There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that college football in the 21st century has been different than it was during the latter part of the 20th century.
Overall, the players are better. While there may not be anyone who can measure up to Syracuse legend Jim Brown or Auburn great Bo Jackson, there is a larger collection of talented players.
We’re also seeing younger players excel early in their careers. In 2007, Florida’s Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Just five years later, Johnny Manziel became the first redshirt freshman to win the Heisman.
With all of the talent that has dominated college football since 2000, it’s difficult to pick out the players who have stood out among the rest. Nevertheless, we’ve taken on that challenge and come up with a list of the 10 best college football players this century.
10. Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
The amazing thing about Suh is that he wasn’t on the national radar until he won Big 12 Championship Game MVP as a senior despite his team losing the game. Of course, even though we weren’t paying attention, Suh was quietly a force to be reckoned with on the Nebraska defense. Even as a freshman, he was among the team leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. Suh came into his own as a junior, earning honorable mention All-American honors, before having one of the best seasons of any defensive linemen in college football history as a senior. He won most of the Defensive Player of the Year awards and was a Heisman finalist while leading one of the nation’s top defenses. Suh was also the first defensive player to ever be named AP Player of the Year, which says everything you need to know about the kind of player he was in college.
9. Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
A few years into his pro career, McCaffrey is arguably the best overall player in the NFL, and not surprisingly, he might be the best overall college player of the 21st century. Oddly enough, his sophomore season was his best year. That was the year McCaffrey passed Barry Sanders for the most all-purpose yards in a single season. He was also AP Player of the Year and the Heisman runner-up that season. As we all know, McCaffrey is more than just a great rusher, he’s also a great receiver and a threat on punt and kickoff returns. For his career, McCaffrey averaged 6.2 yards per rush and 12.2 yards per catch while also handling kick return duties for Stanford. No other player in college football this century excelled so much at so many things.
8. Cam Newton, Auburn
For all intents and purposes, Newton only played one year of college football, although he had a heck of a season at Blinn College at the JC level in 2009. That being said, Newton put on an amazing show during his one season at Auburn. He dominated college football that season in a way that no single player dominated a season ever before. There were probably a few dozen teams that would have won the national championship that year with Newton on the team. He just happened to play for Auburn. He made plays as a passer, averaging over 10 yards per attempt with 30 touchdown passes and was a near-unstoppable force as a runner, rushing for over 1,400 yards and 20 more touchdowns. Auburn was not a dominant team that season, but they had Newton to carry them to victory time after time with seven of their 14 wins coming by single digits.
7. Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Most people remember Griffin’s sensational Heisman season in 2011, but there was more to his college career than that one season. He was also Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year as a true freshman in 2008 despite playing for a 4-8 team. He then came back from a torn ACL he suffered in 2009 to lead Baylor to a 7-6 record in 2010 and the program’s first bowl appearance in 16 years. During that year, he threw for 3,501 yards and 22 touchdown passes, which is nothing to scoff at. That set the stage for his amazing Heisman campaign in 2011 in which Baylor won 10 games for the first time since 1980 and finished the season ranked for the first time since 1986. Lost amid all of RG3’s personal accomplishments is how he elevated Baylor during his four years, setting the Bears up for future success.
6. Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson had the advantage of playing for a blossoming powerhouse at Clemson, sure, but he was the player who took the Tigers to the next level. He threw for over 4,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, combining for 76 touchdown passes over those two seasons. Watson also rushed for over 1,100 yards during one of those seasons, showing off his abilities as a dual-threat quarterback.
During his three seasons in college, Watson was a Heisman finalist twice, won the Davey O’Brien Award twice, and won the Manning Award twice. He also did all of that after tearing his ACL late in his freshman season. Perhaps most importantly, he lifted Clemson over Alabama to win the 2016 National Championship, an accomplishment that surely puts him in elite company.
5. Vince Young, Texas
Forget about all of the ups and downs Young had in the NFL and remember that this guy was a dominant force during his Texas tenure. During his three seasons at Texas, he twice rushed for over 1,000 yards and came two yards short during his freshman season because he had to share playing time. Young was also the first player to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in a season, becoming a trailblazer for a generation of dual-threat quarterbacks. During the 2004 and 2005 seasons, there was no one better or more exciting to watch in college football. Scoring the game-winning touchdown to beat USC in the Rose Bowl and give the Longhorns the national championship was just the icing on the cake of an incredible college career.
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt
What’s more impressive: Fitzgerald being a productive NFL receiver for over 15 years or Fitzgerald needing only two seasons of college football to be one of the all-time greats? Either way, Fitzgerald is arguably the best college receiver of the 21st century. Few people outside of Western Pennsylvania can name Pitt’s quarterback in 2002 and 2003 (it was Rod Rutherford, by the way), but every college football fan remembers how brilliant Fitzgerald was.
He had the smarts to get open and the hands to catch everything thrown his way. He was far more polished than any other college receiver of his generation, which is why he scored 34 touchdowns over two seasons, including a nation-leading 22 in 2003. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald was a few precious points shy of being one of the few wide receivers to win the Heisman but is undoubtedly one of the best at his position of all-time.
3. Andrew Luck, Stanford
It’s a shame that injuries pushed Luck into retirement early because if you remember his college days at Stanford, he was considered a generational talent. Stanford’s rise to the top tier of the Pac-12 under Jim Harbaugh coincided with Luck becoming the starting quarterback. He was arguably the most influential figure in Stanford becoming a nationally-relevant program.
Even as a freshman, Luck led the Cardinal to two wins over top-10 teams. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he was Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and a First-Team All-American. Contrary to his name, Luck had the misfortune of finishing as the runner-up in the Heisman race both years to Cam Newton and RG3. But given how much the Stanford program improved in Luck’s three seasons, he’s arguably the most impactful player in college football this century.
2. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma
Peterson is one of the few players who legitimately could have skipped college and gone straight to the NFL after high school. Even as a freshman at Oklahoma, he was in a different class, rushing for 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns. Peterson was Heisman runner-up that year and probably deserved more votes than he got while also being a unanimous All-American.
Injuries during his sophomore and junior seasons prevented him from getting another shot to win the Heisman. Nevertheless, Peterson rushed for over 4,000 yards with 41 rushing touchdowns in three college seasons, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and over 130 yards per game. He was all kinds of special during his college days and the best running back of the century thus far.
1. Tim Tebow, Florida
His NFL career had a handful of highlights, but in terms of his college career, nobody stands out more over the last 20 years than Tebow. Even when he was a part-time backup to Chris Leak as a freshman, it was clear that Tebow was something special.
In college football history, he’s among the all-time leaders in passing efficiency and yards per pass. Tebow was also one of the best rushing quarterbacks college football has ever seen, finding the end zone on the ground 57 times.
He was also the heart and soul of Florida’s team for most of his career, always putting his team first while helping the Gators win two national championships. Of course, his personal accomplishments are off the charts, too, including the Heisman Trophy in 2007, SEC Player of the Year honors in 2008 and 2009 and First-Team All-American honors in 2008 and 2009.
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