The Pac-12 has long been considered an offensive football conference.
With a rich history of elite quarterbacks, offensive playmakers and innovative coaching staffs, it’s not too difficult to back that claim up with facts. Bill Walsh, Don James, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll set the bar for offensive advancement over the years while new faces like Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach and Todd Graham continue to elevate this league’s standing nationally.
During the BCS Era, the Pac-12 boasts three Heisman Trophy winners, four Biletnikoff winners, three Doak Walker winners, four Johnny Unitas Golden Arm winners, three Walter Camp winners and three John Mackey winners. And that’s just the offensive skill players in this league.
The Pac-12 has developed into one of the nation’s best leagues, and, with excellent new leadership at the conference and school level, should be around for decades to come as one of the preeminent leagues in college football.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Pac-12 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. Matt Leinart, QB, USC (2003-05)
Stats: 10,693 yds, 99 TDs, 23 INTs, 64.8%, 9 rush TDs
Leinart won two national titles and played for a third in three years starting at powerhouse USC under Pete Carroll. He finished in the top six of Heisman voting in all three seasons, winning the award in 2004, finishing sixth in '03 and third in '05. He also earned AP Player of the Year, Manning, Walter Camp, Unitas and consensus All-American honors during his remarkable Heisman campaign. He capped the season with arguably the second-best performance by a quarterback in a national title game by dissecting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He threw for 332 yards and a championship game-record five touchdowns in the most lopsided win in series history. Leinart owns the career conference record with 36 consecutive games with a touchdown pass and his 99 TD passes were a league record until Matt Barkley came along. He also is just one of three players in league history to throw for 3,000 yards in three seasons (Derek Anderson, Andrew Walter).
2. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (2009-11)
Stats: 9,430 yds, 82 TDs, 22 INTs, 67.0%, 957 yds, 7 TDs
The best quarterback prospect in over two decades broke all kinds of rookie NFL records in his first trip through the professional ranks. This merely lends credence to his remarkable college career. Few players have meant more to their school in history than Luck at Stanford. He led his program to its first BCS bowl win and set every school passing record en route. The two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year finished second in the Heisman twice (2010, '11) and won the Unitas, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards in 2011. He is the Pac-12's all-time leader in completion percentage, yards per play (8.5) and passing efficiency (162.8). He was 27-4 in his last 31 starts, earned a degree in architecture from Stanford, and is one of just nine players in league history to throw for at least 2,500 yards in three different seasons.
3. Terrell Suggs, DE, Arizona State (2000-02)
The star pass-rusher is best known as the NCAA’s all-time single-season sack master when he totaled 24 QB takedowns in 2002. That year, Suggs was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the inaugural Ted Hendricks Award winner. The accolades didn’t end there, however, as he also took home the Lombardi, Nagurski and Willis trophies as well. He led the NCAA with 31.5 tackles for a loss (still a Pac-12 record) and forced six fumbles that year. He finished his Sun Devils career with 163 tackles, a school-record 65.5 for a loss (second all-time in league history), 44 sacks (second all-time in league history) and 14 forced fumbles. He was the 10th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.]
4. Troy Polamalu, S, USC (1999-2002)
The big-play machine was a three-year starter for the West Coast powerhouse. He was a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, a consensus All-American and stuffed the stat sheet his entire career. The big hitter finished with 278 tackles, 29.0 for loss, six interceptions and four blocked punts in 36 career starts for the Men of Troy. Polamalu led USC back to prominence with a league title and trip to the Orange Bowl before being taken in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
5. Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon (2003-05)
Arguably the best NFL defensive tackle of his generation, Ngata had to overcome a torn ACL in college. Once he recovered, the big interior stuffer posted 107 tackles, 17.5 for a loss and 6.5 sacks over his final two seasons in Eugene. He was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, a consensus All-American and the Morris Trophy winner before being selected 12th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. He blocked seven kicks and led Oregon to a 10-win season in 2005 — just the school’s third such campaign in school history at the time.
6. Reggie Bush, RB, USC (2003-05)
Stats: 433 att., 3,169 yds, 25 TDs, 95 rec., 1,301 yds, 13 TDs, 2,081 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The superstar recruit from La Mesa (Calif.) Helix brought a unique skill set to the evolving running back position. Sort of a first of his kind, the all-purpose talent was unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He played a prominent role on the 2003 national championship team before providing 908 yards rushing, 509 yards receiving, nearly 1,000 return yards and 15 total touchdowns during USC’s 2004 romp to a second national title. He exploded as a junior, rushing for 1,740 yards on a ridiculous 8.7 yards per carry and scoring 19 total touchdowns, coming up just short of his third national title. He earned his second consecutive Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award as well as the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy. His career 7.3 per carry average is fourth all-time and his legacy is only somewhat tarnished by the scandal that put USC on probation and caused him to "return" his Heisman.
7. Sam Baker, OT, USC (2004-07)
The stud left tackle charged with protecting Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush was a three-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection. Baker helped lead the way on teams that played in back-to-back national championship games and won four straight Pac-10 titles. USC was 47-5 during his time and he went on to be a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft.
8. Carson Palmer, QB, USC (1998-02)
Stats: 11,668 yds, 72 TDs, 49 INTs, 9 rush TDs
Pete Carroll has always said that if he could design a quarterback from scratch that it would have the physical tools of Palmer. After two middle-of-the-pack seasons as the starter in L.A., Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, Unitas Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2002. That year, Palmer threw for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading USC to a conference championship and Orange Bowl win over Iowa. He is No. 2 all-time in league history in total offense (11,621) and yards passing (11,818). His 72 touchdown passes rank 10th all-time in Pac-12 history and he is one of nine players to throw for at least 2,500 yards in three seasons. Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
9. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Cal (2003-04)
Stats: 5,469 yds, 43 TDs, 13 INTs, 63.8%, 336 yds, 8 TDs
Clearly one of the greatest players to ever come through the league, Rodgers led Cal back to relevance, finishing 18-8 in two years as the starter and posting 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1991. He scored 51 times in just 25 games with only 13 interceptions, finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2004, led the NCAA in completion percentage (66.1) and yards-per-attempt in his final season (8.1). Rodgers was a first-round pick of the Packers in the 2005 NFL Draft and is widely considered the best active quarterback on the planet today.
10. Rey Maualuga, LB, USC (2005-08)
The hard-hitting tackler was a freshman All-American on the 2005 USC team that barely lost to Texas in the national title game. He then started the next three seasons for the Trojans, earning consensus All-American honors, the Chuck Bednarik Award and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. The Men of Troy went 46-6 during his time on campus and few players were as feared nationally as Maualuga. He posted 272 career tackles, 22.5 for loss, 9.0 sacks and five interceptions before being taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
11. LaMichael James, Oregon (2009-11)
Stats: 771 att., 5,082 yds, 53 TDs, 51 rec., 586 yds, 4 TDs
Few players accomplished more in three seasons than James. Three straight 1,500-yard campaigns, a Doak Walker Award, consensus All-American honors and a trip to the BCS title game make the speedy and allusive back one of the BCS Era’s greatest tailbacks. His 53 touchdowns and 5,082 yards on the ground are both second all-time in Pac-12 history. The Texarkana, Texas, native finished third in the Heisman voting in 2010 and 10th in '11 and led an Oregon team that went 34-6 and won three straight Pac-12 titles.
12. Steven Jackson, Oregon State (2000-03)
Stats: 743 att., 3,625 yds, 39 TDs, 66 rec., 680 yds, 6 TDs
From a pure talent standpoint, Jackson is the best Oregon State player of all-time and is one of the most talented runners of the BCS Era. The Las Vegas native led the nation in rushing two straight seasons and set the OSU single-season rushing record with his 1,690-yard 2002 season. In just three years, Jackson ranks 17th in Pac-12 history in yards and 15th in touchdowns. He was a first-round draft pick and posted eight consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL for a team that rarely pressed for the postseason.
13. Mike Williams, WR, USC (2002-03)
Stats: 176 rec., 2,579 yds, 30 TDs
Fans in Los Angeles may always wonder what could have been had Williams not pressed NFL Draft eligibility rules. In his two underclass seasons for USC, Williams was extraordinary. As a true freshman, the massive 6-foot-5, 240-pounder caught 81 passes for 1,265 yards and 14 TDs. He returned to top those numbers as a sophomore with 95 receptions (third in league history at the time), 1,314 yards and 16 scores in 2003 (still third in league history). He was a consensus All-American and finished eighth in the Heisman voting. Williams declared for the draft following his sophomore season, but was ultimately ruled ineligible and couldn't return to USC either. Although he was taken 10th overall in the 2005 draft, he ended up being of the biggest draft busts in recent history, especially given the talent and potential he showed in college.
14. Antoine Cason, CB, Arizona (2004-07)
The California native was a four-year contributor for Arizona, playing in 46 career games in Tucson. He burst onto the scene in his first collegiate game by winning Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week. He went on to win Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He was named first-team all-league twice as an upperclassman and is the only player form the Pac-12 to win the Thorpe Award during the BCS Era (2007). He scored four times (two INTs, two punt returns), intercepted five passes and made 71 tackles as a senior. He finished with 253 tackles, 14.0 for loss, 15 interceptions and five total touchdowns. Cason was the 27th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
15. Marcedes Lewis, TE, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 126 rec., 1,571 yds, 21 TDs
The red-zone touchdown machine improved his production each of his four seasons at UCLA, culminating with All-American and John Mackey honors as a senior in 2005. He set school records in all three major categories for a tight end that year and helped UCLA to its best record (10-2) since 1998. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound consensus All-American was a matchup nightmare for defenses and was the Pac-10’s best player at his position during the BCS era in a league known for its great tight ends.
16. Alex Mack, C, Cal (2005-08)
The star center started 39 consecutive games for the Golden Bears. He won the “Academic Heisman” when was named the recipient of the Draddy Trophy in 2008 and was a two-time Rimington Finalist. Mack was the only Pac-12 player to win the Morris Trophy (Offensive) as the league’s top lineman twice during the BCS Era and was a three-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection. He also was a rare first-round pick as a center by the Browns in 2009 and has been sent to three Pro Bowls in his career.
17. Toby Gerhart, RB, Stanford (2006-09)
Stats: 671 att., 3,522 yds, 44 TDs, 39 rec., 395 yds
The Norco (Calif.) High prospect had just 515 yards and one touchdown entering his junior year. In two years as the starter, Gerhart posted 43 rushing touchdowns and over 3,000 yards in his final two seasons. He won the Doak Walker and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year accolades and earned consensus All-American honors by leading the nation in rushing touchdowns (28), attempts (343) and yards (1,871). He finished second in the Heisman balloting that year and his 28 touchdowns are a single-season Pac-12 record.
18. Will Sutton, DL, Arizona State (2009-13)
There are only two players in the history of the Pac-12 to win multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards and Sutton is one of them (Washington’s Steve Emtman is the other) as he claimed both the 2012 and '13 honor. Sutton was an All-American after a huge junior season in 2012 before returning to help lead Arizona State to the best record in the Pac-12 and a South Division title. He won back-to-back Morris Trophies as well as the league’s best D-liner in both seasons. From his tackle spot, he finished with 19.5 career sacks and 45.5 tackles for a loss.
19. Joey Harrington, QB, Oregon (1998-01)
Stats: 6,911 yds, 59 TDs, 23 INTs, 55.2%, 210 yds, 18 TDs
He will always be remembered as the guy on the Times Square billboard and as the third overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. However, during his three-year run at Oregon, few players were ever as productive and successful as Harrington. He went 25-3 as a starter, including an 11-win Pac-10 championship and the program's first-ever BCS bowl appearance and win. He was named the league's Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. He accounted for 63 total touchdowns in his final two seasons in Eugene.
20. Ryan Kalil, C, USC (2003-06)
The Rimington Finalist was one of the stars of the USC offensive line during its national championship run in the early 2000s. He played a big role on both the 2004 and '05 BCS title game teams and was voted the Morris Trophy winner in 2006. He also earned All-American honors and was drafted in the second round of the 2007 Draft by the Panthers. He is a three-time Pro Bowler.
21. David Yankey, G, Stanford (2011-13)
In three short years, Yankey is likely the school’s most decorated offensive lineman. He earned consensus All-American honors as a sophomore for the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champs while also claiming the Morris Trophy as the league’s top OL. He returned as a junior and earned unanimous All-American honors en route to a second consecutive Pac-12 championship. He led Stanford to three straight BCS bowls and a 34-7 overall record over that span. He declared early for the NFL Draft after his 2013 junior season.
22. Marqise Lee, WR, USC (2011- 13)
Stats: 248 rec., 3,655 yds, 29 TDs, 146 rush, 1,351 ret. yds, 2 TDs
As just a sophomore, Lee won the Biletnikoff Award, was a consensus All-American, was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and broke multiple USC and Pac-12 receiving records. He is one of just two wideouts in BCS history to finish in the top four of the Heisman voting. Lee owns the single-game Pac-12 record with 345 yards against Arizona in 2012 and is third all-time with 16 catches in that game. His 118 catches and 1,721 yards were both Pac-12 records that stood for one year until Brandin Cooks showed up in 2013. He is fourth all-time in career receptions and yards in league history and ninth in TD catches.
23. Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (2011-13)
Stats: 743 att., 4,239 yds, 48 TDs, 77 rec., 679 yds, 4 TDs, 565 ret. yds
There aren't too many records Carey doesn't own and had he stuck around for his final season, he would have rewritten the career rushing record book out West. He owns the single-game Pac-12 rushing record with 366 against Colorado as a sophomore. He led the nation in rushing as a sophomore and was second as a junior, finishing his career with 16 consecutive 100-yard games, and two of the top seven single-season rushing marks in league history. He is seventh all-time in rushing yards and fifth all-time in rushing touchdowns and could have broken both (59 and 6,245) with an equally impressive senior season. Carey was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year for his 1,885 yards and 19 TDs in 12 games this past fall.
24. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State (2011-13)
Stats: 226 rec., 3,272 yds, 24 TDs, 340 rush, 2 TDs
Cooks set the Pac-12 single-season records for receptions and yards when he caught 128 passes for 1,730 yards and finished third all-time with 16 touchdown receptions in 2013. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver before leaving early for the NFL Draft. Cooks is arguably the best of a long list of elite do-everything Beaver wide receivers, finishing 10th in league history in receptions and eighth all-time in yards.
25. Chris Claiborne, LB, USC (1995-98)
The three-year star for the Trojans was the first and only Butkus Award winner in USC history when he was named the nation’s top linebacker in 1998 — the same year both Al Wilson and Andy Katzenmoyer were seniors. He also is the only Pac-12 player to win the Butkus in the three-decade history of the award. He was a consensus All-American and the No. 9 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
The Next 10:
26. Deltha O’Neal, CB, Cal (1996-99)
The Golden Bear great is one of the most decorated defensive backs from the Pac-12 during the BCS Era. He is one of just two players to win conference Defensive Player of the Year when he set an NCAA record by returning four interceptions for touchdowns in his senior year. He also won the Mosi Tatupu Award as the nation’s top special teamer and the Pop Warner Award as the most valuable player on the West Coast — one of only six Pac-12 players to do so and one of only two Pac-12 defensive players. He was a consensus All-American and first-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
27. Ken Simonton, RB, Oregon State (1998-01)
Stats: 1,041 att., 5,044 yds, 59 TDs, 58 rec., 472 yds, TD
Simonton was a four-year starter who rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each season prior to his senior year. He set the school's single-season rushing record in 2000 with 1,546 yards (since broken) and is the all-time leading rusher at a program known for its running backs. Simonton is one of just three players in league history to top 5,000 yards rushing (James, Charles White) and he still owns the conference's career rushing touchdown mark with 59.
28. Adam Archuleta, Arizona State (1997-00)
The West Coast’s favorite walk-on became a three-year starter for the Sun Devils. He earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors twice and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. He was a finalist for the Butkus Award and finished with 330 tackles, 54.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks. The star tackler was a first-round pick of the Rams in the 2001 NFL Draft.
29. Sedrick Ellis, DL, USC (2004-07)
Ellis was one of the big fellas up the middle who helped the Trojans to four straight conference titles and two BCS championship appearances (2004-05). He was one of three players to ever win the Morris Trophy twice during the BCS Era, earned Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 and was a unanimous All-American in '07. Ellis finished with 144 total tackles, 28.5 tackles for a loss and 17.5 sacks in 48 career games for the Men of Troy. USC was 47-5 during his four years and Ellis was the seventh overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.
30. Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State (2008-10)
This strong bull in the middle is one of the greatest players in OSU history. He was a two-time Morris Trophy winner in the Pac-10, one of only five players to ever accomplish the feat in league history (three during BCS Era). Paea earned conference Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 and was named a consensus All-American. He finished with 129 tackles, 29.5 tackles for a loss and 14.0 sacks in his Beavers career. One of the strongest players in NFL Combine history, Paea was a second-round pick of the Bears in the 2011 draft.
31. Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford (2009-13)
The heart and soul of two Pac-12 championship teams and three teams that played in BCS bowls, few players have meant more to their team than Skov. He finished his career with 355 career tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss, 16.0 sacks and played his biggest games against the best competition (See: Oregon). During his last four years, Stanford was one of the best defensive units in the nation and his teams went a combined 46-8 during that span. He earned all-conference honors in 2010, '12 and '13.
32. Nick Barnett, LB, Oregon State (1999-02)
One of the most consistent and dependable playmakers in league history, Barnett started three full seasons for the Beavers. He was a multi-year all-conference selection and led the league as a senior with 121 tackles in 2001. He was an integral part of the rebuilding of Oregon State football that included an 11-1 Fiesta Bowl championship season in 2001. Barnett was a first-round pick of the Packers in 2003.
33. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Cal (2004-06)
Stats: 490 att., 3,230 yds, 29 TDs, 68 rec., 600 yds, 6 TDs, 744 ret yds
Beast mode started back in Berkeley where Lynch averaged 6.6 yards per carry over a three-year college career. He never had one elite season but his 1,684 yards from scrimmage, 15-total touchdown season led to a Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award in 2006. His power and speed was obvious ever since he signed with Cal out of Oakland (Calif.) Technical and he went on to be a first-round draft pick (12th overall) for Buffalo. Now leading the way in Seattle, Lynch has already earned four Pro Bowl invites and a Super Bowl ring in his NFL career.
34. Kris Farris, OL, UCLA (1995-98)
The 1998 Outland Trophy winner was a consensus All-American for the Bruins in 1998. In fact, Farris was one of only two players from the Pac-12 to win the Outland (Rien Long) and was the only offensive lineman to do so during the BCS Era. He helped lead UCLA to back-to-back 10-2 seasons and a Rose Bowl berth in his final season before being selected in the third round by the Bills in 1999.
35. Dwayne Jarrett, WR, USC (2004-06)
Stats: 216 rec., 3,138 yds, 41 TDs
A two-time consensus All-American, Jarrett was a touchdown machine. He scored 13, 16 and 12 receiving touchdowns respectively while helping USC earn trips to back-to-back BCS National Championship Games. His 2005 campaign was his best — 91 rec., 1,274 yds, 16 TDs — and he finished ninth in the Heisman voting as a junior in 2006 before turning pro. In the red zone, few players have ever been as dominant as his 41 career touchdown receptions are nine more than any other Pac-12 player. He’s 15th in league history in receptions and 14th all-time in yards.