NCF Nation: Ronnie Lott

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.”
  • [+] EnlargeBronko Nagurski
    AP PhotoFormer Minnesota Golden Gophers great Bronislaw "Bronko" Nagurski.
  • 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.
On Friday, the Pac-10 becomes the Pac-12, and life as we all have known it ends.

Kaboom!

Before we start looking forward -- oh, well, guess that's all we've been doing this offseason -- let's take a look back at the 10-team conference that started in 1978 when Arizona and Arizona State joined the Pac-8 (and Pac-8 purist grumbled about life ending as they knew it).

Today, we compile an all-time, All-Pac-10 team (No player who graduated before 1978 was considered). Thursday, we'll rank the best Pac-10 teams.

As for picking the players, you might imagine this wasn't easy. Lots of great players over the past 33 years. This list doesn't include many consensus All-Americans, national award winners and players who won multiple All-Pac-10 honors.

[+] EnlargeMatt Leinart
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesUSC's Matt Leinart is the conference's all-time leader touchdown passes.
I struggled with receiver and offensive line the most. And kicker (UCLA fans will slap their foreheads at my pick). Ten selected players already are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

NFL success wasn't a part of this measure -- just look at the QB. But there were a couple of moments -- tight end and kicker -- when it waved at me from a distance.

As for the per school tally, it should be no surprise that USC led the way with seven players. It might be a surprise that Arizona, with no Rose Bowl berths, was second with four. Neither Oregon nor Stanford have a player on the team.

Feel free to disagree. Or to post your own team.

Offense

QB Matt Leinart, USC (2005): 2004 Heisman Trophy winner. Finished third in 2005. Won two national titles; played for a third. 99 career touchdown passes is 14 more than any other quarterback in conference history.

RB Charles White, USC (1979): 1979 Heisman Trophy winner. Fourth in 1978. Pac-10's all-time leading rusher. College Football Hall of Fame.

RB Marcus Allen, USC (1981): 1981 Heisman Trophy winner. 2,427 yards rushing in 1981 is conference single-season record. College Football Hall of Fame.

WR Dwayne Jarrett, USC (2006): A two-time consensus All-American. Ninth in Heisman Trophy balloting. 41 career touchdown receptions is nine more than any wide receiver in conference history.

WR Mike Hass, Oregon State (2005): Biletnikoff winner. Consensus All-American. His 1,532 yards receiving is a conference single-season record. He also holds the single-game receiving yards record (293).

OL Jonathan Ogden, UCLA (1995): 1995 Outland Trophy winner and consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10.

OL Randall McDaniel, Arizona State (1987): Consensus All-American, two-time first-team All-Pac-10. College Football Hall of Fame.

OL Brad Budde, USC (1979): Lombardi Trophy winner. Three-time first-team All-Pac-10. College Football Hall of Fame

OL Alex Mack, California (2008): Three-time first-team All-Pac-10. Two-time Morris Trophy winner.

OL Lincoln Kennedy, Washington (1992): Consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10. Two-time Morris Trophy winner.

TE Tony Gonzalez, California (1996): Consensus All-American. First-team All-Pac-10.

Defense

DE Terrell Suggs, Arizona State (2002): Bronko Nagurski, Lombardi Trophy and Ted Hendricks Award winner. Consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10. Set NCAA single-season sack record (24).

DT Steve Emtman, Washington (1991): Outland and Lombardi winner. Finished fourth for Heisman Trophy. Consensus All-American. College Football Hall of Fame.

DT Rob Waldrop, Arizona (1993): Outland and Bronko Nagurski winner. UPI lineman of the Year. Two-time consensus All-American. College Football Hall of Fame.

DE Tedy Bruschi, Arizona (1995): Two-time consensus All-American. Three-time first-team All-Pac-10. Morris Trophy winner.

LB Chris Clairborne, USC (1998): Butkus Award. Consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10.

LB Ricky Hundley, Arizona (1983): Two-time consensus All-American. Three-time first-team All-Pac-10. College Football Hall of Fame.

LB Jerry Robinson, UCLA (1978): Two-time consensus All-American. Three-time first-team All-Conference. College Football Hall of Fame.

S Kenny Easley, UCLA (1980): Four-time first-team All-Conference. Three-time consensus All-American. College Football Hall of Fame.

S Ronnie Lott, USC (1980): Consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10. College Football Hall of Fame.

CB Antoine Cason, Arizona (2007): Thorpe Award winner. Consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10.

CB Mike Richardson, Arizona State (1982): Two-time consensus All-American. Two-time first-team All-Pac-10.

Specialists

P Nick Harris, California (2000): A consensus All-American in 2000, he punted a lot and was very good at it. He set NCAA records for most career punts and punting yardage.

K Jason Hansen, Washington State (1991): Consensus All-American (1989). Two-time first-team All-Pac-10. 39 career field goals of 40 or more yards and 20 of 50 or more; both Pac-10 records.
Seven Pac-12 players were included on the 42-man watch list for the 2011 Lott IMPACT Trophy, which honors the top collegiate defensive player in the country, it was announced Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeT.J. McDonald
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireSafety T.J. McDonald is eager to take his place alongside USC legends at the position such as Ronnie Lott, Troy Polamalu and his dad, Tim.
The Pac-12 players on the list are: Arizona State cornerback Omar Bolden (who is likely out for the season after suffering an ACL injury this spring), USC safety T.J. McDonald, UCLA safety Tony Dye, Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris, Stanford safety Delano Howell, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov and California linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

The 2011 list of 42 (Lott's uniform number) includes 19 defensive backs, 14 linebackers and nine defensive linemen. There are 11 players from the ACC, eight from the SEC, seven from the Big Ten, seven from the Pac-10, six from the Big 12, one from the Big East, one from the Mountain West, one from the Western Athletic Conference and one from Notre Dame.

Here's the entire Watch List:

Emmanuel Acho, Texas, LB,
Ray-Ray Armstrong, Miami, DB
Mark Barron, Alabama, S
Jake Bequette, Arkansas, DL
Omar Bolden, Arizona State, CB
Nigel Bradham, Florida State, LB
Brodrick Brown, Oklahoma State, CB
Tank Carder, TCU, LB
Quinton Coples, North Carolina, DE
Jared Crick, Nebraska, DL
Lavonte David, Nebraska, LB
Matt Daniels, Duke, S
Tony Dye, UCLA, S
Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina, CB
Cliff Harris, Oregon, CB
Aaron Henry, Wisconsin, DB
Donta Hightower, Alabama, LB
Joe Holland, Purdue, LB
Jayron Hosley, Virginia Tech, CB
Delano Howell, Stanford, DB
Brandon Jenkins, Florida State, DE
Janois Jenkins, Florida, CB
Mychal Kendricks, Cal, LB
Jordan Kovacs, Michigan, S
Luke Kuechly, Boston College, LB
Travis Lewis, Oklahoma, LB
Chris Marve, Vanderbilt, LB
T.J. McDonald, USC, S
Matt Merletti, North Carolina, S
Chase Minnifield, Virginia, CB
Tyler Nielsen, Iowa, LB
Kendall Reyes, Connecticut, DT
John Simon, Ohio State, DT
Shayne Skov, Stanford, LB
Jacquies Smith, Missouri, DE
Sean Spence, Miami, LB
Kenny Tate, Maryland, S
Brandon Taylor, LSU, S
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, LB
Prentiss Waggner, Tennessee, S
Billy Winn, Boise State, DE
Jerel Worthy, Michigan State, DT

The final four revealed

May, 12, 2010
5/12/10
12:00
PM ET
Two rounds are in the books and four teams are left in ESPN.com’s playoff to determine college football’s best NFL pipeline.

Clemson, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, Arizona State and Penn State were eliminated in Round 2.

Georgia, Notre Dame, UCLA and Ohio State were pushed aside in Round 1.

Only Florida State, Pittsburgh, Miami and the University of Southern California are left.

Based on recent history, it’s a surprise the Panthers are still standing.

Next to college football’s teams of the 1980s (Miami), 1990s (FSU) and 2000s (USC), the Panthers stick out as much as Lane Kiffin sitting at a table of Hall of Fame coaches.

But here’s a brief history lesson to bring you up to speed on Pittsburgh football:

In the early 1980s, there probably wasn’t a better NFL factory than the Steel City’s university. Quarterback Dan Marino played there, along with fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Rickey Jackson.

Who can forget Pitt’s stellar offensive linemen like Mark May, Jimbo Covert, Ruben Brown and Bill Fralic or its menacing defensive linemen such as Hugh Green, Chris Doleman and Sean Gilbert? Former NFL running backs Curtis Martin and Craig “Iron Head” Heyward played for the Panthers. More recently, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald and cornerback Darrelle Revis starred at Pitt.

But if the survey were based on the last 10 to 15 years -- instead of the last three decades -- the Panthers wouldn’t have a seat at the front table.

FSU, Miami and USC are far and away college football’s best NFL factories during the last two decades.

The Hurricanes blessed us with alumni who won five NFL Most Valuable Player awards and made 100 Pro Bowl appearances. An alumni game at "The U.” would include a defense led by safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis, and defensive linemen Warren Sapp and Cortez Kennedy. Try scoring against that unit.

The Miami offense would include quarterback Jim Kelly, tailbacks Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis, receiver Michael Irvin, tight end Jeremy Shockey, and tackle Bryant McKinnie.

Only USC can match that kind of star power. Four of the former Trojans drafted by NFL teams since 1979 are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: safety Ronnie Lott, tailback Marcus Allen, and offensive linemen Anthony Munoz and Bruce Matthews.

It’s probably only a matter of time before former Trojans Junior Seau joins his fellow USC alumni in Canton, Ohio.

Florida State, which won 10 games or more every season from 1987-2000 and won national championships in 1993 and ’99, produced NFL stars such as Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones and Warrick Dunn.

But many of FSU’s best players during the 1980s and ‘90s never found as much success in the NFL. Brad Johnson, the only former Noles quarterback to have sustained success in the NFL, didn’t even start during his senior season at FSU. Quarterbacks like Peter Tom Willis, Danny McManus, Danny Kanell and Casey Weldon had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but not much more.

What was the biggest surprise in the first round? No. 12 seed Ohio State over No. 5 seed Tennessee.

Ohio State’s lineup of Orlando Pace, Cris Carter, Chris Spielman, Eddie George and Robert Smith is as good as anybody’s, but Tennessee’s roster of NFL talent is arguably just as solid.

Besides, who doesn’t know the Buckeyes are going to lose to an SEC team every time?

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