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Athlon Sports ranks the best SEC linebackers of the BCS Era.
The Bowl Championship Series is dead. But even the harshest of BCS detractors must acknowledge that the 16-year run was arguably the best era of college football in the history of the sport.
The era was highlighted by the advent of the BCS Championship Game, conference realignment and mega-dollar contracts for conferences, programs and coaches. But the elite athletes had a huge, if not the biggest, hand in the unprecedented growth of college football over the last two decades.
So Athlon Sports is looking back on the players that made the BCS Era great — conference-by-conference, position-by-position.
The saying goes defense wins championships and the quarterback of that defense is likely the most important player on the field. Generally, that means middle linebackers. So in a league that has dominated college football during the BCS Era, it is to be expected that the SEC has a long list of historically great linebackers.
Note: Must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss (2003-06)
The unheralded Tennessee native was overlooked by most of the SEC big boys and made them all pay by becoming the league’s best linebacker of the BCS Era. Rising from utter poverty to the best LB in the nation, Willis claimed the Butkus and Lambert Awards in 2006. He posted 265 tackles and 21.0 for loss over his final two seasons, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and All-American status as a senior. He was taken with the 11th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft by San Francisco.
2. Al Wilson, Tennessee (1995-98)
Wilson isn’t as decorated as some of his BCS brethren but few players had as big an impact on their team as the Vols middle linebacker. He helped lead Tennessee to two SEC championships and the historic and unblemished 1998 national title. He was a consensus All-American, a consummate teammate on and off the field and was the 31st overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
3. Rolando McClain, Alabama (2007-09)
His fall from grace aside, McClain was one of the BCS’s great defensive leaders. He started eight games and posted 75 tackles as a freshman before earning some All-American honors as a sophomore (95 tackles). As the unquestioned heartbeat of the Alabama defense, McClain led the Crimson Tide back to the BCS promised land with a perfect senior season. He posted 105 tackles, 14.5 for loss, four sacks and two interceptions. He earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, was a unanimous All-American and won both the Butkus and Lambert Awards. He was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
4. C.J. Mosley, Alabama (2010-13)
Few players can boast both a Butkus Award and a national championship — let alone two national championships and freshman All-American honors. Mosley posted a career-high 108 tackles and 9.0 tackles for loss and came up one play shy of winning back-to-back SEC titles and possibly a third BCS title. He collected 318 career tackles and 23.0 tackles for loss in his decorated and illustrious career in Tuscaloosa. Alabama went 46-7 during Mosley’s time on campus and was ranked No. 1 in the nation in all four seasons.
5. DeMeco Ryans, Alabama (2002-05)
The former three-star recruit outperformed all expectations for the Crimson Tide. In 2005 as a senior, he was a unanimous All-American, won the Lott Trophy and was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Ryans finished with 76 tackles and five sacks in his final season and just missed winning the Nagurski, Butkus and Draddy Awards as well. The Crimson Tide tackler was a second-round pick in 2006 by the Texans.
6. Jarvis Jones, Georgia (2011-12)
Jones was a Lambert Award winner, a two-time All-American, led the nation in sacks as a sophomore (14.5), forced more fumbles in 2012 (7) than any player in his conference during the BCS Era and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He also led Georgia to consecutive SEC East titles and was the 17th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. He finished his career with 168 total tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 28.0 sacks in two years as a starter in Athens.
7. Brandon Spikes, Florida (2006-09)
Spikes' resume is virtually complete. He was a two-time, consensus All-American, a three-time, first-team All-SEC selection, won two BCS National Championships, was a second-round pick and dated Doc Rivers' daughter. He posted 307 total tackles and started 39 of his 47 career games as a Gator before a slow 40-time caused him to fall into the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
8. Jevon Kearse, Florida (1995-98)
Kearse originally showed up on campus as a 215-pound safety. He eventually worked his way onto the field with a rare combination of length and explosiveness. The Freak played just one year in the BCS Era but helped lead the Gators to a national title in 1996. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1998, was a two-time All-SEC pick and a first-team All-American. The Titans selected The Freak with the 16th pick of the 1999 NFL Draft.
9. Mike Peterson, Florida (1995-98)
Much like Kearse, the Gators linebacker was an All-American and led the defense to the 1996 national championship and two SEC titles. He finished his career with 249 tackles, 13.0 for loss and 8.5 sacks in 42 career games before getting picked with the 36th overall selection of the 1999 NFL Draft.
10. Karlos Dansby, Auburn (2001-03)
Dansby had to grow into a linebacker after coming to Auburn as a defensive back but he was one of the league’s great defensive playmakers during his time in college. He was a two-time All-SEC selection and an All-American in his final season on The Plains. He finished his career with 219 tackles, 36.0 tackles for loss, 10.0 sacks and eight interceptions. Dansby was a second-round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
Just missed the cut:
11. Bradie James, LSU (1999-02)
James was a tackling machine who helped rebuild the LSU program from SEC also-ran to national title winner the year after he departed. He is one of just two players in school history with 400 tackles (418) and set the school’s single-season record for stops with 154 as a senior in 2002. James was an All-American and an All-SEC player in some fashion all four years on campus (two first-team selections, one second as well as Freshman All-SEC).
12. Raynoch Thompson, Tennessee (1996-99)
Alongside Wilson in Knoxville, Thompson was an integral part of a national championship run for the Vols in 1998. He was a two-time Butkus finalist and an All-American performer for Tennessee. Thompson was the 41st overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
13. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama (2008-11)
The star linebacker won two national championships, two SEC titles, was the BCS title game MVP in 2012 and was an All-American on what many call the best defensive unit of the BCS Era. Bama was 48-6 during his time in college. Upshaw posted 104 tackles, 32.5 for loss and 16.5 sacks in his final two seasons.
14. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama (2008-11)
Lining up next to Upshaw the entire time was Hightower. Hailing from the middle Tennessee area, Hightower led Bama’s historic ’11 defense with 85 stops. He finished with 234 career tackles and 21.0 tackles for loss. He was the 25th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
15. Boss Bailey, Georgia (1999-02)
The younger brother to Dawgs superstar Champ Bailey, Boss was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs during his time. He earned All-SEC honors and was a Butkus and Lombardi Award contender throughout his tenure in Athens. In his final season, he helped bring an SEC championship to Georgia for the first time since 1982.
Best of the Rest:
16. Rennie Curran, Georgia (2007-09)
17. Jerod Mayo, Tennessee (2005-07)
18. Jamie Winborn, Vanderbilt (1997-00)
19. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina (2007-08)
20. Danny Trevathan, Kentucky (2008-11)
21. Channing Crowder, Florida (2002-05)
22. Odell Thurman, Georgia (2003-04)
23. Kelvin Sheppard, LSU (2007-10)
24. Kevin Burnett, Tennessee (2001-04)
25. Andrew Wilson, Missouri (2010-13)