Tuesday, December 13, 2005

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A Football Diversion - The Best of the Best

[Update - see ESPN "Place in History" Ranking Poll now under way]

We took some time off this weekend to look into the American football world.

Did you know that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a blog (Ben Roethlisberger - Official Blog) and a website (BigBen7)? or that former Dallas Cowboy star Bob Lilly is into photography? or that James Lofton is available for speaking engagements? or that Lee Roy Selmon has a "Southern Cooking" website?

Speaking of football, one of our favorite pastimes is armchair quarterbacking the college football season. We have been reading numerous ESPN articles in the process of making our game predictions for the upcoming college football bowl games and came across a story in which 3 out of 5 expert college football analysts ranked Nebraska fans the best in the country. As an NU alum, this was a nice read, so we kept reading....

That same ESPN article also presents the choice of these same five experts for the best college football players of all time, and also includes their selections for many other "best categories", such as best team, best game, etc. Since we wanted to add to some of their selections, we made our own list. There are of course many possible rankings, see e.g. the College Football News (CFN) and their 100 Greatest Players. This is all in the spirit of sport.

Here are our own selections of an all-time all-star team (players are listed alphabetically for each position and not in terms of preference). We back our choices up by links where we can:

Quarterbacks
John Elway, Stanford (PFHF=Pro Football Hall of Fame), see also Pro Football Hall of Famers by Draft Year, Nr. 1 overall draft pick 1983 (As a Stanford alumnus, we point out that Stanford has won the Directors' Cup for the best NCAA athletic program (determined by the standings of its teams in all sports) the last eleven consecutive years. Only in the first year of the award was Stanford surpassed by the University of North Carolina. Stanford has won the award every year since then. See here.)
Joe "The Ultimate Winner" Montana, Notre Dame (PFHF), SportsCentury Nr. 25 All-Time Athlete, drafted 3rd round, 1979
"Broadway" Joe Namath, Alabama (PFHF) , drafted Nr. 5 overall by the AFL and Nr. 12 overall by the NFL 1965 (draft held in November, 1964)
Johnny Unitas, Louisville (PFHF), SportsCentury Nr. 32 All-Time Athlete, 9th round draft choice in 1955 (102nd overall).

Running Backs
Jim Brown, Syracuse (PFHF) (see Gifford on Brown), Nr. 6 overall draft pick 1957, SportsCentury Nr. 4 All-Time Athlete
Walter Payton, Jackson State U in Mississippi (PFHF), SportsCentury Nr. 39 All-Time Athlete, Nr. 4 overall draft pick 1975 (see also the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation)
Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State (PFHF), Heisman Trophy, Nr. 3 overall draft pick 1989
Gale Sayers, Kansas (PFHF) In a November, 19, 1963 23-9 loss to Nebraska, Sayers scored on a 99-yard run from scrimmage, the longest in NCAA history. The LawPundit (then age 16) was at that game and saw that run. Sayers was phenomenal.
To honor the older greats, we also add Jim Thorpe, Carlisle (PFHF), SportsCentury Nr. 7 All-Time Athlete and Red Grange, Illinois (PFHF), SportsCentury Nr. 28 All-Time Athlete.
A good modern candidate here is freshly crowned Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, USC. Interesting here is that Bush has been training with LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU, rated by USA Today as the NFL's current Nr. 1 running back.

Wide Receivers
Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, Wisconsin and Michigan (PFHF), Nr. 5 overall draft pick 1945
Steve Largent, Tulsa (PFHF), 4th round draft pick 1976
James Lofton, Stanford (PFHF), Nr. 6 overall draft pick 1978
Lenny "Spats" Moore, Penn State (PFHF) , Nr. 9 overall draft pick 1956
Jerry Rice, Mississippi Valley State, Sports Century Nr. 27 All-Time Athlete, Nr. 16 overall draft pick1985
Paul Warfield, Ohio State (PFHF), Nr. 11 overall draft pick 1964

Offensive Line
Larry Allen, Sonoma State, Nr. 46 overall draft pick 1994, John Madden calls him the best offensive lineman ever to play in the NFL
Bob (Boomer) Brown, Nebraska, "no one ever beat him", Nr. 2 overall draft pick 1964
John Hannah, Alabama (PFHF) , Nr. 4 overall draft pick
Anthony Muñoz, USC, Latino Legends in Sports, Nr. 3 overall draft pick 1980
Orlando (Pancake Block) Pace, Ohio State, Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy, Nr. 1 overall draft pick 1997
Dave Rimington, Nebraska, Nr. 25 overall draft pick 1983 (see also Rimington Youth Football Camp and Rimington Trophy)
Ron Yary
, Cerritos JC, USC (PFHF), Outland Trophy, Nr. 1 overall draft pick 1968

Defensive Line
Carl Eller, Minnesota (PFHF), Nr. 6 overall draft pick 1964
"Mean" Joe Greene
, North Texas State (now University of North Texas) (PFHF) , Nr. 4. overall draft pick 1969
Bob Lilly, TCU (PFHF) , Nr. 13 overall draft pick 1961
Merlin Olsen, Utah State (PFHF), Nr. 3 overall draft pick 1962, (see also sportscasters)
Warren Sapp, Miami, Nr. 12 overall draft pick 1995
Bruce "The Sack Man" Smith, Virginia Tech, Outland Trophy, Nr. 1 overall draft pick 1985
Reggie "Minister of Defense" White, Tennessee, see Reggie White Foundation, No. 4 overall choice of the league's supplemental draft of USFL players

Linebackers
Dick Butkus, Illinois (PFHF), Nr. 3 overall draft pick 1965
Jack Lambert, Kent State (PFHF) , 2nd round draft pick 1974
Ray Nitschke, Illinois (PFHF) , 3rd round draft pick 1958
Lee Roy Selmon, Oklahoma (PFHF), Nr. 1 overall draft pick, 1976
Mike Singletary, Baylor (PFHF), 2nd round draft pick 1981
Lawrence Taylor, North Carolina (PFHF), Nr. 2 overall draft pick 1981, SportsCentury Nr. 40 All-Time Athlete

Defensive Backs
Dick (Night Train) Lane, Scottsbluff, Nebraska JC (PFHF), free agent in the pros
Ronnie Lott, USC (PFHF), Nr. 8 overall draft pick 1981
Deion Sanders, Florida State, Nr. 5 overall draft pick 1989
Charles Woodson, Michigan, Heisman Trophy, Nr. 4 overall draft pick 1998
Rod Woodson, Purdue, Nr. 10 overall draft pick 1987

Kick Returner
Johnny Rodgers, Nebraska, Heisman Trophy, Nr. 25 overall draft pick 1973

Punter
Yale Lary, Texas A&M (PFHF), 3rd round draft pick 1952

Field Goal Kicker:
Jan Stenerud, Montana State (PFHF), 3rd round draft pick in the AFL

Best Team: We agree with the Sports Illustrated viz. CBS and Sagarin, the CFN (College Football News) rank and with Chris Fowler that this was National Champion Nebraska in 1995. At the subsequent Fiesta Bowl 1996 (see also here and here), Tom Osborne's NU played Steve Spurrier's Florida. Although the line had Florida favored by 9, we predicted then that NU would win by 50-10 and they won, 62-24. Something like 15 players from the NU starting lineup wound up playing in the NFL over the years and the college draft for that year, i.e. 1996 in the pros has sparkled in performance, showing generally strong players in the college ranks, i.e. a very strong year. With many of the same players from 1995, NU had also been the national champion in 1994 with a 13-0 record, although some polls had undefeated Penn State as the Nr. 1 that year as well. To show how good that NU team was in 1995, in the subsequent 1996 football season, Florida (12-1), which had been humbled in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl by NU, became the national champion. AS SI writes about the 1995 Cornhuskers:

"On a CBS list of the 10 greatest teams, this one was voted No. 1. Football computer analyst Jeff Sagarin also ranks this team as the best college football team since 1956. Want to know why? The Huskers offense averaged 52.4 points a game and also led the nation in rushing (399.8 yards per game). They didn't beat opponents, they destroyed them. Think Mike Tyson and Rocky Marciano at the peak of their careers."

[Update: But see also Billingsley's Top 200 Teams of All-Time which ranks the 1971 Cornhuskers as the best team of all time and the 1994 and 1995 Cornhuskers 3rd and 4th, with the 2004 USC team ranked 10th.]

Best Season: We think that the 1971 season was the best all around season for college football, involving the win of the national championship by a Nebraska team ranked second all-time to the 1995 national champs, also from Nebraska. But 1971 also had the fabled Nebraska-Oklahoma matchup on Thanksgiving - see Best Game below, and except for that 4-point win over the Nr. 2 team in the country, NU won each game by at least 24 points.

Note that Sports Illustrated puts the USC Trojans of 2004 as 4th on the best teams of all time. But there is little chance that the 2005 USC team will rank higher, as it has often been behind this season, even against much weaker opponents, and has had to struggle to beat teams such as Fresno State, and was lucky to win against Notre Dame.

Best Game: We agree with Beano Cook that the best game ever was the regular season Thanksgiving, November 25, 1971, classic in front of a TV audience of 55 million, between the Nr. 1 and Nr. 2 ranked teams in the country, which ended with Nebraska winning over Oklahoma 35-31 (see Nebraska 35 Oklahoma 31). At CFN, they only rank this game 3rd best on their list of 100 Greatest Games, even though the fans picked it Nr. 1. For various theoretical and unconvincing reasons, CFN picks Miami's 31-30 victory over Nebraska in the January 1, 1984 Orange Bowl as Nr. 1, and Ohio State's 31-24 overtime victory over Miami in the January 3, 2003 Fiesta Bowl as Nr. 2, but we doubt that bowl games are ever really as objectively good as regular season games toward the end of the season. Teams then are (or should be) playing up to their best potential, whereas they have long layoffs prior to bowl games, which - in our opinion - makes bowl games less representative of true team strengths than late regular season games.

Biggest Upset: We agree with Beano Cook that is was Navy's win over Army, 14-2 in 1950, where the Midshipmen came in with a record of 2-6 and were facing a 28-game Cadet winning streak. Army had been favored by three touchdowns but were truly upset.

Best Bowl Game: Definitely Miami's 31-30 victory over NU in the January 1, 1984 Orange Bowl game when NU coach Tom Osborne - perhaps foolishly - decided to go for 2 and the national championship rather than the sure tie through the extra point kick in the closing seconds in the days when there was no overtime. It was high drama, no question about it, especially since many thought that the 1983 Huskers were one of the great teams of all time.

Best Stadium: The Big House, University of Michigan, with competition from the Rose Bowl and Ohio Stadium.

Best Fans: As 3 of 5 experts have noted, Nebraska. We agree. We think the NU fans are especially gracious to opponents. See 100 Reasons Why I'm a Cornhusker Fan.

Best Uniforms: "Most Distinctive" is perhaps a better label. As Chris Fowler writes, the USC Trojans cardinal and gold definitely fit this description, but note also the similar Arizona State University Sun Devils maroon and gold (ASU, for a bit of trivia, where the LawPundit worked on a legal project some years ago, is the largest university in the United States in terms of student enrollment.) In the same vein, very distinctive also are the maize and blue of Michigan, as selected by Lee Corso. Of course, we love the "Big Red" uniforms of the Huskers (see them at the JournalStar blog postings here), but the red is not that distinctive a color, as witnessed by our other alma mater, Stanford University and the Stanford Cardinal (see the video clip).

Best Book (well, let's say most recent): ESPN College Football Encyclopedia : The Complete History of the Game (Hardcover), published September 1, 2005.

Favorite Coach(es): Larry Kehres, Mount Union who has a fantastic football record at a school which gives NO football scholarships. Mount Union is again in the Division III National Championship game, the Stagg Bowl, this season. At the Division I level, our choices of course are Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney. Devaney became NU coach through a suggestion made to then NU Chancellor Clifford Hardin by Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty. See here for other top coaches. See also the Division I coaches who were national champions.

Favorite Player:
We choose fellow blogger Ben Roethlisberger, who also has a website at BigBen7. See also Ben Roethlisberger, and Miami of Ohio.

Most Improbable End to a Game:
Cal v. Stanford, November 20, 1982. Hard to believe that Elway lost this one.
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