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Athlon Sports ranks the Top 25 best players to play in the ACC during the BCS Era.
The ACC has experienced some peaks and valleys during the BCS Era. It began with three consecutive BCS title game appearances followed by massive expansion with the additions of marquee programs Miami, Virginia Tech (2004) and Boston College (’05).
However, the league continued to fall behind its big league brethren on the field with a horrendous record in BCS bowls (5-13) and off the field with instability among the ranks. Rumors about Florida State and Clemson's future in the league persisted, and Maryland decided to bolt the league for greener pastures.
But as the BCS Era came to a close, John Swofford’s conference finished with a bang. A Grant of Rights agreement, the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville and a return to glory on the field with Florida State’s national title capped the BCS Era in style for the once-unsettled conference.
So even though the conference went through some rough years on the field, there is still a long list of elite NCAA Hall of Famers who graced an ACC field during the BCS Era.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 ACC players of the BCS Era. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Julius Peppers, DE, North Carolina (1999-01)
From a talent standpoint, few players have ever been able to match Peppers' freakish quickness and size. As a two-sport star in Chapel Hill, Peppers was a freshman All-American in 1999 before leading the nation in sacks (15.0) as a sophomore. He capped his junior season as a consensus All-American and by winning Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Trophy honors. Peppers finished 10th in the Heisman voting in 2001. He started 33 of 34 possible career games and finished with 167 tackles and 30.5 sacks, good for sixth all-time in ACC history and second during the BCS Era. His 53.0 tackles for a loss are 13th all-time in league history as well. Peppers was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
2. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech (2004-06)
Stats: 178 rec., 2,927 yds, 28 TDs, 40 rush, TD
Appropriately nicknamed Megatron, no player has demonstrated the combination of size and speed that Johnson brought to the Ramblin Wreck offense. The Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek prospect was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2004 before earning back-to-back All-American honors in 2005-06. He owns school records for receiving yards and touchdowns during his time at Tech and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as well as ACC Player of the Year honors in 2006. He is one of 13 wide receivers to finish in the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy voting during the BCS Era (10th). He is simply a freak of nature.
3. Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State (1997-00)
Stats: 9,839 yds, 79 TDs, 32 INTs, 58.7%, 2 rush TDs
There was little left unaccomplished in Weinke's college career. He led his stacked Florida State squad to an undefeated BCS national title in 1999 over Virginia Tech before returning to win the Heisman Trophy as well as the Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas and Davey O'Brien awards the next season. His team lost two games over that span and one was the 2000 BCS title game against Oklahoma. He is still the ACC's all-time leader in yards per pass attempt (8.9) and was the conference’s all-time most efficient passer with a 151.15 rating until Tajh Boyd (and possibly Jameis Winston) came along.
4. Peter Warrick, WR, Florida State (1995-99)
Stats: 207 rec., 3,517 yds, 32 TDs, 188 rush, 4 TDs, 937 ret. yds, 6 TDs
The phrase all-purpose wasn’t en vogue when Warrick broke onto the scene so the Bradenton (Fla.) Southeast superstar might deserve credit for the invention. And if not for an incident at Dillard’s Department Store that resulted in a two-game suspension, Warrick likely would have won the Heisman Trophy. The two-time consensus All-American could do it all. His joystick, open-field moves made him dynamic in the passing game, on special teams and he was one of the first wideouts used in the running game. His Sugar Bowl MVP performance — and touchdown catch — in the 1999 national championship game (six rec., 163 yds, three total TDs) will go down as one of the greatest national title performances in NCAA history.
5. Philip Rivers, QB, NC State (2000-03)
Stats: 13,484 yds, 95 TDs, 34 INTs, 63.5%, 98 yds, 17 TDs
The most productive passer in ACC history, Rivers owns the ACC record for completions (1,087), attempts (1,711), passing yards, total yards and set the record for passing touchdowns and total touchdowns (since broken). He won ACC Player of the Year honors in 2003 and finished seventh in the Heisman balloting. That year he led the nation in completion percent (72.0, an ACC record at the time) and set the ACC single-season passing yards record (since broken). His 18 career 300-yard games were an ACC record (broken). Rivers also is a member of the historic 2004 NFL Draft class that includes fellow quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
6. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (2013-present)
Stats: 4,057 yds, 40 TDs, 10 INTs, 66.9%, 219 yds, 4 TDs
No player, especially no freshman, has ever posted a season like Winston in college football history much less in the ACC. His 184.8 passer rating was an ACC record (and would be No. 1 for a career as well), he set an NCAA freshman and all-time ACC single-season record with 40 touchdown passes and his 4,057 yards are fourth all-time in ACC history. Winston won the Heisman Trophy, the BCS national championship, the ACC Player of the Year, the Davey O’Brien and Walter Camp awards as well. He has yet to lose a game on the gridiron and is poised to make another run at all of the above accolades as a sophomore.
7. E.J. Henderson, LB, Maryland (1999-02)
Henderson left Maryland with multiple NCAA records and numerous awards and honors. He owns the career tackles per game record (12.5), career solo tackles per game (8.8) and the single-season unassisted tackle record with 135 in 2002. That year, Henderson won his second ACC Defensive Player of the Year award as well as the Butkus, Lambert and Bednarik Awards nationally. He was a two-time All-American, Chick-fil-A Bowl MVP, is second all-time in ACC history with 62.5 career tackles for loss and 11th all-time with 473 tackles. Henderson was a second-round pick by the Vikings in 2003.
8. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (2009-11)
Tackling. Machine. That is really all that needs to be said about the Boston College star defender. He was second nationally with 158 tackles as just a freshman, led the nation in tackles with 183 as a sophomore and led the world again in stops with 191 as a junior. So in just three seasons, Kuechly set the BC and ACC career tackle records en route to numerous awards. He was a two-time All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-round NFL Draft pick by Carolina in 2012 and won the Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski, Lott and Lambert national trophies.
9. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, OL, Virginia (2002-05)
Ferguson started 49 games in his Virginia career — all at left tackle — helping the Cavaliers to four straight bowl games. He was a two-time, first-team All-ACC selection and earned All-American honors in his final season in Charlottesville. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the New York Jets and has gone to three Pro Bowls.
10. C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson (2006-09)
Stats: 606 att., 3,547 yds, 32 TDs, 123 rec., 1,420 yds, 11 TDs, 2,621 ret. yds, 8 TDs
Versatility and explosiveness are the words that come to mind when describing Spiller. With elite burst and big-play ability, Clemson used Spiller in every aspect of the game to great success. He is No. 2 in ACC history in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns and is the NCAA’s all-time leader with seven kickoff return touchdowns. His 2,680 all-purpose yards in 2009 are a single-season ACC record and his 7,588 all-purpose yards are the all-time career record in the ACC by almost 2,000 yards (Leon Johnson, 5,828). No ACC player has scored in more games (34) than Spiller did while at Clemson.
11. Chris Long, DE, Virginia (2004-07)
The son of NFL great Howie Long entered the starting lineup as a sophomore, totaling 46 tackles, 10.0 for a loss and two sacks. As a junior, Long posted 57 tackles, 12.0 for a loss and 4.0 sacks. As a senior, he claimed ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as the Dudley and Hendricks Awards. He was a unanimous All-American after 79 total tackles, an ACC-best 19.0 tackles for a loss and ACC-best 14.0 sacks in his final season in which he finished 10th in the Heisman voting. He finished his career with 182 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss and 20.0 sacks before being selected No. 2 overall in the 2008 NFL Draft.
12. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten and his overall career must be taken into account when measuring his greatness. The Super Bowl champion posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. In just three years in the ACC, Wilson finished eighth all-time in total offense (9,628), third in total offense per game (267.5 ypg), third in ACC history with 93 total touchdowns and set the ACC record with 379 consecutive passes without an interception. Imagine if he had stayed his final season in Raleigh.
13. Aaron Donald, DL, Pitt (2010-13)
Donald only played one season in the ACC but it was one of the, if not the, best by an ACC defensive lineman in league history. He swept the national awards by claiming the Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik as essentially the most decorated defensive player of the BCS Era not named Manti Te’o. He won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors after posting 59 tackles, 28.5 for a loss and 11.0 sacks from his defensive tackle position. His 28.5 TFLs were second only to Keith Adams’ ACC record 33 in 1999. His career 29.5 sacks would be eighth in ACC history and his 66.0 tackles for a loss would be a new career ACC record had he played his entire career in the league.
14. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (2011-13)
Stats: 240 rec., 3,391 yards, 27 TDs, 339 rush, TD, 1,399 ret. yards, TD
Watkins did it all at Clemson. A freakish athlete with the ability to score on any play from anywhere on the field, Watkins helped lead Clemson to a 32-8 record during his three seasons. He finished No. 2 all-time in ACC history with 240 receptions, No. 3 all-time with 3,391 yards receiving and tied for eighth all-time with 27 receiving touchdowns. And he did all of this in just three seasons, while bringing an ACC title back to Clemson for the first time in decades. His 5,129 all-purpose yards are ninth all-time in league history. His 101 receptions in 2013 would have been a single-season ACC record if not for Duke’s Jamison Crowder and his 108 catches this fall. His 1,464 yards in his final season is second all-time to Torry Holt (1,604) and his 82 catches and 12 TDs in 2011 were both ACC records for freshmen.
15. Torry Holt, WR, NC State (1995-98)
Stats: 191 rec., 3,379 yds, 31 TDs, 119 rush
One of the greatest receivers to ever play the game on any level, Holt capped his outstanding Wolfpack career with an ACC Player of the Year award in the first year of the BCS. Over his final two seasons in Raleigh, the Gibsonville (N.C.) Eastern Guilford receiver caught 150 passes for 2,703 yards and 27 touchdowns (he also threw a 45-yard TD pass), finishing eighth in the Heisman voting in 1998. Holt set all types of NC State and ACC records during his college career and he went on to become one of the NFL’s greatest wide receivers. No one ever had a better game during the BCS Era than Holt when he posted 255 yards against Baylor in 1998.
16. Dre Bly, CB, North Carolina (1996-98)
Not only one of the coolest names in college football but one of the coolest customers on an island all by himself. Bly set the ACC single-season record with 11 interceptions in 1996 and left school with an ACC record 20 INTs in his career (both since broken). He was a consensus All-American as a freshman and sophomore (one of few in NCAA history to accomplish the feat) and was a second-round pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
17. D’Qwell Jackson, LB, Maryland (2002-05)
The undersized tackler played in all 14 games as a freshman, started all 11 games as a sophomore and was an All-American as a junior and senior. He was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 after 137 tackles and four sacks. Jackson finished with 447 tackles, good for fourth in school history and 19th in ACC history — seventh among all players during the BCS Era. Jackson was a second-round pick of the Browns in the 2006 NFL Draft.
18. Anthony Poindexter, S, Virginia (1995-98)
He was a leader and one of the hardest-hitting players to ever play the game — and made one of the most famous tackles in NCAA history. He set a school record with 98 tackles as a sophomore and was an All-American as a junior in 1997. Despite getting injured late in the year, Poindexter earned ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and became a two-time All-American. He was the only defensive back in the ACC to win conference Defensive Player of the Year honors during the BCS Era. The three-time, first-team All-ACC pick finished his career with 12 interceptions.
19. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (2009-13)
Stats: 11,904 yds, 107 TDs, 39 INTs, 64.3%, 1,165 yds, 26 TDs
In just three full seasons as the starter, Boyd set every major Clemson passing record and is the ACC’s all-time leader in total touchdowns (133) and touchdown passes (107). He is No. 2 all-time in yards, won 2012 ACC Player of the Year honors, led Clemson back to an ACC championship in '11 and finished as the league’s most efficient passer in history with a QB rating of 155.2 (topping Weinke). Clemson went 32-8 over his final three years — all three of which he topped 3,800 yards and 33 TD passes. Boyd produced three of the top seven seasons in regards to total offense in league history. His 20 career 300-yard games broke Rivers’ previous ACC record of 18.
20. Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College (2004-07)
Stats: 9,313 yds, 56 TDs, 37 INTs, 60.0%, 39 yds, 11 TDs
Ryan did more for Boston College than any player since Doug Flutie. He won the ACC Player of the Year and led the Eagles to the ACC title game. He was seventh in the Heisman ballot and won the Johnny Unitas and Archie Manning Awards before beginning his elite career in the NFL. Ryan owns the ACC single-season record for passing yards (4,507), completions (388) and attempts (654), all of which were set in 2007, and is second all-time with his 4,509 yards of total offense that year as well. From a raw talent standpoint, few players on this list are better quarterbacks than Matty-Ice.
21. Joe Hamilton, QB, Georgia Tech (1996-99)
Stats: 8,882 yds, 65 TDs, 39 INTs, 61.7%, 1,758 yds, 18 TDs
One of the most dynamic players in league history, Hamilton led the Jackets to three straight winning seasons, three straight bowl games and only Tech’s third 10-win season since 1956. Hamilton won ACC Player of the Year honors, was a consensus All-American, finished second in the Heisman voting and won the Davey O’Brien Award in 1999. He threw for 3,060 yards and 29 scores while running for 734 and eight touchdowns in his final season. The two-time, first-team All-ACC pick is third all-time in total offense and he currently stands as the ACC’s No. 5 most efficient passer with a rating of 148.19.
22. Alex Barron, OL, Florida State (2001-04)
The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder was Florida State’s top lineman of the BCS Era. He was a consensus All-American in 2003 and a unanimous All-American in 2004. Barron was an Outland Trophy finalist in his final season as well. His teams never won fewer than eight games, won two ACC titles and went 26-6 in conference play over that span. Barron was the 19th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Rams.
23. Heath Miller, Virginia (2002-04)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,703 yds, 20 TDs
Perhaps the greatest tight end in ACC history, Miller became the first player in league history to win the John Mackey Award in 2004. He wrote his name into the school and conference record books for receiving by a tight end, setting a new benchmark in all three major receiving categories despite only playing three seasons. However, it wasn’t just his elite receiving ability that made the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder one of the game’s best. Miller relished the blocking side of the game and his physicality and dependability is what has made the consensus All-American one of the NFL’s best tight ends for the last decade.
24. Thomas Jones, RB, Virginia (1996-99)
Stats: 823 att., 4,065 yds, 37 TDs, 72 rec., 578 yds, 3 TDs
Until 2013, Jones boasted a long list of illustrious ACC rushing records. His 334 carries and 1,798 yards in 1999 were both single-season ACC records until Andre Williams broke both this past season. His six 200-yard games are an ACC record still (Williams has five) and he is seventh all-time with 18 100-yard games. Jones is sixth all-time in the ACC in rushing, leading the league twice in 1998-99, and is tied for 12th all-time with 40 total touchdowns. Jones finished eighth in the Heisman voting in 1999 and was one of two consensus All-American running backs during the BCS Era (Spiller).
25. Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson (2008-10)
The No. 1 prospect in the nation battled a knee injury during his sophomore year but still posted 58 tackles — including 11 in the ACC Championship Game win over Georgia Tech — 10.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. However, Bowers exploded as a senior by leading the nation in tackles for a loss (26.0) and sacks (15.5) to go with his 67 total tackles. Those 15.5 sacks were sixth all-time in ACC history. Bowers was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous first-team All-American and claimed both the Nagurski Trophy and the Hendricks Award. More knee issues cost him on draft day as he slipped to the end of the second round where Tampa Bay selected him with the 51st overall pick.
The Next 10:
26. Mario Williams, DE, NC State (2003-05)
In just three seasons, the physical freak from NC State posted 25.5 career sacks — good for 18th all-time in ACC history — and 55.5 tackles for a loss — good for 10th all-time. In his final season, he led the ACC with 24.0 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks. As one of the most gifted athletes to ever play in any league, Williams was one of just two defensive players selected as the first overall pick in the NFL Draft during the BCS Era (Courtney Brown, 2000).
27. Andre Williams, RB, Boston College (2011-13)
Stats: 704 att., 3,739 yds, 28 TDs, 10 rec., 60 yds
From a single-season perspective, no player in ACC history can match what Williams accomplished in 2013. Williams set the ACC single-season rushing record for carries (355) and yards (2,177) when he rolled up five 200-yard games and 18 touchdowns en route to a fourth-place Heisman Trophy finish. He is the only ACC player to win the Doak Walker Award during the BCS Era and he was named an All-American in the process. He is 11th all-time in the conference in rushing yards.
28. Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest (2005-08)
Curry was a freshman All-American after starting 10 games in his first season. He posted 83 tackles as a sophomore and tied an NCAA record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns as a junior. As a senior, he won the Butkus Award, was an All-American and registered 105 tackles. Curry finished with 331 tackles, 44.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks, six interceptions and five forced fumbles in his career. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft and in '06 helped lead Wake to its only BCS bowl berth and ACC title of the BCS Era.
29. Steve Justice, C, Wake Forest (2004-07)
Few players have meant more to their school than Justice did to Wake Forest. After enduring two losing seasons as an underclassman, Justice was the first-team All-ACC pivot for arguably the greatest team in school history. He led the way on the 11-win, ACC championship squad of 2006. He came back for his senior year and earned his second first-team All-ACC nod and was a consensus All-American as well. Justice was a Rimington finalist and won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC in ’07.
30. Jamal Reynolds, DE, Florida State (1997-00)
Reynolds helped lead the Seminoles to three consecutive BCS National Championship Games, including the 1999 title. He was named the Lombardi and Willis Trophy winner after a 58-tackle, 12-sack season in 2000 as a senior and was a finalist for the national Defensive Player of the Year award. He was named a unanimous All-American and taken with the 10th overall pick in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft. His 23.5 career sacks are 24th all-time in ACC history and are the most by any Seminole during the BCS Era.
31. Jimmy Williams, DB, Virginia Tech (2002-05)
Playing multiple positions all over the defense, Williams entered the starting lineup as a sophomore. He was a first-team All-ACC pick as a junior while leading Tech to an ACC championship with a league-leading five interceptions and 19 passes defensed. In 2005, Williams was a unanimous All-American and Jack Tatum Trophy winner as the nation’s top defensive back. He was a second-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
32. Rodney Hudson, OL, Florida State (2007-10)
The mauler from Mobile was a three-time, first-team All-ACC selection, a two-time, first-team All-American and a two-time winner of the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the top lineman in the ACC. He is one of only two guards to ever win the award twice (Elton Brown). He helped return Florida State to the ACC championship game as a senior in 2010 for the first time since '05. Hudson was a second-round pick of the Chiefs in 2011.
33. Gaines Adams, DE, Clemson (2003-06)
The 2006 ACC Defensive Player of the Year finished with 157 total tackles, 41.5 tackles for a loss and 28.0 sacks in 46 career games. His 28.0 QB takedowns are 10th all-time in ACC history and are fourth by any player during the BCS Era. His 15.5 sacks in 2010 led the nation and are sixth-best in ACC history. He was a unanimous All-American as a senior and was taken fourth overall in the 2007 NFL Draft. Sadly, Adams passed away at age 26 due to cardiac arrest in January 2010 but he will be forever remembered as one of the ACC’s greatest defensive linemen.
34. Jerricho Cotchery, WR, NC State (2000-03)
Stats: 200 rec., 3,119 yards, 21 TDs, 102 rush, TD, 300 ret. yards, TD
Following in Holt’s footsteps in Raleigh, Cotchery nearly duplicated his predecessor’s production. The Wolfpack playmaker is tied for second in ACC history with 15 100-yard receiving games, posted the fourth-best single-season yardage total in 2003 (1,369) and, at the time, was No. 2 all-time with 86 receptions that same year. Cotchery is ninth all-time in league history with 200 receptions and sixth all-time with 3,119 yards, the first of which is still an NC State record.
35t. Antrel Rolle, DB, Miami 2001-04)
He only played one season in the ACC but it was a good one. Along with Sean Taylor, Rolle was one of just four true freshmen to play on the dominant 2001 BCS National Championship team. He was an All-Big East pick as a sophomore and a unanimous All-American in the ACC in 2004 as a senior. He played safety in the NFL after being selected eighth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, but he was an elite college cornerback, shutting down names like Larry Fitzgerald (3 rec., 26 yds) and Calvin Johnson (2 rec., 10 yds) during his career.
35t. Alphonso Smith, CB, Wake Forest (2005-08)
The two-time, first-team All-ACC pick led the ACC in interceptions and passes defended in both 2007 and '08. He totaled 15 picks and 38 passes broken up over that span. He was a consensus All-American as a senior and his 21 career interceptions is an ACC all-time record. Additionally, he scored on four INT returns, tying Randy Neal of Virginia for the all-time ACC record.