Statistical production, individual awards, team success, longevity, supporting cast, level of competition, raw talent and overall athletic ability all factor heavily in determining overall greatness. Sometimes, you simply know greatness when you see it.
So all factors were considered when trying to determine who the greatest linebackers of the BCS era have been. Here are the Top 50 linebackers since the BCS was implemented in 1998:
1. Lavar Arrington, Penn State
Few college players were as intimidating as the rabid Nittany Lions linebacker. Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was named as the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and has arguably the most signature defensive play of the BCS Era when he leapt over the Illinois offensive line on 4th-and-1 to secure the win. Arrington consistently delivered crushing blows and wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Redskins.
2. James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
Few players in the nation are as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship game. The Buckeyes tackler was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
3. Patrick Willis, Ole Miss
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.
4. Manti Te’o, Notre Dame
It’s possible that the Notre Dame linebacker is the most decorated college football player of all-time. As a senior, Te’o won the Butkus, Bednarik, Lambert, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott awards while becoming the only defensive player of the BCS era to win the Walter Camp Award and Maxwell Trophy as well. He posted 113 tackles and seven interceptions while leading Notre Dame to a perfect regular season and BCS title game berth. His legacy off the field was soiled by a bizarre catfish scandal but shouldn’t factor into his spectacular overall college career.
5. Derrick Johnson, Texas
The big-play machine from Waco, Texas, was one of the greatest linebackers in Longhorns program history. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 65.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American. He capped his career with the Butkus, Lambert and Nagurski national awards as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors before being taken 15th overall by the Chiefs in the 2005 NFL Draft.
6. E.J. Henderson, Maryland
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 and was awarded the Butkus, Lambert and Bednarik Awards nationally. He was a two-time All-American, Chick-fil-A Bowl MVP and second-round pick by the Vikings in 2003.
7. Paul Posluszny, Penn State
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten Championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. The in-state Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell product was a second-round pick by the Bills in 2007.
8. Dan Morgan, Miami
Beginning his career as fullback, fans in South Florida are happy he ended up tackling instead of blocking. The superstar linebacker won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top LB in 2000 as well as Nagurski, Bednarik and Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. In fact, he was the first college player to claim all three awards. When Morgan left The U he owned the school and Big East record for career tackles with 532 and was taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2001 NFL Draft by Carolina.
9. Luke Kuechly, Boston College
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 pick by Carolina in 2012 and won the Butkus, Lombardi, Nagurski, Lott and Lambert national trophies.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State
His pro career notwithstanding, the Ohio State tackler was one of college football’s greatest tacklers during his time in Columbus. He was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes, won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as just a sophomore and nearly led OSU to the inaugural BCS title game in 1998. He started all 37 games of his college career and finished with 18 sacks and 50.0 tackles for loss. He was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999.
11. Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma
A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American, Calmus is one of the most important Sooners of all-time. He won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as senior in 2001 as the nation’s top linebacker but his play in '00 will go down in Oklahoma history. He led the vaunted Sooners defense to a perfect record and spearheaded arguably the greatest defensive performance of the BCS era by holding Florida State to zero offensive points in the BCS National Championship Game. Calmus was a third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
12. Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma
The Tulsa, Okla., native played in all 12 games for the 2000 BCS National Champions as a freshman. He was a three-year starter for the Sooners after that, posting 117 tackles and 19.0 TFL and earning the Butkus and Bednarik Awards while leading Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game in 2003. He was a two-time All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2004 NFL Draft.
13. Jonathan Vilma, Miami
During Vilma’s time on campus, the Hurricanes went an unbelievable 46-4 with wins in the Sugar, Rose and Orange Bowls. A three-year starter, including for the dominant 2001 National Champions, Vilma posted 377 total tackles and was a three-time, first-team All-Big East selection. He was honored with the Lambert Award in 2003 as the nation’s top linebacker. He was the 12th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft by the New York Jets.
14. Dat Nguyen, Texas A&M
Arguably the most decorated Texas A&M defender, Nguyen was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and his 517 career tackles are an Aggies record. His career in College Station culminated in 1998 with a historic and adorned senior season. Nguyen was named the Bednarik and Lombardi Award winner and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well. The unanimous All-American was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2004.
15. A.J. Hawk, Ohio State
Yet another Buckeyes great, Hawk started 38 of his 51 career college games for Ohio State. He contributed to the 2002 BCS National Championship squad as a freshman before earning two-time consensus All-American honors in 2004-05. As a senior, Hawk earned the Lombardi and Lambert Trophies for his play and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 394 tackles, 41.0 for loss, 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers.
16. Al Wilson, Tennessee
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.
17. Rolando McClain, Alabama
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.
18. Brian Urlacher, New Mexico
Few players were ever as versatile as Urlacher was for the Lobos. He finished his career with 442 tackles, 11 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, caught six touchdown passes on offense and returned five kicks for touchdowns on special teams. He was the ninth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears and is a sure-fire lock for Canton.
19. Rey Maualuga, USC
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.
20. Von Miller, Texas A&M
After an up and down but promising first two seasons, Miller exploded onto the scene as a junior in 2009. He led the nation in sacks with 17.0 and posted 21.0 tackles for loss. As a senior, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, Miller posted 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss en route to the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.
21. Chris Claiborne, USC
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 Wilson and Katzenmoyer were seniors. He was a consensus All-American and the No. 9 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.
22. Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Jones was a Lambert Award winner, a two-time All-American, led the nation in sacks as a sophomore 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.
23. Greg Jones, Michigan State
The stabilizing force for four years in East Lansing, Jones was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and a two-time, consensus All-American. Finished third in school history in tackles (465), second in tackles for loss (46.5) and sixth in sacks (16.5). He started 46 of 52 career games for the Spartans.
24. Dan Connor, Penn State
The Nittany Lions know something about playing linebacker and Connor is yet another elite tackler. He was a two-time All-American and won the Bednarik Award in 2007 and was a big part of the '05 Big Ten/Orange Bowl Championship team.
25. Brandon Spikes, Florida
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.
26. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
Curry was a freshman All-American after starting 10 games as a freshman. He posted 83 tackles as a sophomore and tied an NCAA record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns as a junior. As a senior, we won the Butkus Award, was an All-American and made 105 tackles. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
27. D’Qwell Jackson, Maryland
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. Jackson finished with 447 tackles, good for fourth in school history and was a second-round pick of the Browns in 2006.
28. DeMeco Ryans, Alabama
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. He just missed winning the Nagurski, Butkus and Draddy Awards as well before being a second-round pick in 2006 by the Texans.
29. D.J. Williams, Miami
After playing fullback in 2000 as a freshman, Williams switched to linebacker and contributed on the 2001 National Championship team. He was a two-time, first-team All-Big East pick as an upperclassman and finished with 190 tackles over that span. He was a first-round pick of the Broncos in 2004. The U was 46-4 during his time in South Florida.
30. Tank Carder, TCU
The leader of the 2010 unblemished Rose Bowl champs won back-to-back Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Awards. He finished his career with 228 total tackles, 25.0 for loss, 9.0 sacks and four interceptions in 39 starts over 50 career games.
31. C.J. Mosley, Alabama
Mosley has already won two BCS titles and was named an All-American with one year still left to go in his college career.
32. Lofa Tatupu, USC
He started all 25 games during his USC career posting 202 tackles, winning one national title and playing for another.
33. Adam Archuleta, Arizona State
Two-time All-Pac-10 performer won Def. P.O.Y. honors. The former walk-on finished with 330 tackles, 14.0 sacks and 54.0 TFL.
34. Keith Bullock, Syracuse
Two-time All-Big East pick led the league in tackles (1999) during Syracuse’s heyday. He was a first-round pick and posted 375 career tackles.
35. Julian Peterson, Michigan State
He posted 140 tackles and 25.0 sacks in just 23 career games for the Spartans and was a first-round pick in 2000.
36. Mike Peterson, Florida
The Gators linebacker was an All-American and led the defense to the 1996 National Championship and two SEC titles.
37. Arthur Brown, Kansas State
After transferring home from Miami, Brown won Big 12 Defensive P.O.Y., was an All-American and led KSU to a Big 12 championship
38. Kirk Morrison, San Diego State
He claimed back-to-back Mountain West Player of the Year honors and was a four-time All-MWC performer.
39. Mark Simoneau, Kansas State
He was a consensus All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and finished with 400 career tackles.
40. Keith Adams, Clemson
The All-American won ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 and posted 23.0 sacks in three years.
Related: The Top 30 Tight Ends of the BCS Era
41. Chad Greenway, Iowa
42. Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
43. Rennie Curran, Georgia
44. Larry Foote, Michigan
45. Jordon Dizon, Colorado
46. Robert Thomas, UCLA
47. Keith Rivers, USC
48. Lavonte David, Nebraska
49. David Harris, Michigan
50. Mark Herzlich, Boston College
The Next 25:
51. Torrance Marshall, Oklahoma
52. Brandon Short, Penn State
53. Rufus Alexander, Oklahoma
54. Karlos Dansby, Auburn
55. Tommy Polley, Florida State
56. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
57. Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
58. Lawrence Timmons, Florida State
59. Ernie Sims, Florida State
60. Leroy Hill, Clemson
61. Barrett Ruud, Nebraska
62. H.B. Blades, Pitt
63. Boss Bailey, Georgia
64. Levar Fisher, NC State
65. Brian Cushing, USC
66. Odell Thurman, Georgia
67. Ian Gold, Michigan
68. Raynoch Thompson, Tennessee
69. Jamie Winborn, Vanderbilt
70. Nick Barnett, Oregon State
71. Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina
72. Mychal Kendricks, Cal
73. A.J. Klein, Iowa State
74. Nick Reid, Kansas
75. Roosevelt Colvin, Purdue
Top 50s of the BCS Era:
The Top 50 Quarterbacks of the BCS Era
The Top 50 Running Backs of the BCS Era
The Top 50 Wide Receivers of the BCS Era
The Top 30 Tight Ends of the BCS Era
The Top 50 Offensive Linemen of the BCS Era