- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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Grab a pencil and a notepad. There will be a short test.
Five questions. Open answer. And no cheating. Ready? OK, who is the best linebacker in college football history? How about defensive tackle? Defensive end? Cornerback? Safety?
Time’s up. (I told you it was short.) Take a look at your list, and chances are the Big Ten boasts the most selections. Realistically, it’s the only conference that can stake a claim at each position. No other conference can say the same -- especially without repeating teams.
Don't believe me? Let’s take a look through the answer key of the NCAA's best ever, and in honor of The Season -- which looked at the greatest individual season from a player at every FBS school -- we will take a look at the top season by a player at each position:
Linebacker: Dick Butkus, Illinois, 1964: Did you really rate another linebacker over Butkus? Because that will cost you a few points. Butkus has become the standard by which to judge all other linebacking greats, and it’s not even close. He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1964, but the AFCA still named him the player of the year. He was one of the most-feared tacklers in the game and carried that reputation over to the NFL. There were other great college 'backers -- Alabama’s Derrick Thomas, Texas’ Tommy Nobis, Penn’s Chuck Bednarik -- but none greater than the man who said his time at Illinois was “eat, sleep and drink football.”
Defensive tackle: Bronko Nagurski, Minnesota, 1929: If you went with someone else -- Nebraska’s Rich Glover? Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon? Penn State’s Mike Reid? -- there is obviously a chance the team is in the Big Ten now. Regardless, there are definitely a lot of good defensive tackles to pick here. But can you really pick against the guy whose trophy now goes to the best defensive player in the NCAA? Is there really anyone tougher? One unsubstantiated legend explains how Minnesota’s head coach stopped near a field to ask a man for directions, when the man -- Nagurski -- lifted up his iron plow with one hand to point. Then there was Nagurski's reaction when he leveled several players and smashed into a brick wall: "That last guy hit me awful hard." Nagurski is a college legend; he led the nation in rushing in 1929 as a fullback. But the lore of his toughness on defense still carries on.
Defensive end: Bubba Smith, Michigan State, 1966: You know you’re good when the popular fan chant is, "Kill, Bubba, Kill!" Smith belongs in the top two here, for sure, but you couldn’t be at all blamed for choosing Pitt’s Hugh Green. Smith’s numbers weren’t nearly as impressive as Green’s 53 career sacks, but it is possible nobody affected the flow of a game more than Smith. Teams constantly double- or triple-teamed him, or simply avoided his side altogether when it came to calling run plays. That kind of respect meant the Spartans allowed just 51.4 rushing yards a game when Smith was a senior. He helped them finish undefeated (9-0-1) that season and win part of the national title. He was taken No. 1 overall in the NFL draft a few months later.
Cornerback: Charles Woodson, Michigan, 1997: You want to go with Florida State’s Deion Sanders just to be contrary, don’t you? Well, that is not a bad pick. But it’s also hard to go against the only defensive player to win the Heisman -- especially considering he cruised past runner-up Peyton Manning in the vote. He gets definite bonus points for that. Woodson had eight interceptions that season and even grabbed one from Washington State’s Ryan Leaf in the Rose Bowl. Michigan went 12-0 and split the national title with Nebraska that season. There was no more versatile athlete in college football in 1997, and there wasn’t a more dangerous defensive back, either.
Safety: Jack Tatum, Ohio State, 1970: Move over, Ronnie Lott. Not only does Tatum belong in the conversation as one of college football’s greatest defensive backs, but he also should get some extra credit for his hard hits and "Assassin" nickname. He finished seventh in the 1970 Heisman voting, and his reputation for vicious hits once caused a writer to liken his bearing down on receivers to "the way a tractor-trailer might bear down on a squirrel on a rural highway." He was named the national defensive player of the year in 1970, and Jim Tressel, when he was the coach, even later termed the Buckeyes' hit of the week the "Jack Tatum Hit of the Week." His College Football Hall of Fame bio also reads "best remembered as one of the hardest hitters in all of football history." You can’t get much more official than that.
The Big Ten hasn’t dominated every decade with the top defensive players. But it does have a richer history and deeper tradition on its side, one that started more than a century ago when Michigan’s Adolph Schulz dropped back from the defensive line and gave birth to the idea of a "roving center," or linebacker. It has continued with countless Hall of Fame nominations, a conference-high four No. 1 overall defensive NFL draft picks and some of the best defensive names to ever play the game.
This isn’t just one man’s opinion. More than half of the starting defense on Sports Illustrated’s All-Century Team -- six of 11 players -- consisted of Big Ten athletes and no, that’s not including Nebraska's Glover. The Walter Camp Foundation’s All-Century Team also featured a Big Ten player at every defensive position. Even ABC’s list of the "25 Greatest Players in College Football" had more defensive players from the Big Ten than any other conference.
When it comes to quantity, maybe other conferences have the Big Ten beat on defense. But when it comes to quality and history? The Big Ten is still tops.