Every year, thousands of student-athletes suit up to play football for one of the hundreds of colleges across the country that offer the sport. Playing college football — especially for one of the top programs in Division 1 — is essentially the closest a young player can get to trying out for a coveted spot in the NFL.
We’ve looked through the history of all the football programs that play in what’s considered the Power Five conferences and chosen the greatest player each one has produced, focusing heavily on their football careers after leaving college. In case you wondered, the Power Five includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, and is comprised of 65 schools.
Some colleges have had a wealth of outstanding players over the years, while others have only had a few obvious standouts. Take a look and see which player from your favorite program we deemed the best ever.
Alabama (SEC) — Derrick Thomas (1985-1988)
The Crimson Tide has produced a staggering amount of football talent, going back to NFL legends like Bart Starr and Ozzie Newsome, but defensive end Derrick Thomas was arguably the most feared player to ever come from the program. While at Alabama, Thomas was a unanimous All-American and set what would have been the NCAA’s single-season record for sacks, if only it had been an official statistic when he played.
In the NFL, he was even better, spending his entire career with the Kansas City Chiefs, making nine Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams and setting the NFL’s all-time record for sacks in a single game at seven. His brilliant career tragically ended when he died from injuries suffered in a car crash at the age of 33.
University Of Arizona (Pac-12) — Tedy Bruschi (1991-1995)
The Arizona Wildcats have had a great history of defensive standouts, including 2014’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, “Scooby” Wright, but 1995’s winner of that honor, Tedy Bruschi, gets the crown as the school’s best ever player. He was a sack machine at Arizona, recording what would be an NCAA-record 52 during his career if it had been counted as an official stat at that time.
Bruschi went on to become a legend with the New England Patriots, where he spent his entire NFL career and won three Super Bowls.
Arizona State (Pac-12) — Terrell Suggs (2000-2002)
Another legendary pass rusher in college and the pros, Terrell Suggs (aka “T-Sizzle”), is our pick as the best football player to ever come from the Arizona State Sun Devils, topping the memorable careers of Eric Allen and Pat Tillman. Suggs was an All-American three times while at ASU, including as a unanimous pick in 2002, the year he broke the NCAA’s single-season sack record — which he still holds — with 24.
Suggs has gone on to have a Hall-of-Fame-caliber NFL career, winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, as well as making seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.
Arkansas (SEC) — Lance Alworth (1959-1961)
While former Razorbacks Dan Hampton and Darren McFadden went on to have great football careers, Lance Alworth is the only former Arkansas player to be inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame so far.
He was brilliant in the 1960s, playing wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers in the AFL, winning a championship there before eventually winning a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys in 1972. He was one of the greatest AFL players ever, making seven AFL All-Star teams to go along with his seven All-AFL team selections. He also led that league in receiving yards in three different seasons.
Auburn (SEC) — Bo Jackson (1982-1985)
Picking between Bo Jackson and Cam Newton was one of the toughest calls on this list, but Jackson gets the nod because of his mythical accomplishments and a stellar, four-year career at Auburn. While in college, Jackson set the all-time SEC record for yards per carry, averaging 6.6, while he was also a star for Auburn’s baseball and track and field teams.
He went on to only play four seasons in the NFL, making a Pro Bowl, but he also spent nine seasons playing baseball in MLB, giving him one of the most unique careers in sports history.
Baylor (Big 12) — Mike Singletary (1977-1980)
While Robert Griffin III is the only Heisman Trophy winner to come from Baylor so far, Mike Singletary gets the nod as the program’s best football player ever. The legendary linebacker set numerous records in his four years at Baylor, where he was a two-time All-American.
His NFL career was even better, where he played his entire career for the Chicago Bears, being named to the Pro Bowl in 10 out of 12 seasons and being named an All-Pro nine times, including eight selections as a first-team All-Pro. He was a major part of the Bears defense that won the Super Bowl in 1986, a team we recently called the greatest in NFL history.
Boston College (ACC) — Matt Ryan (2004-2007)
Doug Flutie makes a very strong case for this one but the fact that Matt Ryan has nearly matched his numbers while strictly playing in the NFL, versus the Canadian Football League, gives him the nod. While at BC, Ryan helped the Eagles win three bowl games and was named an All-American and ACC Player of the Year.
His NFL career has been outstanding, with him earning honors including NFL MVP, Offensive Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year at various times. He’s also made four Pro Bowls and been an All-Pro first-team selection. He’s showing no signs of slipping as he enters his 13th NFL season, all with the Atlanta Falcons.
California (Pac-12) — Aaron Rodgers (2003-2004)
Plenty of great football players have come out of Cal in recent years, including Marshawn Lynch, Jared Goff and Keenan Allen, but Aaron Rodgers tops them all. After starting his college football career at a community college, Rodgers transferred to Cal and spent two great years playing for the Golden Bears, setting several school records for passing.
In the NFL, he’s been nothing short of historic, winning a Super Bowl, being twice named NFL MVP and making seven Pro Bowls. He also holds several all-time NFL records for quarterbacks, including the highest career passer rating and lowest career interception percentage.
UCLA (Pac-12) — Troy Aikman (1986-1989)
UCLA has produced several NFL standouts, including Jonathan Ogden and Jimmy Johnson, but Troy Aikman is our pick for the best Bruin ever. He started his college career at Oklahoma before transferring and playing two seasons at UCLA, where he won several prestigious awards, eventually landing him in the College Football Hall of Fame.
In the NFL, he led the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s, winning three Super Bowls, making six Pro Bowls and being named NFL Man of the Year. He was a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Clemson (ACC) — Terry Kinard (1978-1982)
Clemson’s football program has been a juggernaut recently, giving us players who still have something to prove, like C.J. Spiller and Deshaun Watson, but safety Terry Kinard goes down as the program’s best star so far. Kinard was brilliant while with the Tigers, being twice named a consensus All-American and still holding multiple school records for defensive play.
In the NFL, Kinard was a Pro Bowler with the fierce New York Giants defense of the 1980s. He won a Super Bowl with that team in 1987.
Colorado (Pac-12) — Nate Solder (2006-2010)
Offensive linemen deserve some love, too, and Colorado’s Nate Solder gets the pick as his school’s best over fellow standouts like Mason Crosby and Kordell Stewart. Solder was a consensus All-American offensive tackle with the Buffaloes in 2010 after initially starting his career there as a tight end.
He went on to play for the New England Patriots, who he helped win two Super Bowls in the span of three seasons. In his eight NFL seasons, he’s missed a total of only 13 games.
Duke (ACC) — George McAfee (1937-1939)
With old-school football heroes like Sonny Jurgensen and Clarkston Hines coming from Duke, it’s been a while since the Blue Devils produced a memorable player on the gridiron. George McAfee was one of the school’s first, and arguably its best, legitimate football stars. McAfee played for Duke in the 1930s, where he was a three-way player, leading the team in stat categories on offense, defense and special teams.
In the NFL, he had a Hall-of-Fame career with the Chicago Bears that was divided by several years of service in the Navy during World War II. He won four NFL championships with the Bears and still holds the league record for punt return average.
Florida (SEC) — Emmitt Smith (1987-1989)
Apologies to Gators like Maurkice Pouncey and Tim Tebow, but when your school produced arguably the greatest rusher in football history, you’re taking the back seat. While playing at Florida in the late 1980s, Emmitt Smith was outstanding from his freshman season on, being named to the first-team All-SEC all three seasons of his career.
In the NFL, he became an icon with the Dallas Cowboys, helping them win three Super Bowls and being named to eight Pro Bowls and five All-Pro squads. Oh, and Smith also holds the NFL’s all-time record for career rushing yards, which is one he may always have.
Florida State (ACC) — Deion Sanders (1985-1988)
With stars like Fred Biletnikoff, Derrick Brooks and Sebastian Janikowski, there’s been no shortage of great Seminoles in football, but nobody touches “Neon” Deion Sanders. While at Florida State, Sanders was a two-time unanimous All-American selection and has gone down as one of the greatest cornerbacks in football history, making both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the NFL, he won two Super Bowls, was a Defensive Player of the Year, went to eight Pro Bowls and was named a first-team All-Pro eight times as well. And all that’s not even mentioning his nine seasons of playing baseball in MLB.
Georgia (SEC) — Champ Bailey (1996-1998)
Georgia has had some incredible players in its football history, and while Herschel Walker and Fran Tarkenton are hard to overlook, Champ Bailey came to truly define his position. He was a three-way player for the Bulldogs but his work at cornerback earned him consensus All-American status.
In the NFL, Bailey was even more electrifying, making 12 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams, while leading the league in interceptions once. His dominant career earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 on the first ballot.
Georgia Tech (ACC) — Calvin Johnson (2004-2006)
Despite cutting his own career terribly short, Calvin Johnson put together a stout enough resume to be considered the best football player to ever come from Georgia Tech. For his stellar career with the Yellow Jackets, “Megatron” holds virtually all the major school records a receiver can hold, and would become the school’s highest NFL Draft pick ever, going second overall in 2007.
Johnson lived up to his pick, tying and setting numerous NFL records despite only playing nine seasons before retiring at the age of 30 in 2016. Other great Georgia Tech football standouts include Demaryius Thomas and Maxie Baughan.
Illinois (Big Ten) — Dick Butkus (1962-1964)
Picking a GOAT football player from the University of Illinois is a very difficult task. Between Red Grange and Ray Nitschke, you’ve got a couple of the most legendary figures in gridiron history — but the tough-as-nails Dick Butkus gets our pick. Butkus was a star linebacker and offensive lineman for the Fighting Illini, for whom he was a two-time consensus All-American and was named the Big Ten’s MVP in 1963.
In an NFL career that only lasted nine seasons, due to injuries, Butkus was prolific, being named to eight Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro squads, as well as twice being named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Indiana (Big Ten) — Pete Pihos (1942-1943; 1945-1946)
Indiana’s football program hasn’t cranked out memorable football stars like others on this list, but Pete Pihos was certainly a great paragon for the school. Pihos was a two-way player at Indiana and was a three-time All-American while there, which is even more impressive when you realize that he took a season off to serve in World War II while playing there, earning bronze and silver stars for bravery in battle.
After coming back to Indiana University, Pihos then played his entire NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles, winning two NFL championships. He led the league in receptions three times and was a first-team All-Pro six times in just nine seasons of action.
Iowa (Big Ten) — Paul Krause (1960-1963)
Some of the great Iowa Hawkeyes to play football include Alex Karras, Andre Tippett and Shonn Greene, but Paul Krause was the all-time great from the program. At Iowa, Krause played on both sides of the ball but he became an icon in the NFL, where he was a nightmare for many opposing quarterbacks.
Playing safety for the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings, Krause set the all-time career interceptions record at 81, which will likely never be touched, and only missed two games in 16 seasons. He won an NFL championship with the Vikings in 1969 and was an eight-time Pro Bowler and seven-time selection for All-Pro honors.
Iowa State (Big 12) — Matt Blair (1971-1973)
The Iowa State Cyclones don’t have a long legacy of outstanding, star football players, but linebacker Matt Blair had probably the best career of anyone from the program. At Iowa State, Blair was an All-American, leading to him being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1974, where he would spend his entire NFL career.
With the Vikings, Blair played in two Super Bowls and was named to six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro squads. He’s been recognized by the Vikings as one of the franchise’s all-time great players, with his name being part of the team’s ring of honor.
Kansas (Big 12) — Gale Sayers (1962-1964)
You might think Gale Sayers, the “Kansas Comet,” was the obvious choice as the best Kansas Jayhawks football player but John Riggins makes a tough case as well. Ultimately, Sayers gets the nod because he had a better career while at Kansas, twice being a consensus All-American running back and being named all-conference in all three seasons he played varsity football.
In the NFL, Sayers was just as brilliant, despite having his career drastically shortened by injuries. Sayers spent his whole career with the Chicago Bears, being named to four Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro teams. He still holds a number of Bears rushing records nearly 50 years after his career ended.
Kansas State (Big 12) — Darren Sproles (2001-2004)
Names that jump out when comparing all-time great Kansas State football players include Larry Brown, Terence Newman and Jordy Nelson, but Darren Sproles was the greatest Wildcat of all. Sproles proved to be a freakish offensive talent at Kansas State, breaking dozens of school records, vaulting up NCAA records charts and being named an All-American.
He kept it up in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, twice being named a first-team All-Pro and three times being named to the Pro Bowl. Sproles still holds the NFL’s record for all-purpose yards gained in a single season, contributing 2,696 in 2011 while playing with the New Orleans Saints.
Kentucky (SEC) — Dermontti Dawson (1984-1987)
You probably think of Kentucky as a basketball school but it has produced football icons like George Blanda, Randall Cobb and Art Still over the years. But we’re giving the Wildcats’ GOAT honor to Dermontti Dawson, who anchored the team at center in the mid-’80s.
It’s tough for the average football fan to judge how well a center plays the game but former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher has called Dawson the best to ever play the position, so we’ll take his word for it. Dawson lettered all four years at Kentucky but became a star in the NFL, spending his entire career with the Steelers and eventually landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Louisiana State (SEC) — Y.A. Tittle (1944-1947)
Like some of the other SEC schools, it was tough to pick just one player from LSU, but in a close toss-up between Patrick Peterson and Y.A. Tittle, the latter got the nod. Tittle had a solid career at quarterback for the Tigers in the mid-1940s but he became a legend when he got to the pros.
In the NFL, Tittle made seven Pro Bowls, was a league MVP and was named a first-team All-Pro four times. Considered a legend with both the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants, he took the Giants to three consecutive NFL championship games in the 1960s.
Louisville (ACC) — Johnny Unitas (1951-1954)
There’s a statue of Johnny Unitas at the University of Louisville’s football stadium that all the players touch before each home game. So, it’s pretty obvious what his legacy as a football icon has meant to the school he attended. Unitas had a solid career at Louisville, where he played all three parts of the game. He was never an All-American, however, and spent a lot of time nursing injuries.
But in the NFL, as the longtime quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, he became one of the nation’s early football stars. He led the Colts to a Super Bowl win and three NFL championship titles, made 10 Pro Bowls, eight All-Pro squads and was named NFL MVP three times. All due respect to Louisville greats like Elvis Dumervil, Tom Jackson and Deion Branch, but “The Golden Arm” can’t be topped.
Maryland (Big Ten) — Randy White (1972-1974)
Maryland has had some very talented football players pass through its facilities — Boomer Esiason, Stan Jones and Domonique Foxworth come to mind — but it also produced one of the fiercest defensive backs in history. Randy White was a star for the Terrapins, twice being named a first-team All-American and even earning the prestigious Lombardi Award.
In the pros, he spent his entire NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys, and they were happy to have him. White was a nine-time Pro Bowler and was named a first-team All-Pro an incredible nine times. He was even named co-MVP of the Super Bowl when the Cowboys won it in 1978, becoming one of the few defensive players to earn that honor.
Miami (ACC) — Ray Lewis (1992-1995)
Miami is another program that made it nearly impossible to choose a greatest player because of the sheer wealth of football talent that’s come from it over the past few decades. You can take your pick among names like Ed Reed, Warren Sapp, Michael Irvin, Jim Kelly and Cortez Kennedy — but we’re going with the one and only Ray Lewis. With the Hurricanes, Lewis was a can’t-miss defensive player, twice being named a first-team All-American.
When he got to the NFL, he cemented his legacy as arguably the best linebacker in football history, being a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, a 13-time Pro Bowler and a 10-time All-Pro. He also helped the Baltimore Ravens, the only team he played for, win two Super Bowls and was even named Super Bowl MVP in 2001.
Michigan (Big Ten) — Tom Brady (1995-1999)
The Michigan Wolverines have been playing great football for many years, giving us all-time great players like Charles Woodson, Desmond Howard and Dan Dierdorf, but who can top Tom Brady’s legacy? Brady only started at quarterback for two years at Michigan, but he vaulted up its record books and put together a 20-5 overall record despite never being named an All-American.
After infamously being picked in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, Brady began a pro career that continues to amaze us today. So far, he’s won more games than any quarterback in history, including six Super Bowls. And he was named MVP in four of them. He’s also a three-time NFL MVP, a 14-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro. Brady also holds too many NFL records to even bother listing here.
Michigan State (Big Ten) — Herb Adderley (1958-1960)
As a star for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s and 1970s, Hall-of-Fame cornerback Herb Adderley was the only player to have played in four of the first six Super Bowls. While playing college ball at Michigan State, Adderley was used as an offensive back, leading the team in rushing yards and catches at various times.
When he was turned into a defensive back in the NFL, he started to truly shine, winning three Super Bowls in the process. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time All-Pro selection. Other great Spartan football stars include Morten Andersen, Joe DeLamielleure and Bubba Smith.
Minnesota (Big Ten) — Bronko Nagurski (1927-1929)
One of the earliest icons of American football, former Minnesota Golden Gophers star Bronko Nagurski has the distinction of being a charter inductee in both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Incredibly tough in the days when players wore hardly any padding, Nagurski played two ways at Minnesota and was a consensus All-American at fullback in 1929.
His entire NFL career was spent with the Chicago Bears, with whom he won three NFL championships and was a seven-time All-Pro choice. Other great Golden Gophers include Bobby Bell and Charlie Sanders.
Mississippi (SEC) — Eli Manning (2000-2003)
Eli Manning is the only player on this list to edge out his own father to become his school’s best player ever. While Archie Manning had a strong career — as did fellow Ole Miss alum Gene Hickerson — Eli Manning’s two miraculous Super Bowl wins give him the nod. While Eli Manning was at Mississippi, he was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a senior, and also won the prestigious Maxwell Award.
Since joining the NFL as the top overall pick in the memorable 2004 draft, he has been a lifetime New York Giant, where he won those two Super Bowls and was named MVP of both games. He’s also been named to four Pro Bowls.
Mississippi State (SEC) — Fletcher Cox (2009-2011)
While Eric Moulds had a great career and Dak Prescott continues to establish his own legacy, Fletcher Cox gets our nod as Mississippi State’s best football player. Cox was a standout defensive tackle for the Bulldogs, where he was a first-team All-American and All-SEC selection in 2011.
He was the 12th overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft and has spent his entire career with the Philadelphia Eagles thus far. Cox has been selected to four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro squads and was part of the team’s 2018 Super Bowl win.
Missouri (SEC) — Roger Wehrli (1966-1968)
Picking the best Mizzou Tiger ever led to a toss-up between Roger Wehrli and Kellen Winslow. We gave Wehrli the nod because, in the end, he had more All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selections. Werhli also played his entire football career, college and professional, in the Show-Me State. At Missouri, he was a consensus All-American at cornerback in 1968.
From there, he went on to play his entire NFL career for the then-St. Louis Cardinals, putting together a Hall-of-Fame career. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro, including five first-team selections.
Nebraska (Big Ten) — Will Shields (1989-1992)
A Hall of Famer as a college student and as a pro, Will Shields gets our pick as Nebraska’s greatest football player, over fellow Cornhuskers Ndamukong Suh and Mick Tingelhoff. Shields was a consensus All-American offensive lineman at Nebraska and is one of the few football players to have his jersey number retired by the program.
In the NFL, he proved to be an iron man, never missing a single game in 14 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. In those years, he was a 12-time Pro Bowler and seven-time All-Pro selection.
Northwestern (Big Ten) — Otto Graham (1941-1943)
Two of football’s all-time, early legends were stars at Northwestern, but between Paddy Driscoll and Otto Graham, we’ve got to go with the latter as the best Wildcat. Graham started at Northwestern on a basketball scholarship before switching to football and becoming a first-team All-American at quarterback. From there, he became the first starting quarterback in Cleveland Browns history and is still arguably the team’s best ever.
Graham led the Browns to three NFL championships — part of seven total league championships he won with them — and also made five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro squads in just 10 seasons played. Graham was basically unbeatable in his day.
North Carolina (ACC) — Lawrence Taylor (1978-1981)
North Carolina is another school that’s typically thought of as a basketball powerhouse only but there have been plenty of great Tar Heels in the NFL in the past few decades, including Julius Peppers, Hakeem Nicks and Jeff Saturday. But Lawrence Taylor, regarded as possibly the best linebacker in NFL history, has to be the greatest ever. At UNC, “L.T.” was a consensus All-American and was named ACC Player of the Year in 1980.
In the pros, he played his entire career with the New York Giants, helping the team win two Super Bowls in the 1980s. He was also a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, 10-time Pro Bowler and 10-time All-Pro, including first-team selections at both inside and outside linebacker.
North Carolina State (ACC) — Philip Rivers (2000-2003)
Memorable NFL talents like Russell Wilson, Torry Holt and Mario Williams each played for the NC State Wolfpack, but quarterback Philip Rivers’ legacy edges them out. While at NC State, Rivers broke several ACC passing records and started 51 straight games, a sign of the durability he’d also show in the pros.
In the NFL, he’s spent his entire career thus far with the San Diego Chargers, putting up numbers that all but guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame. He’s been a Pro Bowler eight times. He’s also led the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating at various times but has somehow never been an All-Pro selection.
Notre Dame (Independent) — Joe Montana (1975-1978)
No school has more former players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than Notre Dame, which is also the only school considered a Power Five program that doesn’t officially compete in a single conference. While icons like Paul Hornung, Jerome Bettis and Tim Brown are on the list, Joe Montana has to be the best player to ever come from the school. “Joe Cool” spent five years as a student-athlete at Notre Dame, making his mark by leading the Fighting Irish to a national title in 1977.
He was even better in the NFL, putting together a legacy few quarterbacks can rival by winning four Super Bowls and twice being named NFL MVP. He’s arguably the greatest big-game quarterback ever, never throwing an interception in the Super Bowl and never losing the game in four appearances.
Ohio State (Big Ten) — Cris Carter (1984-1986)
Another program with a proud history of football icons, it was tough to choose the greatest Ohio State Buckeye, but wide receiver Cris Carter makes a very strong case. While at OSU, Carter was a consensus All-American, which is something no wide receiver had previously done at the school.
As a pro, Carter was initially taken as a fourth rounder and was written off as a problematic player, but he eventually proved every doubter wrong while playing for the Minnesota Vikings. With that team, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro selection, and he led the league in receiving touchdowns for three seasons. Other brilliant Buckeyes include Eddie George, Lou “The Toe” Groza, Chris Spielman and Ezekiel Elliott.
Oklahoma (Big 12) — Adrian Peterson (2004-2006)
With promising Oklahoma quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray trying to make their names in the NFL, the Sooners have some irons in the football fire, but those two will have to do a lot to pass the legacy of Adrian Peterson. At Oklahoma, Peterson — whom you may know by his nickname “A.P.” or “A.D.” depending on whether you followed him in college or only the NFL — was a first-team All-Big 12 running back all three years he started and was a consensus All-American in 2004.
He was then a first-round NFL Draft pick by the Minnesota Vikings, where he racked up the yardage and honors, including as NFL MVP, a seven-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time All-Pro pick. He might be the only player with a legitimate shot at breaking Emmitt Smith’s all-time NFL rushing record.
Oklahoma State (Big 12) — Barry Sanders (1986-1988)
Speaking of mind-blowing rushers, Barry Sanders easily takes the mantle as the best Oklahoma State Cowboys player ever, topping others like Dan Bailey, Dez Bryant and Tre Flowers. Sanders was a beast at Oklahoma State, winning the Heisman Trophy and Maxwell Award in 1988, as well as being named a unanimous All-American. He went third overall to the Detroit Lions in the 1989 NFL Draft, where he’d spend his entire pro career.
In just 10 seasons in the NFL, Sanders was impeccable, being an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in every year he played. Unfortunately for all football fans, Sanders decided to retire from football in 1998, just one year after being named NFL MVP.
Oregon (Pac-12) — Haloti Ngata (2003-2005)
There have been two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks from Oregon, in Dan Fouts and Norm Van Brocklin, but Haloti Ngata gets our pick as the greatest Duck ever. The outstanding defensive tackle was a consensus All-American in 2005.
After that, he was drafted 12th overall in 2006 by the Baltimore Ravens, where he’d spend nearly all of his career. Ngata was a five-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl winner. He announced his retirement in 2019, capping off a pro career that will likely send him to the Hall of Fame.
Oregon State (Pac-12) — Chad Johnson (2000)
Oregon State hasn’t had many players go on to do much in the pros, but Chad Johnson certainly did. He transferred to the school in 2000 and only played one season, but he lit it up, which is something he continued to do on Sundays in the NFL.
In a pro career spent mostly with the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson made headlines for both his outstanding play at the wide receiver position and also his larger-than-life personality. Johnson was a six-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro selection, including three selections on the first team.
Penn State (Big Ten) — Franco Harris (1969-1971)
This one was another tough call, especially because Mike Munchak makes a very good case as the best football player ever from Penn State, but fullback Franco Harris takes the crown. Harris was never an All-American at Penn State, probably because he was underused as a ball carrier, but he showed enough to be drafted 13th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 NFL Draft.
While there, he was a huge part of the team’s 1970s dynasty, winning four Super Bowls and being named Super Bowl MVP in 1975. He was also a nine-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, eventually landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Pittsburgh (ACC) — Dan Marino (1979-1982)
This was another very tough call because Pitt has the fourth-most inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame of any college program. Icons like Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Larry Fitzgerald are impossible to overlook but Dan Marino gets our pick as the best Panther yet. Marino had a great career at Pittsburgh, being a Heisman Trophy finalist and a first-team All-American pick.
But in the NFL, he was nearly untouchable, setting numerous passing records and becoming an idol to young quarterbacks everywhere. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler and a seven-time All-Pro selection, and he led the league in passing yards five times.
Purdue (Big Ten) — Rod Woodson (1983-1986)
Purdue is another school that has a long list of outstanding football players — like Drew Brees, Bob Griese and Mike Alstott, to name a few — but Rod Woodson is arguably the best defensive back in history, so he gets our nod. While playing for the Boilermakers, Woodson was twice a first-team All-American and was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection.
In the NFL, he was unmatched at forcing turnovers, setting the all-time records for fumble recoveries and interceptions returned for touchdowns. Woodson also won a Super Bowl by leading the insanely talented 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense, was an 11-time Pro Bowler and was an eight-time All-Pro pick.
Rutgers (Big Ten) — Devin McCourty (2006-2009)
Considering Rutgers is known as the first college football program to ever exist, the school hasn’t produced a ton of outstanding pro football players. But Devin McCourty has had as strong a career as any of them. He was a four-year starter at safety while playing for the Scarlet Knights, being named to the All-Big East team in 2009.
He ended up being taken in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, where he’s spent his entire career thus far. McCourty has won three Super Bowls, has twice been named a Pro Bowler and has been an All-Pro selection three times, representing his school in a huge way.
South Carolina (SEC) — Sterling Sharpe (1983-1987)
Sterling Sharpe’s career at South Carolina was so strong it landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame and resulted in his jersey number being retired by the Gamecocks football program. He set several school records as a wide receiver there in the mid-’80s before going on to being picked seventh overall in the 1988 NFL Draft.
In the pros, Sharpe spent his entire career, which was sadly shortened by a neck injury, with the Green Bay Packers. He only played seven seasons in the NFL but was a five-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro three times, landing himself in the Packers Hall of Fame. Other great South Carolina football players have included George Rogers and Jadeveon Clowney.
Southern California (Pac-12) — Junior Seau (1988-1989)
The USC Trojans football program has produced the second most Pro Football Hall of Famers among all college football programs, making it nearly impossible to choose a greatest player. There have been a staggering number of football titans from USC, including guys like Anthony Muñoz, Frank Gifford, Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson and Ronnie Lott, but we had to give the nod to Junior Seau for his legacy on the field and off. One of the best linebackers ever, Seau was a unanimous first-team All-PAC 10 in 1989, the same year he was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
In the NFL, he was nothing short of dominant, being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as well as making 12 consecutive Pro Bowls and 10 consecutive All-Pro squads.
Stanford (Pac-12) — John Elway (1979-1982)
Stanford has had a great legacy for producing talented quarterbacks — Jim Plunkett and Andrew Luck come to mind — and no one exemplified that better than John Elway. He was a unanimous All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1982, leading to his number being retired by the Cardinal football program.
After being selected first overall in the 1983 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos, Elway more than lived up to that high selection. He was nine-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and NFL MVP one season. But the sweetest part of Elway’s career came at the very end, when he won two consecutive Super Bowls and then retired on top.
Syracuse (ACC) — Jim Brown (1954-1956)
The Syracuse Orange have produced some outstanding football talents over the years, including Larry Csonka, Art Monk, Marvin Harrison and Donovan McNabb, but Jim Brown is arguably the single most dominant football player in history so he’s got to get the nod. At Syracuse, Brown was a two-time All-American fullback, including as a unanimous selection in 1956.
But in the NFL, he literally trampled everyone who got in his way. In a career that lasted just nine seasons, Brown was a Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection every single year, leading the league in rushing eight seasons and three times being named NFL MVP. He averaged more than 100 yards per game for his entire career, making him the only player in history that can say that.
Tennessee (SEC) — Reggie White (1980-1983)
Plenty of people will probably be upset not to see Peyton Manning representing the Tennessee Volunteers, but Reggie White may be the most unstoppable defensive back to ever play the game so we’ve got to give him the crown. “The Minister of Defense” was an absolute monster in college, being named SEC Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American in 1983, when he racked up 15 sacks, which is still a single-season record at Tennessee.
White was just as vicious in the NFL, being a 13-time Pro Bowler and 13-time All-Pro selection in his 15 seasons of play. He was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, won a Super Bowl and had his jersey number retired by both the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Texas (Big 12) — Earl Campbell (1974-1977)
A Texan through and through, Earl Campbell is our pick for the best Longhorn football player in history, thanks to his punishing career as a rusher. At Texas, Campbell was a Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time first-team All-American. After being picked first overall by the Houston Oilers in the 1978 NFL Draft, he made the franchise proud and became its greatest player ever.
Campbell only played six full seasons in the NFL but did enough to become a Hall of Famer, being a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time first-team All-Pro and three-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Those reasons give Campbell the nod over fellow Longhorns like Ricky Williams, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Johnson.
Texas A&M (SEC) — Von Miller (2007-2010)
While Yale Lary is currently the only Texas A&M Aggie to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Von Miller gets our pick as the best player ever from the school because he’ll likely join him in Canton in the near future. At Texas A&M, Miller was one of the nation’s most dominant linebackers, twice being named a first-team All-American and winning the Butkus Award in 2010.
He was picked second overall by the Denver Broncos in 2011 and has spent his entire career there so far. He helped the team win the Super Bowl in 2016, being named the game’s MVP in the process. Miller has also been named to seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro squads.
Texas Christian (Big 12) — LaDainian Tomlinson (1997-2000)
While “Slingin'” Sammy Baugh makes a strong case as the best TCU Horned Frogs football player ever, he takes a back seat to LaDainian Tomlinson, who played at the school about 60 years after his time there. Tomlinson proved he was an amazing running back from the jump, being named a consensus All-American in 2000 and twice being named the WAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, which was the conference TCU played in during Tomlinson’s era.
He was picked fifth overall in the 2001 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers, where he would spend nearly his entire career. In 10 NFL seasons, Tomlinson was an NFL MVP, a five-time Pro Bowler and a six-time All-Pro.
Texas Tech (Big 12) — Zach Thomas (1993-1995)
Texas Tech hasn’t produced many football players that had brilliant careers after college, but Zach Thomas is the exception. He landed in the College Football Hall of Fame for his career playing linebacker for the Red Raiders, where he twice earned All-American honors.
He ended up being a fifth-round pick in the 1996 NFL Draft and he more than proved his doubters wrong. He was a monster at the position, being named to seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro squads, putting together a borderline Hall-of-Fame NFL career and frightening plenty of offensive players.
Utah (Pac-12) — Eric Weddle (2003-2006)
There hasn’t been a wealth of pro football talent to come from the University of Utah but current players like Alex Smith and Eric Weddle represent the Utes well. We went with Weddle for our pick as the program’s best. He’s proven to be a great safety at both levels, being named a consensus All-American in 2006 and twice being named conference defensive player of the year while at Utah.
He’s played for three different teams so far and has been outstanding for each, being named to six Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams. He even led the NFL in interceptions while playing for the San Diego Chargers in 2011.
Vanderbilt (SEC) — Will Wolford (1982-1985)
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much of an NFL legacy when it comes to Vanderbilt, but offensive lineman Will Wolford gets our pick as the program’s best. At Vandy, he played all four years, including starting in 33 straight games from his sophomore to senior seasons. He was also named first-team All-SEC in 1985.
He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 1986 NFL Draft and played in three consecutive Super Bowls with the team. He also made three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team.
Virginia (ACC) — Ronde Barber (1994-1996)
Narrowly edging out his own twin brother, Tiki Barber, Ronde Barber gets our pick as the best Virginia Cavaliers football player ever. Barber was outstanding in college, being named first-team All-ACC all three years he started at Virginia as a defensive back, although he returned kicks as well.
He was taken in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he’d spend his entire career and prove he should’ve been taken much higher. He helped the Bucs win a Super Bowl in 2003 and was named to five Pro Bowls and All-Pro squads. Other great Virginia players, aside from the Barber brothers, are Bill Dudley and Heath Miller.
Virginia Tech (ACC) — Bruce Smith (1981-1984)
Michael Vick may have been the most exciting offensive player to ever come from Virginia Tech but Bruce Smith is the greatest Hokie football star of all time. He won the Outland Trophy in 1984, which was one of two seasons that he was a consensus All-American while playing defensive end at Virginia Tech.
He went first overall to the Buffalo Bills in the 1985 NFL Draft and went on to become one of the most imposing defenders in league history. Smith was named to 11 Pro Bowls and 10 All-Pro teams, including eight as a first-team selection. He was also twice named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and recorded 200 sacks, which is still the most ever.
Wake Forest (ACC) — Bill George (1949-1952)
With about 8,000 students, Wake Forest is the smallest school that currently plays in one of the Power Five conferences, but the program has produced several memorable NFL stars. Norm Snead and Brian Piccolo are a couple, the latter of whose tragic story has made many football fans cry over the years, but Bill George was the best Wake Forest football player yet. George became the first All-American football player in the history of the Demon Deacons program.
He then went on to define the middle linebacker position with the Chicago Bears. He won an NFL championship with the Bears, was named a Pro Bowl eight straight years and was also named to eight All-Pro squads before landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Washington (Pac-12) — Warren Moon (1975-1977)
Warren Moon eventually became a Pro Football Hall of Famer, but he flew under the radar a bit as a college athlete. He started at a two-year junior college program before being signed by Washington, where he’d lead them to a Rose Bowl win in 1977.
Moon went undrafted in the NFL, instead becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in Canadian Football League history before being signed by the Houston Oilers in 1984. In the NFL, he made nine Pro-Bowl squads and led the league in passing yards twice. The only Huskies player rivaling Moon’s career was Hugh McElhenny, who is also a Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Washington State (Pac-12) — Mel Hein (1928-1930)
One of the earliest players on this list, Mel Hein was an NFL star in the 1930s but he stuck out at Washington State before that. With the Cougars, he was an All-American, helping lead the team to an undefeated season in 1930 while playing center.
Hein then played his entire pro career with the New York Giants, helping them win two NFL championships, while being named NFL MVP in 1938. He was chosen to represent his position on eight All-Pro squads. All due respect to Drew Bledsoe, but Hein is our pick for the best Wazzou player ever.
West Virginia (Big 12) — Chuck Howley (1955-1957)
This one wasn’t a tough call at all because Chuck Howley is undoubtedly the best West Virginia football player the program has ever produced. While with the Mountaineers, he was a three-time all-conference selection and was even named conference player of the year in 1957, while playing on the offensive line in college.
In the NFL, he eventually switched to linebacker, where he was dominant with the Dallas Cowboys, winning a Super Bowl in 1972. Howley also holds the distinction of being the only player in NFL history to be named Super Bowl MVP while playing for the losing team, which he did in 1971. He was also a six-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro.
Wisconsin (Big Ten) — Mike Webster (1971-1973)
This one was a toss-up between Mike Webster and Joe Thomas, but Webster’s Super Bowl wins and longevity in the league decided it. Playing center at Wisconsin, Webster was twice named to the All-Big Ten team, which got him noticed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he’d spend nearly his entire NFL career.
Webster holds the record for the most games and seasons played in Steelers history and was part of four legendary, Super Bowl-winning teams there. He was named to nine Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro squads, eventually landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His death at the age of 50, and a posthumous examination of his brain, revealed him to be the first player ever diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has drastically changed the conversation about concussions in football in recent years.