Earl Thomas and Michael Huff.
Huff had two interceptions in each of his four seasons with Texas, taking four of them back for touchdowns. And on the subject of iconic plays, he had a key fumble recovery as well as a game-saving tackle in helping Texas win what is widely regarded as the best college football game of the century (2006 Rose Bowl). But Thomas had eight interceptions in 2009 alone and went on to become the much bigger star in the NFL. Had he played more than two seasons in college, this likely wouldn't even be a debate.
On the cornerback front, both Oklahoma (Derrick Strait) and Texas (Quentin Jammer) have a great candidate who was a unanimous All-American. But Kansas' Aqib Talib (2007) and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (2010) also held that distinction before becoming first-round draft picks. Talib had 11 interceptions in his final two seasons with the Jayhawks. Amukamara didn't have any in his final year, but that's mostly because opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators learned their lesson the previous year. He had five picks that season and quickly came to be regarded as a shutdown corner.
Kicker: Mason Crosby, Colorado
Punter: Michael Dickson, Texas
Kick/Punt Returner: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
All Purpose: Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
At kicker, the Big 12 has not produced a unanimous All-American in the past 20 years, though Mason Crosby was a consensus one in 2005 and received a couple first-team votes in 2006. His big leg was quite the luxury for a Colorado team that otherwise struggled to score. He nailed a 60-yard field goal as a sophomore and made 11 other kicks from at least 50 yards out over the course of his final three seasons.
At punter, the Big 12 has had a pair of unanimous All-Americans in Baylor's Daniel Sepulveda (2006) and Texas' Michael Dickson (2017). The former averaged better than 46 yards per punt in each of his final three seasons in Waco and is the Big 12's all-time leader in punt yards. But Dickson eclipsed 47 yards per punt in both 2016 and 2017 before leaving for the NFL after his junior year. Had he stayed for a fourth year, he would have left Sepulveda in the dust in total yards.
At kick/punt returner, it's a toss-up between Texas Tech's Wes Welker and Kansas State's Tyler Lockett.
Each was a great receiver, accumulating more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, but each was even more lethal in the return game. Welker returned eight punts for touchdowns with the Red Raiders while Lockett averaged 28.5 yards per kick return and 15.3 yards per punt return in his collegiate career. He had a combined six touchdowns on special teams and gets the nod here for doing both.
Last but certainly not least, Jeremy Maclin's two seasons at Missouri were absurd. He's one of eight players in the past two decades to record at least 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 kick-return yards in a single season and the only one to do it twice. He also averaged 334 rushing yards and 288.5 punt-return yards per season for a grand total of 5,609 all-purpose yards (and 33 touchdowns) in just two years.