College Football: The All-Time Best Player at Every Position
Every sport is subject to lively debate, but few thrive on the clashing of opinions quite like college football.
Just about everything in college football, from picking out the best teams of all time to determining the national champion, comes down discussions and, many times, arguments among players, coaches, writers, fans and just about anyone else with positions to verbalize and voices with which to verbalize them.
The same goes for selecting the all-time best team in college football history, position by painstaking position. Deciding on the best quarterback or the best linebacker to ever play in the collegiate ranks is no simple task, nor is it a task that can ever truly be completed.
Not that it should keep anyone from trying. In that spirit, let's give it the ol' college try and have a look at the best team that scholarships can buy.
Punter: Reggie Roby, Iowa
Long before there was such a thing as the Ray Guy Award, Reggie Roby was busy rewriting the NCAA record books with his rocket launcher of a leg.
A native of Waterloo, Iowa, Roby chose college football at Iowa over the opportunity to play baseball in the Cincinnati Reds' minor league system. Interestingly enough, Hawkeyes coach Hayden Fry decided to use the 6'4", 250-pounder as a special teamer, which worked out pretty well for everyone involved.
Roby was an integral part of Iowa's run to the 1981 Rose Bowl, as he set the NCAA mark for punting that season by averaging 49.8 yards per boot.
Roby finished his college career with an average of 45.4 yards per punt and went on to a 16-year NFL career. Sadly, Roby died at the young age of 43, succumbing in his home in Nashville to as-of-yet unrevealed causes.
Kicker: Sebastian Janikowski, Florida State
As big as Roby's leg was, few have ever possessed the ability to kick a football as far and with as much accuracy as Sebastian Janikowski.
Off-field transgressions aside, Janikowski was absolutely incredible during his three years at Florida State, so much so that he became the first player ever to twice win the Lou Groza Award, given to the best kicker in college football, in 1998 and 1999.
The Polish placekicker was best known among the Seminoles faithful for his ability to boot the football through the field goal uprights on the opposite end of the field on kickoffs, something that many NFL scouts must have taken serious note of.
Certainly, the Raiders did, as they selected Janikowski with the 17th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft, making him only the third placekicker in NFL history to be taken in the first round.
Defensive Tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota
Winning football begins in the trenches and few have ever been as dominant or versatile on either side of the ball as Bronko Nagurski.
As the man for whom the award given to the top defensive player in college is named, Nagurski dominated at defensive tackle for the Minnesota Golden Gophers from 1927 to 1929 while also leading the nation in rushing as the team's fullback.
Sure, Nagurski might not measure up to modern tackles, at 6'2" and 226 pounds, but his strength and tenacity made him something of a physical marvel and helped him to become a world-champion wrestler. His ability on the gridiron was best exhibited during a game against Wisconsin in 1928 during which he recovered a fumble, picked up an interception and scored the game-winning touchdown—all while playing with cracked vertebrae.
Not surprisingly, Sports Illustrated selected Nagurski to be a starting defensive tackle on its "NCAA Football All-Century Team."
Defensive Tackle: Richie Glover, Nebraska
Starting alongside Nagurski on SI's All-Century Team is Nebraska's Richie Glover.
Glover, at native of Bayonne, New Jersey, was one of six Cornhuskers named to the team, though he was the only Big Red representative on the defensive squad.
And for good reason. Long before Ndamukong Suh was gobbling up anyone and everyone who tried to get past him, Glover was busy taking home the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award while finishing third in the Heisman vote in 1972.
Before that, Glover had established himself as a key member of the Blackshirts defense that helped the Huskers win back-to-back national titles in 1970 and 1971. Glover was so tremendous for Nebraska, in fact, that legendary head coach Bob Devaney went so far as to anoint Glover as "the greatest defensive player I ever saw."
And while Richie Glover's NFL career was cut short by injuries, few in Lincoln will ever forget just how dominant he was for one of the great dynasties in college football history.
Defensive End: Grant Wistrom, Nebraska
One could argue quite convincingly that Richie Glover was to the Bob Devaney era what Grant Wistrom was to the Tom Osborne era at Nebraska.
After all, the Cornhuskers won 49 out of 51 games during Wistrom's tenure in Lincoln to go along with national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
On an individual level, Wistrom's resume might best be described as a laundry list of awards and accolades. The 6'5", 255-pounder from Joplin, Missouri was a two-time Consensus All-American, a two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and the winner of the 1997 Lombardi Award.
Since then, Wistrom has been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was listed as the defensive end on the All-Time Cornhusker team after finishing his Big Red career with 26.5 sacks, 206 tackles, an interception and four forced fumbles.
Defensive End: Hugh Green, Pitt
Though he made his mark in the NFL as a linebacker, Hugh Green made his meanest mark as a defensive end at Pitt.
At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Green was an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses, finishing his collegiate career with an astounding 460 tackles and 53 sacks along with 24 forced fumbles and 22 passes defensed.
Green was selected as an All-American in each of his four years for the Panthers, including his last three as a first-teamer. Additionally, Green could pretty much have filled a mantle or two with the awards he won as a senior in 1980, including the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award and the Lombardi Award.
And, if not for South Carolina running back George Rogers, Green would've likely had a Heisman Trophy to add to his already impressive collection.
Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois
Few names in football invoke as much fear and reverence as that of one Richard Marvin Butkus.
The man known best to most as "Dick" established himself as a force to be reckoned with while at the University of Illinois, where he was twice a unanimous All-American, in 1963 and 1964, amidst garnering serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy.
Shortly after his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1983, Butkus had an award named after him by the Downtown Athletic Club of Orlando, which has been given to the best linebacker at the high school, collegiate and professional levels every year since 1985.
Linebacker: Mike Singletary, Baylor
The lineage of great linebackers to play for the Chicago Bears, which Butkus did after his time at the University of Illinois, continued when Mike Singletary entered the NFL in 1981.
The 6'0", 230-pounder from Houston first made a name for himself while at Baylor, where he accumulated a mind-boggling 662 tackles, including 232 as a sophomore!
For his efforts, Singletary was twice named an All-American while earning a reputation as one of the most feared linebackers to ever set onto the gridiron.
Furthermore, his efforts as a senior in 1980 helped the Bears win 10 games in a season for the first and only time in school history.
Linebacker: Tommy Nobis, Texas
About 15 years prior to Mike Singletary at Baylor, Tommy Nobis was on top of the college football world, starring on both sides of the ball for Darrell Royal's Texas Longhorns.
Though the tackle had yet to become an official statistic by Nobis' day, he allegedly averaged nearly 20 tackles per game during his career, which also included a national championship in 1963, two selections as an All-American, the 1965 Maxwell Award for the best player in college football and serious consideration for the Heisman Trophy that very same year.
Not to mention being pictured on the covers of Time, Life and Sports Illustrated magazines.
Nobis carried his notoriety with him to the NFL, where he was an instant success as the first-ever draft pick of the newly-minted Atlanta Falcons franchise.
Cornerback: Deion Sanders, Florida State
Few college football stars can match the pure athleticism of Deion Sanders, regardless of position.
Deion was undoubtedly a tremendous football player, starring at corner for Bobby Bowden's Florida State Seminoles in the late 1980s and picking off 14 passes while thrice being named an All-American. On top of all that, Sanders won the 1988 Jim Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in college football each year, and set a new school mark for career punt return yardage.
And that was just what he did in football.
Deion was also a star outfield for the school's baseball team and ran track on FSU's conference champion squad.
But, most importantly, he was a shutdown corner with ridiculous speed and coverage ability.
Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan
As good as Deion was as a corner and punt returner at Florida State, one could very well argue that Charles Woodson was even better in those roles at Michigan.
In three years in Ann Arbor, Woodson amassed 162 tackles, 18 interceptions and 25 passes defensed while twice being selected as a First Team All-American.
Furthermore, Woodson practically swept the awards season in 1997, taking home the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Trophy, the Jim Thorpe Award, the Walter Camp Award and, most impressively, the Heisman Trophy, thereby becoming the third Maize and Blue member of the Heisman family and the first primarily defensive player to ever win the prestigious award.
Safety: Ronnie Lott, USC
Ronnie Lott recently entered the exclusive Pantheon of college greats with awards named after them, and for good reason.
Lott finished his career at USC with 250 tackles and 14 interceptions, including eight to lead the nation in 1980, a year in which he earned First Team All-America honors.
During his Trojan tenure in the late 1970s, Lott earned himself a reputation as a fierce and fear-inducing defender, using bone-crushing hits to take down his opponents and singlehandedly revolutionizing the safety position. Lott was to John Robinson's defense what Marcus Allen was to the offense, helping the Trojans to a share of the 1978 national championship and to 28 consecutive victories.
Safety: Eric Berry, Tennessee
Not to spoil the surprise, but Eric Berry is easily the most recently collegiate athlete to make it onto this "All-Time" squad.
And he's certainly deserving of the recognition. In three years at Tennessee, Berry notched 241 tackles, 14 interceptions—including a national-best of seven in 2008 and three returned for touchdowns—and 17 passes defensed. Along the way, Berry twice earned First Team All-America acclaim and took home the Jim Thorpe Award in 2009.
Need I even mention the scores of awards for which he was also a finalist or selected as a winner during his last two seasons in the college ranks?
Offensive Tackle: Orlando Pace, Ohio State
It's not all that common for any position in any sport to have even a fairly definitive "best-ever" selection, but Orlando Pace might be just that for offensive tackles in college football.
The massive lineman was as good as they come for Ohio State in the mid-1990s, winning the Outland Trophy in 1996 and the Lombardi Award in 1995 and 1996, becoming the first and only two-time winner of the award.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the fact that Pace finished fourth in the voting for the 1996 Heisman Trophy...as an offensive lineman!
For those who aren't all that familiar with the history of the Heisman Trophy, that's unheard of!
It's no wonder, then, that Sports Illustrated picked Pace to be the starting offensive tackle on its "NCAA Football All-Century Team." Nor is it surprising that he was the first overall pick of the 1997 NFL draft.
Offensive Tackle: Jonathan Ogden, UCLA
Jonathan Ogden was also playing college ball in the mid-1990s, albeit at UCLA. Though he might not quite be in the same stratosphere as Orlando Pace in the annals of college football history, he's certainly no slouch.
Ogden was a four-year starter for the Bruins, allowing only two sacks over his last 23 games as a junior and senior. At 6'9" and 345 pounds, the massive tackle from Washington, D.C. used his impressive size and blocking ability to earn the 1995 Outland Trophy and a spot on the All-American first team.
Ogden has since gone on to a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career in the NFL, though few would've been surprised had they been told he would do that before he ever set foot in the league.
Guard: Jim Parker, Ohio State
Forty years before Orlando Pace wowed the good folks of Columbus with his blocking prowess, Jim Parker was setting a new standard for a different position along the offensive line—guard.
Parker was not only a tremendous player in his own right, but also served as an important catalyst behind the success of Woody Hayes' famous "three yards and a cloud of dust offense" at Ohio State, blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassady and propelling the Buckeyes to the 1954 national title.
Parker's best year came in 1956 when, as a senior, he took home the Outland Trophy and cracked the top eight in the Heisman voting while earning a unanimous selection as an All-American.
Guard: John Hannah, Alabama
In 1981, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story touting Alabama guard John Hannah as the greatest offensive lineman of all time—a distinction that may seem a bit presumptuous to some (read: Auburn fans) but that certainly isn't off-base.
Like his father Herb, the man known affectionately as "Hog" played for the Crimson Tide, under legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and, as one might imagine of someone touted as the best there ever was, did pretty well while in Tuscaloosa.
While wrestling, shot-putting and discus-throwing on the side, Hannah was as three-time All-American who earned "Bear" Bryant's praise as the best lineman he ever had the privilege of coaching, even better than his brothers Charley and David, who were also All-Conference-caliber linemen at 'Bama.
Center: Dave Rimington, Nebraska
Dave Rimington checks in as the last member of this squad with an eponymous award in his honor, though he is far from the least deserving of the bunch.
Rimington is widely recognized as the greatest center to ever play college football. The only two-time winner of the Outland Trophy, Rimington also took home the Lombardi Award and finished fifth in Heisman balloting in 1982.
On top of all that, Rimington was also something of a scholar-athlete, twice earning Academic All-American honors (along with standard First Team All-America recognition) along with winning an NCAA Top Five Award in 1983.
Tight End: Ozzie Newsome, Alabama
Now, there are a number of players on this list who lit up the world of college football in the 1970s, but only Ozzie Newsome was named the Player of the Decade for the 1970s.
During his four years at Alabama, Newsome accounted for 2,070 yards on 102 catches, setting the Southeastern Conference record for most yards per catch at 20.3, thereby earning himself recognition as an All-American in 1977 to add to the three conference championships he helped the Crimson Tide to earn under "Bear" Bryant.
Wide Receiver: Anthony Carter, Michigan
If speed is what you're looking for, then Anthony Carter is your guy.
At 5'11" and 160 pounds, Carter was anything but the ideal size for a wide receiver, nor did he play in a system that particularly suited his talents, with Michigan legend Bo Schembechler preferring a more conservative, methodical approach on offense.
But, then again, they didn't call him "The Darter" for nothin'.
Carter was able to transcend those limitations with his incredible speed, earning three All-America selections and finishing his time in Ann Arbor with his name atop just about every receiving and returning record the Wolverines had.
And though most of his records have since been surpassed by receivers in more pass-happy systems, Carter is still the NCAA's all-time leader in average yards per play, having accumulated a whopping 5,197 yards on just 298 plays in his collegiate career.
Wide Receiver: Randy Moss, Marshall
If big, tall wide receivers are your preference, then look no further than Randy Moss.
Moss' collegiate career got off to a rough start, to say the least, after having his original scholarship offer from Notre Dame rescinded following a fight at his high school and his eventual dismissal from Florida State in the wake of drug charges.
Moss eventually landed at Marshall, where his tremendous talent was instantly apparent. As a freshman, Moss scorched the turf for 1,709 yards and 28 touchdowns, tying Jerry Rice's Division I-AA record.
Marshall's jump to Division I-A didn't deter his production, as he went for 1,820 yards and 26 touchdowns to earn First-Team All-America honors and the 1997 Biletnikoff Award while leading the Thundering Herd to the Mid-American Conference title.
Had Moss stayed for his junior year, he may very well have shattered some Division I-A records here and there, but, as it stands, he is still arguably the most talented receiver to ever play college football.
Fullback: Red Grange, Illinois
No list of the greatest collegiate players by position would be complete without Red Grange somewhere on the roster.
"The Galloping Ghost" was a charter inductee of both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and is often referred to as the greatest player in the history of college football.
Statistically, Grange's accomplishments wouldn't turn that many heads today, but the game of football was quite different in the 1920s when Grange played. Nonetheless, some of his performances, like his 402-yard, six-total-touchdown outburst against Michigan in 1924 and his 237 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against Penn, speak to his greatness as an athlete.
Overall, Grange finished his 20-game career at the University of Illinois with 3,362 yards rushing, 253 yards receiving and 575 yards passing along with 31 total touchdowns, which was more than good enough in those days to make Red a three-time All-American.
As tremendous a player as Grange was, he was even more important as a football figurehead, as he, as the first bona fide football superstar, is widely credited with elevating football, and the NFL in particular, in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Running Back: Archie Griffin, Ohio State
There's no shortage of running backs whom one could argue as the greatest to ever play college football.
From Barry Sanders to Herschel Walker, Jim Brown to O.J. Simpson and beyond, the history of the game is replete with outstanding ball-carriers who transcended the sport to become true icons of the sport.
But only one 'back can boast two Heisman Trophies—Archie Griffin.
Okay, so it certainly takes more than just being a two-time winner of arguably the most prestigious award in sports to say that someone is the best to play a particular position, and Griffin did more than enough to suggest that he, indeed, is the greatest collegiate running back of all time.
Griffin led Ohio State in rushing during each of his four seasons in Columbus and is still the only person to lead the Big Ten in rushing yards for three consecutive seasons.
Mind you, the Big Ten is a league whose offenses have historically been predicated on the ground game. Additionally, Griffin finished his collegiate career as the NCAA's all-time rushing leader, with 5,589 yards and 26 touchdowns to his name. Though Griffin no longer owns that mark, he still can lay claim to the record for most consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing (31).
Aside from his Heismans, Griffin also owns two Walter Camp Awards and a Maxwell Award to go along with his distinction as one of only two players to ever start in four Rose Bowl Games, the other being USC's Brian Cushing.
Questions? Comments? Concerns?
Quarterback: Tommie Frazier, Nebraska
There's only one position that invites more discussion, debate and controversy than running back, and that's the position of quarterback.
When it comes to pure quarterbacking skills, Tommie Frazier is far from the first player the comes to mind.
But when it comes to winning games and leading a team in the clutch, Frazier has no equal.
Statistically, Frazier was no slouch, finishing his collegiate career with 3,521 yards and 43 touchdowns passing to go along with 1,955 yards and 36 touchdowns rushing.
However, where Frazier made his biggest mark was as a pure winner, leading Tom Osborne's Nebraska Cornhuskers to back-to-back national titles in 1995 and 1996 amidst a run during which Frazier was named the MVP of the national championship game three years in a row.
That includes the award from the 1994 Orange Bowl, which the Huskers lost 27-14 to Florida State which, by the way, had Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward under center.
Yes, Tommie Frazier never won the Heisman and, yes, his statistics don't exactly jump off the page, especially nowadays.
That being said, one could easily argue that Tommie Frazier was the greatest winner in college football history, and it is for wins and losses that quarterbacks are ultimately judged.