The inaugural edition of Athlon Sports was published in 1967, the same year that a running back named O.J. Simpson led the USC Trojans to the national championship. As we celebrate 50 years of covering the sport, we thought it would be fun to take a deep dive and compile a ranking of the top 50 players of the Athlon Sports era. This wasn’t easy. Our checklist contained more than 300 players, each of whom received either first-team All-America honors or won a major postseason award. To help us sort through the list of all-time greats, we assembled a panel of college football experts. Each member submitted a list of top 50 players, and we used a simple formula to tabulate the final rankings: A player received 50 points for a first-place vote down to one point for a 50th-place vote. To be eligible, a player had to have played at least one season of college football between 1967 and 2016.
Tony Barnhart — former college football writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; current columnist at GridIronNow
Michael Bradley — freelance college sports writer
Matt Brown — college football writer for Sports on Earth
Jimmy Burch — college sports writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Bill Connelly — college football writer for SB Nation
Rob Doster — senior editor at Athlon Sports
Chris Dufresne — former college football writer for the Los Angeles Times; co-founder of TMGCollegeSports.com
Bruce Feldman — college football writer at FoxSports.com
Steven Godfrey — college football writer for SB Nation
Herb Gould — former college football writer for the Chicago Sun-Times; co-founder of TMGCollegeSports.com
Bill King — host of The Bill King Show on 560/95.9 in Nashville
Tom Luicci — former college football writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.
Ivan Maisel — college football writer for ESPN.com
Stewart Mandel — college football writer at FoxSports.com
Paul Myerberg — college football writer for USA Today
Bud Withers — former college football writer for the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Eugene Register-Guard
Top 50 CFB Players of the Athlon Era (1967-2016)
50. Desmond Howard WR/KR, Michigan, 1989-91
Howard was the most electrifying player in college football in his day. He was the first receiver ever to lead the Big Ten in scoring, amassing a nation-leading 23 total touchdowns during his Heisman-winning season, and he set a handful of NCAA records in the process. In 1991, he received more first-place Heisman votes than anyone else before him, and he also captured the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards.
49. Doug Flutie QB, Boston College, 1981-84
The diminutive Flutie became an American folk hero during his 1984 Heisman Trophy season, a campaign that saw Flutie throw for 3,454 yards and 27 touchdowns — the most notable being the famous “Hail Flutie” pass that beat Miami 47–45. Flutie left BC as college football’s all-time passing yardage leader with 10,579 (since broken). The subsequent surge in applications to BC after his Heisman season signaled a phenomenon that became known as the “Flutie effect,” showing the power of college sports in building a school’s reputation.
48. Danny Wuerffel QB, Florida, 1993-96
Wuerffel and Florida coach Steve Spurrier were a match made in Fun ’n’ Gun heaven. Wuerffel ran Spurrier’s offense to perfection in leading the Gators to their first-ever national title and winning the school its first Heisman since Spurrier’s in 1967. Wuerffel finished his college career having completed 708 of 1,170 passes for 10,875 yards with 114 touchdown passes. His career pass efficiency rating of 163.56 was the best in major college history at the time, and his percentage of passes that went for TDs (9.74) also ranked first.
47. Marcus Mariota QB, Oregon, 2012-14
Mariota was a remarkably prolific quarterback in his three seasons in the high-powered Quack Attack. Among his countless statistical milestones: 10,796 career yards passing and 105 TDs to go with 2,237 yards rushing and 29 more TDs in only three seasons, with a win-loss record of 36–5. In his Heisman campaign of 2014, Mariota posted this phenomenal stat line: 4,454 yards passing, 68.3 percent completion percentage, 42 TD passes with only four interceptions, 770 rushing yards and 15 rushing scores.
46. Keith Jackson TE, Oklahoma, 1984-87
Despite playing in a run-first (and run-second) offense, Jackson found a niche as a big-play threat. In 1986, OU attempted 7.3 passes per game, and in 1987, 8.3 passes per game — and Jackson was an All-American both years. In OU’s win over Penn State in the 1986 Orange Bowl — which gave the Sooners the national championship — Jackson caught a 71-yard touchdown pass.
45. Peyton Manning QB, Tennessee, 1994-97
Manning finished his career having rewritten the school passing record book and extensively edited the SEC record book. He left Knoxville in possession of conference marks for career wins as a starter, completions, completion percentage, passing yards and total offense, among others. He won the 1997 Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards, and was the SEC Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American.
44. Chris Spielman LB, Ohio State, 1984-87
Maniacally intense, Spielman finished his career as Ohio State’s all-time leader with 283 solo tackles overall and 105 solo stops in a season (1986), and also tied a school record with 29 tackles in the 1986 Michigan game. A three-time All-Big Ten choice and two-time All-American, the Massillon native was a cult hero in Ohio and appeared on a Wheaties box as a high schooler.
43. Reggie White DT, Tennessee, 1980-83
The Minister of Defense is better known for his Hall of Fame pro career, but he also had a dominant college career spent terrorizing SEC quarterbacks and running backs. White holds the school record for sacks in a single season with 15 in 1983 and only recently saw his school career sack record broken by Derek Barnett. White was the SEC Player of the Year and an All-American in ’83.
42. Jonathan Ogden OT, UCLA, 1992-95
Ogden was a perfect combination of size (6'9", 345) and athleticism for the all-important left tackle position, which he played in textbook fashion at both the college and pro levels. In 23 games as a junior and senior, Ogden allowed only two sacks. In 1995, he earned unanimous first-team All-America honors along with the Outland Trophy and UPI Lineman of the Year award. He was also an NCAA champion in the shot put.
41. Bruce Smith DE, Virginia Tech, 1981-84
Smith was an unblockable sack machine for the Hokies, amassing 46 career sacks, including a nation-leading 22 as a junior. He was a first-team All-American in 1983 and ’84 and won the 1984 Outland Trophy. He also had 71 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for 504 yards in losses. The No. 1 overall pick of the 1985 NFL Draft, Smith had a Hall of Fame career for the Bills and Redskins and is the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 200.
40. Randy White DL, Maryland, 1971-74
The Manster — part man, part monster — terrorized ACC offenses before embarking on a Hall of Fame pro career. Starting his career as a fullback, White moved to defense as a sophomore and became one of the best linemen in the country thanks to speed that matched that of some running backs. As a senior, White won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award and was the ACC Player of the Year.
39. Mike Singletary LB, Baylor, 1977-80
A player of matchless intensity, Singletary was a tackle machine for the Bears, who attained an unprecedented level of success during his time in Waco. He had 97 tackles as a freshman, a school-record 232 as a sophomore (including 35 in a game against Houston), 188 as a junior and 145 as a senior, when the Bears won 10 games and a Cotton Bowl berth. He was an All-American as a junior and senior.
38. Matt Leinart QB, USC, 2003-05
Leinart won the Heisman as a junior, when he completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns with only six interceptions. Over his three-year career as a starter, he completed 65 percent of his tosses for 10,693 yards and a school-record 99 touchdowns, and was a two-time first-team All-American. With Leinart calling signals, the Trojans went 37–2 with a 34-game winning streak, three Pac-10 titles and two national titles.
37. Ricky Williams RB, Texas, 1995-98
Williams broke Earl Campbell’s school freshman rushing record with 990 yards, and he was off and running. Williams was a two-time All-American and the first two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award (1997 and ’98). In his senior year, he rushed for a school single-season record 2,124 yards and earned the Heisman Trophy along with the Maxwell Award and AP Player of the Year and Walter Camp Player of the Year honors.
36. Archie Manning QB, Ole Miss, 1968-70
Before siring two great NFL quarterbacks, Archie was an Ole Miss legend who passed for 4,753 yards, rushed for 823 more and accounted for 56 touchdowns in an era when those numbers were extraordinary. He secured his legend in a 33–32 loss to Alabama in 1969, when he passed for 436 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 104 yards in a losing effort.
35. Jerry Rice WR, Mississippi Valley State, 1981-84
Tiny Itta Bena, Miss., was the college home of the GOAT, who teamed up with the other half of the Satellite Express, QB Willie “Satellite” Totten, to post otherworldly numbers at MVSU. Rice set NCAA marks for receptions (102) and receiving yards (1,450) as a junior, and then topped himself as a senior with 112 catches, 1,845 receiving yards and 27 TDs. He finished his career with 301 catches for 4,693 yards and 50 touchdowns.
34. Ed Reed S, Miami, 1998-2001
Reed anchored the back end of some of the most talented defenses of the modern era. He holds Miami records for interceptions (21), interception return yards (389) and return touchdowns (five). He also blocked four punts, had 288 tackles, forced four fumbles and defended 52 passes during his career. He had nine interceptions for the 2001 national champions, one of history’s greatest teams.
33. John Elway QB, Stanford, 1979-82
As was the case for much of his pro career, Elway was a virtual one-man show on some Cardinal teams that lacked overall talent. Although he never was able to lead his team to a bowl game — due in part to The Play in the 1982 Cal game — Elway threw for 9,349 career yards and 77 touchdowns and led the nation in TD passes in 1982 with 24. He finished his career with nearly every Stanford and Pac-10 passing and total offense record.
32. Brian Bosworth LB, Oklahoma, 1984-86
The flamboyant sideshow sometimes hid the substance: Brian Bosworth was one of the best linebackers in OU history. A two-time winner of the Butkus Award, Bosworth was a devastating defender. He led OU in tackles in each of his three seasons — tallying 133, 144 and 136 tackles. He helped lead the Sooners to the national championship in 1985 and was even an academic All-American in ’86.
31. Steve Emtman DE, Washington, 1989-91
Emtman was the cornerstone of one of the great teams of the modern era, the undefeated 1991 Washington Huskies, who shared the national championship with Miami. That season, Emtman won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Award and finished fourth in the Heisman voting after posting 20.5 tackles for a loss on the season. He was the first overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft but saw his pro career cut short by injuries.
30. Cam Newton QB, Auburn, 2010
Newton spent only one year on The Plains after an ill-fated stint at Florida and a year in junior college, but it was one of the greatest single seasons by a quarterback in college football history. In leading Auburn to the 2010 national title, Newton completed 185-of-280 passes (66.1 percent) for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns to earn the Heisman Trophy by a landslide margin.
29. Jack Tatum DB, Ohio State, 1968-70
Tatum, who went on to star for the Raiders, was one of the most feared hitters in football history. A key member of Ohio State’s great teams from 1968 through 1970, Tatum twice was named an All-American and was the national Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Perhaps more meaningful to him, however, was being voted one of four captains on Ohio State’s All-Century Team in 2000.
28. Lawrence Taylor LB, North Carolina, 1977-80
At the time, Chapel Hill was a rather remote college football outpost in the basketball-mad ACC, but LT helped establish Tar Heel football during a dominant college career. Taylor, who didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, was a terrifying combination of size, speed and aggression. In 1980, Taylor posted 16 sacks and was an All-American and ACC Player of the Year before going on to redefine the outside linebacker position in the NFL.
27. Marcus Allen RB, USC, 1979-81
Allen, USC’s fourth Heisman Trophy winner, became the first college back ever to crack the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the regular season, rushing for 2,342 yards in his 1981 Heisman campaign and setting new NCAA marks with 212.9 rushing yards per game and five consecutive 200-yard games. During his days in cardinal and gold, Allen broke 14 NCAA records and tied two others.
26. Anthony Muñoz OL, USC, 1976-79
Muñoz was the prototypical offensive lineman who showed that big men could be agile as well as dominating. A two-time All-American, Muñoz was also talented enough to have pitched for the Trojans’ national championship baseball team in 1978. Knee injuries proved to be a problem for Muñoz while at USC, but they did not keep him from having a Hall of Fame NFL career.
25. Kenny Easley S, UCLA, 1977-80
One of the most decorated defenders in college football history, Easley became the first player to earn first-team All-Pac 10 honors four consecutive years. He was a three-time consensus first-team All-American (1978, ’79, ’80) and finished his career with a school-record 19 interceptions and 324 tackles. He was ninth in Heisman voting in 1980.
24. Johnny Rodgers WB, Nebraska, 1970-72
The Jet became the top pass receiver and kick returner in Big Eight history, setting 41 school records and four NCAA records for Cornhusker teams that were a combined 33–2–2 and won two national championships. Rodgers’ most famous play was one of the great moments in college football history — a 72-yard punt return to begin the scoring in the 1971 “Game of the Century” at Oklahoma. He would win the Heisman Trophy the following year.
23. Larry Fitzgerald WR, Pittsburgh, 2002-03
Fitzgerald wasn’t quite as physically gifted as Moss, but he was almost as productive in two seasons for the Panthers. In 26 games, Fitz caught 161 passes for 2,677 yards and a school-record 34 touchdowns. He caught at least one TD pass in an NCAA-Division-I record 18 straight games. He was the 2003 Biletnikoff winner and runner-up in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
22. Randy Moss WR, Marshall, 1996-97
It took the mercurial Moss a while to land at Marshall thanks to disciplinary issues, but he was worth the wait for the Herd, posting two of the greatest receiving seasons in college football history. He scored at least one TD in all 28 of his college games, finishing with 174 catches for 3,529 yards and 54 scores. He was fourth in the Heisman balloting in 1997.
21. Derrick Thomas LB, Alabama, 1985-88
In 1988, the unblockable Thomas compiled a staggering 27 sacks. His career total was an equally imposing 52. As a senior, Thomas became the first SEC player to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. Tragically, Thomas, one of the greatest linebackers in history, died in 2000 from complications brought on by an automobile accident.
20. O.J. Simpson RB, USC, 1967-68
In his two seasons at USC, Simpson rushed for 3,423 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and running for 36 touchdowns. He rushed for 1,880 yards and 23 scores in his Heisman year of 1968. An unmatched combination of fluid grace and determination, Simpson was a unanimous All-American both of his years in the cardinal and gold. During his brief college career, he set 19 school, Pac-8 and NCAA records.
19. Dave Rimington C, Nebraska, 1979-82
Rimington earned back-to-back Outland trophies, the only player ever to do so, as well as the Lombardi Award in 1982, when he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. The two-time All-American was chosen as the Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year as a junior, making him the only interior lineman ever to be so honored. Fittingly, the award for best college football center bears his name.
18. Ronnie Lott S, USC, 1978-80
Lott was an All-Pac-10 first-teamer in 1979 and ’80, and was a unanimous All-American in 1980. He racked up 250 career tackles, including 22 for a loss. He also registered 14 interceptions and 37 pass breakups. As a senior, he picked off eight passes, tying for the NCAA lead, and deflected 16 other passes. Lott is undoubtedly one of the toughest, hardest-hitting players in the history of football.
17. John Hannah OL, Alabama, 1970-72
One of the best offensive linemen in college football history, Hannah was a two-time All-American who served as a road grader in the early days of Alabama’s wishbone attack and earned a spot on Alabama’s All-Century Team. Bear Bryant once called Hannah the greatest player he ever coached.
16. Orlando Pace OT, Ohio State, 1994-96
The father of the “pancake block” and one of the best offensive linemen in football history, Pace did not allow a sack during his final two seasons as a Buckeye, earning the Lombardi Award in 1995 and ’96 and the Outland Trophy in 1996. In 1996, he finished fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting, the highest for an offensive lineman since OSU’s John Hicks finished second 23 years earlier.
15. Ndamukong Suh DT, Nebraska, 2005-09
One of history’s most dominant interior defensive linemen, Suh authored a season for the ages in 2009 with 85 tackles, 12 sacks, 26 quarterback hurries, 20.5 tackles for a loss, 10 pass breakups, three blocked kicks and an interception. In the Huskers’ 13–12 loss to Texas in the Big 12 Championship, Suh had 6.0 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He returned two interceptions for TDs as a junior.
14. Reggie Bush RB, USC, 2003-05
With Bush at tailback, the Trojans lost only two games in three years — both by three points — and won two national championships. Bush possessed an utterly unique mix of skills and redefined the tailback position at Tailback U. During his Heisman year of 2005, Bush averaged 8.7 yards per carry, netting 1,740 yards. He finished his career with 25 rushing TDs, 13 receiving TDs and four more scores on returns.
13. Lee Roy Selmon DT, Oklahoma, 1972-75
The youngest of the legendary Selmon brothers, Lee Roy was a dominant force for one of the best defenses in college football history. He was a consensus All-American for an OU team that won back-to-back national titles in 1974-75, and he won the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award in ’75. Barry Switzer called Selmon the best player he ever coached.
12. Tommie Frazier QB, Nebraska, 1992-95
Frazier was at his best when the stakes were highest. He directed two fourth-quarter TD drives in a 24–17 victory over Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl that gave coach Tom Osborne his first national title. Then, in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl, he rushed for 199 yards and two TDs as Nebraska overwhelmed Florida 62–24 to win another national championship and claim a place among history’s greatest teams.
11. Charles Woodson DB/PR, Michigan, 1995-97
Woodson’s 1997 Heisman Trophy was somewhat controversial at the time, coming at the expense of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, but a closer look reveals that Woodson was a worthy choice. That season, he led the Big Ten with seven interceptions and scored a rushing touchdown, two receiving touchdowns and a punt return touchdown. He finished his career in Ann Arbor with 16 interceptions, 537 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
10. Tony Dorsett RB, Pittsburgh, 1973-76
Dorsett stormed out of the gate, becoming the first freshman to be named a first-team All-American in 29 years, but he saved his best for last with a monster senior season that included 2,150 rushing yards (including the Sugar Bowl win over Georgia), a national championship and a Heisman Trophy. The three-time first-team All-American finished his career with 6,082 rushing yards, a record that would stand until 1998.
9. Deion Sanders CB, Florida State, 1985-88
One of the most electrifying players in football history, Sanders was a lockdown cornerback and special teams terror for some great teams in Tallahassee. Neon Deion intercepted 14 passes in his career, returning three of them for touchdowns, and he averaged 11.3 yards per punt return with three scores. He was a consensus All-American in 1987 and ’88 and won the Thorpe Award in ’88.
8. Vince Young QB, Texas, 2003-05
Young authored arguably the greatest big-game performance in college football history — his 467-yard, three-touchdown outing in Texas’ 41–38 win over USC in the Rose Bowl that gave the Horns the 2005 national title. But Young was far from a one-game wonder, passing for 6,040 yards, rushing for 3,127 and accounting for 81 touchdowns in three seasons. In Young’s last two years in Austin, he led Texas to a 24–1 record, with two legendary Rose Bowl performances that yielded a combined 839 yards and eight touchdowns.
7. Hugh Green DE, Pittsburgh, 1977-80
Green was perhaps the greatest, most productive defensive player in college football history. A three-time consensus first-team All-American (and a second-team selection as a freshman), Green finished his career with 460 tackles, 53 sacks, 52 tackles for a loss, 24 forced fumbles and 13 fumble recoveries before embarking on a decorated pro career. He finished second in the Heisman voting in 1980 following a 17-sack senior season.
6. Tim Tebow QB, Florida, 2006-09
The numbers are simply staggering: 9,285 passing yards and 88 touchdowns; 2,947 rushing yards and an SEC-record 57 scores on the ground; conference records for total touchdowns (145), passing yards per attempt (9.3) and passing efficiency rating (170.8). Oh, and there’s the small matter of two national championships in his four seasons in Gainesville.
5. Bo Jackson RB, Auburn, 1982-85
Jackson amassed quite a highlight reel in his first three seasons on The Plains, but his injury-free 1985 campaign was when it all came together: 1,786 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns and a Heisman Trophy. Jackson finished his career with 4,303 rushing yards and 45 total scores before becoming a folk hero and pop culture fixture with his multi-sport pro career.
4. Earl Campbell RB, Texas, 1974-77
The Tyler Rose left countless Southwest Conference defenders face-down on the turf or grasping at air. He left Austin with 4,443 rushing yards and won the 1977 Heisman Trophy with a 1,744-yard, 18-TD season for the 11–1 Longhorns. Even in the Horns’ 38–10 Cotton Bowl loss to Notre Dame that cost them the national title, Campbell was a bright spot, rushing for 116 yards.
3. Archie Griffin RB, Ohio State, 1972-75
The only two-time winner of the Heisman Trophy, Griffin was a workhorse for Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes, amassing 5,589 rushing yards (second in Big Ten history) on 924 carries. He led the Big Ten in rushing in 1973 (1,577 yards), ’74 (1,695 yards) and ’75 (1,450 yards) and averaged a robust 6.0 yards per attempt for his career.
2. Barry Sanders RB, Oklahoma State, 1986-88
The dazzlingly elusive Sanders had arguably the greatest individual season in college football history, rushing for 2,850 yards on 7.6 yards per carry and 42 touchdowns (including the bowl game) in his Heisman campaign of 1988. He scored 55 total touchdowns in his three-year career despite having only one season as the Cowboys’ featured back.
1. Herschel Walker RB, Georgia, 1980-82
Walker stampeded onto the college football scene in his first game by barreling over Tennessee’s Bill Bates, and from there, his legend only grew. The 1982 Heisman winner led the Bulldogs to a 33–3 record and the 1980 national championship during his three seasons in Athens, rushing for 5,259 yards — still an SEC record — and 49 touchdowns.
Note: The NCAA did not count bowl games toward official statistics until the 2002 season. Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics listed are the official NCAA numbers.
The All-Athlon Team
The Athlon Era Dream Team consists of 22 of history’s greatest collegiate players, each of whom has a spot in our top 50.
QB: Tim Tebow
RB: Herschel Walker, Barry Sanders
WR: Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald
TE: Keith Jackson
OL: John Hannah Jonathan Ogden, Orlando Pace, Anthony Munoz
C: Dave Rimington
DE: Hugh Green, Randy White
DT: Lee Roy Selmon, Ndamukong Suh
LB: Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Brian Bosworth
CB: Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders
S: Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley
Inside the Ballots
Highest-ranked player missing from one ballot: Archie Griffin (No. 3)
Highest-ranked player missing from two ballots: Vince Young (No. 8)
Highest ranking for a player not in final top 50: Eddie George, 6th
Highest ranking for a player on only one ballot: Andre Ware, 17th
Numbers of players who received at least one vote: 137
No. 1 Votes
Herschel Walker: 9
Tim Tebow: 3
Barry Sanders: 2
Tommie Frazier: 1
Cam Newton: 1
Players on every ballot:
Players on all but one ballot:
Top 50 by School
Ohio State: 4
Boston College: 1
Florida State: 1
Mississippi Valley State: 1
North Carolina: 1
Oklahoma State: 1
Ole Miss: 1
Virginia Tech: 1