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

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 17, 2021

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

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    Clemson's C.J. Spiller
    Clemson's C.J. SpillerJim R. Bounds/Associated Press

    The Atlantic Coast Conference has produced two Heisman-winning quarterbacks (Jameis Winston and Lamar Jackson) and a grand total of 61 consensus All-Americans dating back to 2001.

    Thus, in putting together this 26-man, all-21st century starting lineup, it was frequently a challenge to figure out which quality candidates were least exceptional.

    Clemson leads the way on this ACC roster, but not by anywhere near the margin with which it has led this conference for the past decade. There are five Tigers, followed closely by four Florida State Seminoles. Thirteen different programs got at least one player on this roster. (Apologies to Syracuse and Virginia Tech fans.)

    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 ACC counted. Eight schools have been a part of the ACC since before 2001, but others like Maryland, Miami and Pitt were only members for a portion of the past two decades.

    B/R's All-21st Century Series


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    Louisville's Lamar Jackson
    Louisville's Lamar JacksonChuck Burton/Associated Press

    The Pick: Lamar Jackson, Louisville

    While the list of viable candidates for this spot isn't quite as deep as it was in the Big 12 or the SEC, the ACC has produced quite a few quality quarterbacks over the years.

    Clemson had three great options in Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence and Tajh Boyd, each of whom threw for more than 10,000 yards and at least 90 touchdowns while also each rushing for at least 900 yards and 18 touchdowns. Only nine players in the past two decades have hit each of those four plateaus, and for one school to have produced one-third of them is mighty impressive.

    North Carolina State also had a trio of strong candidates in Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Ryan Finley. As a senior in 2003, Rivers ranked second in the nation in passing yards (4,491), completed 72.0 percent of his pass attempts and had the best passing efficiency rating (170.5) among qualified quarterbacks that year. He was easily the most tempting of the Wolfpack's nominees.

    The most difficult omission, though, is Florida State's 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Famous Jameis threw for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading the Seminoles to an undefeated national championship as a redshirt freshman. That team just scored at will, averaging 51.6 points per game.

    But for as great as Winston was as the leader of a team that dominated on both offense and defense, Lamar Jackson was a one-man cheat code who really should have won the Heisman twice.

    In both 2016 and 2017, Jackson threw for more than 3,500 yards and at least 27 touchdowns. He also rushed for at least 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in each season.

    There have been two such seasons in the 21st century, both of them by Jackson.

    If you prefer Winston because of the national championship, I get it. But Jackson was a weekly highlight reel for two full seasons, and an oral history of the past decade of college football would be woefully incomplete without him.

Running Back

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    Clemson RB Travis Etienne
    Clemson RB Travis EtienneBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Picks: Travis Etienne, Clemson; Dalvin Cook, Florida State

    The second RB spot was a very difficult decision, but Travis Etienne as RB1 was about as easy as it gets.

    Over the course of his four seasons at Clemson, Etienne averaged 7.2 yards per carry, amassing 4,952 yards and 70 touchdowns. In all three of those categories, he ranks No. 1 in ACC history, most preposterously so in touchdowns, where he has 18 more than the closest challenger.

    Even if you trim Etienne's marks a bit to 4,500 yards and 6.8 yards per carry, the only other player (ACC or otherwise) in the past two decades to hit both of those plateaus was Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon.

    I get that Trevor Lawrence was a once-in-a-generation talent at quarterback and perhaps things would've been different if "ETN" had averaged more than 12.5 carries per game in his college career, but for all he accomplished, it feels like we didn't spend anywhere near enough time talking about him over the past four years.

    For the ACC's second running back, Boston College had a pair of strong candidates in AJ Dillon and Andre Williams. The former rushed for at least 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons before turning pro. The latter didn't do a whole lot in his first three seasons, but he was a unanimous All-American in 2013, rushing for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns.

    Pitt also has an extremely worthy candidate in James Conner. After rushing for 1,765 yards and an ACC single-season best 26 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2014, he missed almost all of his junior year with both a torn MCL and, later, Hodgkin lymphoma. The cancer survivor with a rehabbed knee came back in 2016 to rush for 1,092 yards and 16 more touchdowns.

    But for as incredible as Williams' senior season was and for as incredible as Conner's story is, we had to go with Florida State's Dalvin Cook at RB2.

    In just three seasons with the 'Noles, Cook averaged 6.5 yards per carry and amassed 5,399 total yards from scrimmage. Only Etienne (6,107) has had more total yards from scrimmage in ACC history, and it surely bears mentioning that Etienne had a fourth season to get there.

    Cook finished top-10 in the Heisman vote in both his sophomore and junior seasons.

Wide Receiver and Tight End

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    Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson
    Georgia Tech's Calvin JohnsonPHIL COALE/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Wide Receiver: Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech; Sammy Watkins, Clemson

    Tight End: Heath Miller, Virginia

    Calvin Johnson and Sammy Watkins were two of the highest-drafted wide receivers in NFL history.

    Johnson went No. 2 in the 2007 draft and ended up being worth that and then some during a Hall of Fame career. In his junior year at Georgia Tech, Johnson made 76 receptions for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns. The rest of the team combined for 1,173 yards and 10 scores.

    For that one-man show in 2006, Johnson was named a consensus All-Americanthe only ACC wide receiver to receive that honor in the past two decades. (And once he had a better quarterback than Reggie Ball throwing the deep ball in the NFL, "Megatron" was born.)

    Watkins hasn't been anywhere near as good as Johnson since going No. 4 in the 2014 draft, though at least some of that can be attributed to a seemingly constant array of minor injuries in the NFL.

    In college, though, Watkins was special. He only played three seasonsand he even missed a couple games his sophomore year—but he made 240 receptions for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns in those three years as Tajh Boyd's favorite target.

    Honorable mention to Florida State's Rashad Greene, who had more receiving yards and receiving touchdowns than any other ACC player since 2000. However, Greene played four seasons and his marks of 3,830 yards and 29 touchdowns would have been left in the dust if either Johnson or Watkins had played a fourth year.

    And at tight end, Heath Miller was an easy choice. A unanimous All-American in 2004 and a first-round draft pick in 2005, Miller scored 20 touchdowns21 if you count his passing touchdown on a gadget play as a freshman—in his three-season career at Virginia.

Offensive Line

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    North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper
    North Carolina's Jonathan CooperGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    The Picks

    Tackle: Alex Barron, Florida State; D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia

    Guard: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina; Laken Tomlinson, Duke

    Center: Garrett Bradbury, NC State

    Over the past two decades, the ACC has had four offensive linemen who were both consensus All-Americans and first-round draft picks.

    First and foremost among that quartet is Alex Barron, who was a consensus All-American in 2003 and a unanimous All-American in 2004 for the work he did protecting the blindside of Chris Rix and Wyatt Sexton. Neither of those quarterbacks ever made it to the NFL, but they won 19 games between those two seasons.

    At guard, Tobacco Road rivals Jonathan Cooper and Laken Tomlinson both fit the above description. Cooper was a consensus All-American in 2013 before going seventh overall in the 2014 NFL draft. And Tomlinson was quietly one of the biggest reasons Duke set a school record with 10 wins in 2013, and nine more the following season. The Blue Devils ran the ball almost at will those two years, and then Tomlinson was a late first-round pick in 2015.

    The fourth member of that club is former NC State center Garrett Bradbury. He won the Rimington Trophy (nation's best center) in 2018 and was the No. 18 pick in the draft a few months later. The Wolfpack only allowed 11 sacks in 13 games that year, despite averaging more than 38 pass attempts per game. His work in the middle of that O-line was indispensable.

    And while D'Brickashaw Ferguson wasn't a consensus All-American, the former Cavalier was the No. 4 pick in the 2006 NFL draft. He went on to have an impressive 10-year career in the NFL in which he started each of his 160 games at left tackle. Prior to that decade-long run with the New York Jets, Ferguson was the anchor of a UVA line that played in bowl games in four consecutive seasons.

Defensive Line

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    Pitt's Aaron Donald
    Pitt's Aaron DonaldKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Defensive End: Julius Peppers, North Carolina; Chris Long, Virginia

    Defensive Tackle: Aaron Donald, Pitt; Christian Wilkins, Clemson

    It feels wrong to leave Clemson's Vic Beasley off the list, considering he was a two-time consensus All-American who became the No. 8 pick in the 2015 NFL draft. However, both Julius Peppers and Chris Long placed 10th in the Heisman vote the year before going No. 2 overall in the NFL draft. It would be even more unforgivable to omit one of those pass-rushing phenoms.

    Peppers was a unanimous All-American who won the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player in the country) in 2001. Though only his junior season technically counts for the All-Century team, Peppers had 53 tackles for loss, 30.5 sacks, five interceptions and five forced fumbles in his three seasons with the Tar Heels. (He was also a pretty solid power forward on the basketball court for UNC.)

    Long was also a unanimous All-American in his final season of college football, during which he had 14 sacks, nine passes defended and a pair of forced fumbles. Long was a finalist for basically every defensive award under the sun, though he only ended up winning the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the best defensive end in the country.

    Aaron Donald is one of the greatest defensive tackles of all time. As with Peppers, only his final season actually counts for this exercise, as Pitt was in the Big East for Donald's first three years of college football. In that lone season in the ACC, though, Donald had 28.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks and four forced fumbles in the process of winning both the Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2013.

    And Christian Wilkins earned multiple first-team All-American votes in both 2016 and 2017 before becoming a unanimous All-American in 2018. Between those three seasons, Wilkins amassed 36 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 15 passes defended and four fumble recoveries. He did a sensational job up the middle for a 2018 Clemson D line that was easily one of the best ever assembled.


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    Boston College's Luke Kuechly
    Boston College's Luke KuechlyMichael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Picks: E.J. Henderson, Maryland; Luke Kuechly, Boston College; Isaiah Simmons, Clemson

    In addition to winning both the Butkus Award (top linebacker in the country) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player in the country) in 2002, E.J. Henderson was the only two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year since 2000, as well as the only defensive player to be named ACC Player of the Year during that time.

    Per UMTerps.com, the two-time consensus All-American linebacker still holds the NCAA record for most solo tackles in a season (135) as well as the NCAA record for solo tackles per game in a career (8.8). Henderson also had 62.5 tackles for loss, serving as an extremely disruptive force for the Terrapins during two of their best seasons of the past 40 years.

    Boston College's Luke Kuechly was also a two-time consensus All-American in 2010 and 2011 and the Butkus Award winner in 2011. Kuechly didn't spend as much time in the offense's backfield as Henderson did, but he averaged 14.0 total tackles per game over the course of his three seasons with the Eagles and also picked off seven passes en route to becoming the No. 9 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Clemson's Isaiah Simmons went one spot higher than that in 2020 after back-to-back years in which he did a little bit of everything. Between 2018-19, Simmons racked up nearly 200 total tackles, 25.5 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks, five forced fumbles and four interceptions, leading the Tigers defense during a 29-game winning streak. Simmons was a unanimous All-American as a senior in 2019.

    If we had one more spot to fill, the fourth choice at linebacker would have been Wake Forest's Aaron Curry. Like Henderson, Kuechly and Simmons, Curry was a Butkus Award winner. He was also the highest drafted of the bunch, going fourth in the 2009 NFL draft. He also had three pick-sixes in 2007.

Defensive Back

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    Duke's Jeremy Cash
    Duke's Jeremy CashGregory Payan/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Florida State; David Amerson, NC State

    Safety: Jeremy Cash, Duke; Gerod Holliman, Louisville

    In the past 20 years, there have only been two instances of a player recording at least 12 interceptions in a single season.

    The first was NC State's David Amerson, who set the NCAA record for single-season interceptions with 13 in 2011. After not picking off a single pass his freshman year, Amerson had four games with multiple interceptions as a sophomore. One of those four games was the Belk Bowl victory over Louisville, in which his third-quarter pick-six ended up being the game-winning score. Amerson added five more interceptions the following season for 18 in his career. He also broke up 33 passes during that two-year window.

    Amerson's record was broken three years later by Gerod Holliman, who had 14 interceptions in Louisville's first season in the ACC. Holliman tied Amerson's record in just the 10th game of Louisville's schedule, though he only added one more pick the rest of the way.

    Neither Amerson nor Holliman was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, though. In fact, the only defensive back to receive that distinction since the turn of the century was Duke's Jeremy Cash in 2015. The Blue Devils safety had at least 100 total tackles in each of 2013, 2014 and 2015, racking up 38.0 tackles for loss, nine forced fumbles, six interceptions and 14 passes defended in those three seasons.

    The ACC's best defensive back in recent history, though, was FSU's Jalen Ramsey. He only had three interceptions in his college career, but he was a linchpin of the secondary from the moment he stepped on campus, starting all 14 games as a true freshman on the national championship-winning Seminoles in 2013. After three seasons at Florida State, Ramsey went fifth in the 2016 NFL draft and quickly became a Pro Bowl regular.

    Let's also extend an honorable mention to Ramsey's running mate in 2015, Derwin James. He darn near led Florida State in total tackles as a true freshman before missing most of his sophomore campaign with a knee injury. Had he been able to stay healthy, James might have been an all-time great.


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    Florida State's Roberto Aguayo
    Florida State's Roberto AguayoCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Picks

    Kicker: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State

    Punter: Ryan Plackemeier, Wake Forest

    Returner: Devin Hester, Miami

    All-Purpose: C.J. Spiller, Clemson

    Roberto Aguayo ended up being a colossal bust in the NFL, but he was one of the most accurate kickers in college football history. He made 88.5 percent (69-of-78) of his field-goal attempts while at Florida State, and also made each and every one of his 198 extra-point attempts.

    At punter, Wake Forest's Ryan Plackemeier (2005), Florida State's Shawn Powell (2011) and Georgia Tech's Pressley Harvin III (2020) were all named consensus All-Americans, and each averaged better than 44 yards per punt in their careers. Plackemeier is tied for the ACC's all-time lead in that latter category, though, and his career 45.3 YPP rate gives him the edge.

    Shoutout to Pitt's Quadree Henderson and North Carolina's Ryan Switzer for each scoring seven touchdowns on special teams in their college careers, but Devin Hester had four punts and two kickoffs returned for touchdowns at Miami before merely becoming the greatest returner in NFL history. Kind of have to give him the nod there.

    And at all-purpose, it doesn't get much more all-purpose than what C.J. Spiller did at Clemson. He finished his college career with 3,547 rushing yards, 2,052 kick-return yards, 1,420 receiving yards, 569 punt-return yards and 51 total touchdowns. Granted, he played four years to Reggie Bush's three year, but the former USC star is the only player with numbers comparable to Spiller's: 3,169, 1,522, 1,301, 559 and 42, respectively.


    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted.