The SEC's greatest starting lineup of all-time: Who makes the first team? (And which Hall-of-Famers don't?)
Welcome to G.O.A.T. Week at Saturday Down South. Join us as we go deep with some of the “Greatest of All-Time” from SEC football history, including Bear Bryant, Herschel, the best starting lineup, the Head Ball Coach and more.
Before everybody bolts to the comments section, a disclaimer: You’re right, too.
When the task is selecting the best players from the best conference, there are no wrong answers. There are fourth-stringers on the SEC’s G.O.A.T team who are in the College or Pro Football Hall of Fame, for Saban’s sake.
But there can only be one starter. With that in mind, our staff set out to select the SEC’s greatest starting lineup of all-time, based entirely on what they accomplished in the SEC. Votes were calculated, but unanimous elections were few and far between.
There is some recency bias, most notably on offense. Given how the game has evolved and grown and how the SEC has dominated this century, how could there not be? But there also are legends of the 1900s who would be just as unstoppable today.
The envelope and explanations, please …
Quarterback: Tim Tebow, Florida
This wasn’t unanimous. Blame me for that. I voted for Danny Wuerffel, the superior pure passer and conductor of the SEC’s most prolific offense, the first to top 500 points in a season. The 1996 Gators still hold the SEC record for scoring average (46.6 points), topping the mark they set the previous year (45.5).
So, yes, I’m fine with Wuerffel leading whatever kind of scheme you want to run.
But the majority of our staff chose Tebow, and there’s no denying his greatness, either. Like Wuerffel, Tebow won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship (two, actually). Tebow’s Gators also set SEC records, scoring 611 points in 2008, passing (among others) Wuerffel and Co.’s total of 559 in 1996. A decade later, no other SEC team has reached 600.
Running back: Herschel Walker
In 2018, we’re not relying on two-back sets. We want one guy, and, really, there’s only one choice.
While many on this team are much younger, Walker’s greatness stands the test of time.
His numbers are beyond reproach. Walker’s career rushing total — 5,259, one of the SEC’s magic numbers — might be the conference’s most unbreakable record.
He was so far ahead of his time that even now, when he stands on the sideline among Georgia’s running backs, he’s still the most physically imposing person in the photo — without pads.
His selection was unanimous and required the least discussion, even though that sent Hall of Famers Bo Jackson and Emmitt Smith to the sideline, along with Heisman Trophy winners Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry and unstoppable forces like Darren McFadden and Leonard Fournette. My goodness, has the SEC turned out some running backs.
Wide receiver: Julio Jones, Alabama
We have two receivers in the lineup, with an option to use a third or a second running back. This position was the most controversial, but Jones led the voting and was a clear WR1.
A cornerstone recruit in Nick Saban’s program-changing 2008 class, Jones fueled Alabama’s rise. He created the blueprint for the great Alabama receivers who followed, and he flourished in an offense that never thought pass-first. So while others have greater numbers, nobody had a greater impact on Alabama becoming Alabama.
Wide receiver: Amari Cooper, Alabama
Cooper did it all. Whatever bar Jones set, Cooper cleared.
He also won a national title. And in 2014, he set the SEC record with 124 receptions, finishing with 1,724 yards — just 14 shy of setting that mark, too.
He left with 3,463 receiving yards — second all-time in the league and the most in a 3-year career. He shares the career record with 31 touchdown receptions.
Cooper’s inclusion, however, pushed some of the SEC’s greatest to the bench. No other position received as many votes. Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews set SEC records. LSU’s Josh Reed was unstoppable. Georgia’s A.J. Green was seen as Jones’ equal, even if his team wasn’t. And Alshon Jeffery was the best offensive player on Steve Spurrier’s best South Carolina teams.
Tight end: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
Others received votes, but in this wide-open era where seam routes are more important than seal blocks, no tight end made bigger plays in the passing game than Henry, the 2015 Mackey Award winner.
Recency bias perhaps contributed to Henry edging former Hog D.J. Williams, who also won the Mackey Award. But Williams played one more year than Henry, which obviously contributed to the numerical advantages in catches (152-116), yards (1,855-1,661) and TD catches (10-9). Had Henry stayed, he’d lead all three, by a comfortable margin.
Left tackle: Chris Samuels, Alabama
There were numerous nominees and qualified candidates, but Samuels earned the nod. A consensus All-American, Samuels won the coveted Outland Trophy in 1999, capping a career in which he never allowed a sack.
Left guard: John Hannah, Alabama
A rare throwback on this team, Hannah frequently is in the conversation for the SEC’s greatest linemen. It’s not all nostalgia, either.
Hannah starred for Bear Bryant from 1970-72, twice earning All-America honors. Every conversation about Tide linemen starts with Hannah, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
If you’re looking for a tiebreaker, consider Bryant often called Hannah his greatest lineman. Sports Illustrated took it a step further.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
Six SEC players have won the Rimington Award since 2000. Pouncey did so in 2009. He was Tebow’s center, the perfect punisher/protector in today’s spread attack. NFL success doesn’t matter in this discussion, but there’s a reason Pouncey was a first-round pick in 2010.
Right guard: Barrett Jones, Alabama
Jones anchored Alabama’s line and could start anywhere. He enjoyed team success — three national championships — and individual accolades. He won the Outland Trophy in 2011 and Rimington Trophy in 2012, which goes to the best center. Because he could and did play anywhere, we’re sliding him to right guard.
Right tackle: Andre Smith, Alabama
The tackle position was tightly contested. Smith’s greatest challenge came from Michael Oher, whom he edged to win the 2008 Outland Trophy.
Both were consensus All-Americans in 2008, too.
Oher helped revitalize Ole Miss football after Ed Orgeron’s 10-25 tenure. Smith walked into a better situation at Alabama, but much like Julio Jones did with the skill players, Smith helped re-establish the standard for Tide offensive linemen.
All-purpose: Percy Harvin, Florida
Nobody would blame you if you wanted to use this spot for a position-specific star. We considered Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson and Derrick Henry, and others like Darren McFadden or Kevin Faulk. Who wouldn’t want to run a jet sweep with Odell Beckham Jr.? It’s virtually impossible to mess up this position.
But Harvin was a one-man band, the most ideally suited to doing damage outside or in the backfield. He didn’t win a Heisman, but he was Florida’s most versatile weapon on two national championship teams.
Nobody else had a game with 100 yards rushing and receiving. Scariest thought? As forward-thinking and innovative as Urban Meyer’s offenses were from 2006-08, Harvin might be even better in today’s SEC than he was then.
* * * * * *
As young and spread-friendly as the Offensive G.O.A.T. unit is, the defense has a very old-school feel to it.
This league has always been about physicality, and the defensive players specialized in bringing the pain.
In keeping with modern trends, we have a hybrid edge rusher who would have been just as comfortable with his hand in the dirt in a 4-3 or upright and outside in a 3-4.
Defensive end: Reggie White, Tennessee
White set the standard for defensive linemen, earning the nickname the Minister of Defense while still in Knoxville. He set the Vols’ career mark with 32 sacks, but he was equally destructive against the run.
He thrived in the golden age of running backs, too, taking on Heisman winners Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson in the SEC, and stars like Marcus Allen outside of it.
White was named the 1983 SEC Player of the Year, the first time since Jake Scott in 1968 that a defensive player won the award.
Defensive tackle: Glenn Dorsey, LSU
Dorsey anchored the Tigers’ 2007 BCS championship team, earning SEC Defensive POY honors along the way. As dominant as Alabama’s defensive fronts have been, Dorsey was the tone-setter in Baton Rouge. He was so dominant he finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting in 2007.
Defensive end: David Pollack, Georgia
Few had a more decorated career than Pollack, who left Athens as the Bulldogs’ all-time leader in sacks (36.0). Pollack was the last defensive player to win SEC Player of the Year, doing so in 2002. In 2003, the SEC split the award, creating an Offensive POY and Defensive POY. Pollack won the Defensive POY award in 2004 and is on the 2019 ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame.
Edge: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
He delivered The Hit Heard ‘Round The World, but Clowney was an unstoppable force long before that. He had 13.0 sacks as a sophomore — only two SEC players had more in the past 10 seasons. He was the frontman during South Carolina’s greatest three-year stretch in program history and one of just four SEC defenders to be chosen No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft.
LB: Derrick Thomas, Alabama
Thomas, the SEC’s career sack leader with 52.0, might be even more ferocious coming off the edge than Clowney, but his speed and athleticism make him the perfect outside linebacker to combat a modern offense.
Don’t believe us? Joe Kines, his defensive coordinator at Alabama told AL.com a great story about how Thomas was so fast in coverage he nearly cost the Tide a win over Ohio State.
LB: Patrick Willis, Ole Miss
What didn’t Willis accomplish in Oxford? He was 2-time All-American, the 2006 SEC Defensive POY who also won the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy. Given the Rebels’ lack of success, the casual fan might not have paid much attention to him, but he twice led the SEC in tackles. Willis appeared on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot for the first time last June and is back on the 2019 ballot. It’s only a matter of time.
LB: Al Wilson, Tennessee
The stories of Wilson’s hitting are legendary. No wonder Vols coaches sometimes held him out of two-on-one practice drills.
Wilson spent three years in Peyton Manning’s shadow but became the unquestioned leader who drove the Vols to a perfect record and surprising national championship in 1998.
He was a one-man hype video before they were a thing.
CB: Patrick Peterson, LSU
Peterson was so dominant teams just stopped challenging him, which goes a long way toward explaining why he only had 7 career interceptions.
But there was no escaping his greatness. He won just about every award a defensive back can in 2010, including the Bednarik and Thorpe. He not only was the SEC’s Defensive POY, he ran away with the league’s Special Teams POY, too.
CB: Champ Bailey, Georgia
It’s impossible to upstage Herschel Walker in Georgia. And Bailey didn’t have the football in his hands often enough to do that, but my, oh, my, when he did … A lockdown defender by trade, Bailey also starred on offense, one of the sport’s last great, legitimate two-way standouts.
S: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
The youngest non-specialist on the G.O.A.T. team, Fitzpatrick was a ball-hawking throwback capable of playing anywhere in the secondary. In fact, he often did, based on scheme or teammates’ availability. Alabama’s defense was most vulnerable when Fitzpatrick was on the sideline.
S: Eric Berry, Tennessee
Berry was a two-time All-American who also won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back in 2009. He picked off 14 passes in his career, but he was a punishing and will tackler, too. He led all SEC defensive backs with 87 tackles in 2009.
Berry remains the SEC’s leader in career yards after an interception with 494.
P: JK Scott, Alabama
Lost in the details of Alabama’s decade of dominance has been the Tide’s manhandling of special teams. Nobody was more impactful than Scott, who flipped the field with regularity, making it that much more difficult to go the distance against Saban’s defense. Half of his 54 punts last season landed inside the opponent’s 20. In the most recent championship game alone, Scott’s first two punts sailed 50+ yards, and his third punt pinned Georgia at its 5. He added a 50-yarder and later pinned Georgia inside its 10. He set the Alabama record for career punting average (45.6 yards).
K: Daniel Carlson, Auburn
Carlson won more awards than we have time to explain, but among his most impressive accomplishments: He set the SEC record with 92 field goals, and his 13-for-21 effort on 50-yarders is the second-highest percentage in NCAA history.
Returner: Brandon James, Florida
The final roster spot was a contested one, as well. I’m the staff’s graybeard. I voted for Tennessee’s Willie Gault, the world-class sprinter who set the SEC single-season (3) and career (4) records for kickoff returns for a touchdown. Javier Arenas was a game-changer for Alabama, returning an SEC-record 7 punts for touchdowns in his career. Christian Kirk just spent the past three years terrorizing special teams who dared kick to him.
But there’s no denying James’ greatness. On teams that featured Harvin and Tebow, punting or kicking off to James was pure hold-your-breath-and-hope.
James holds the SEC record for most return yards (4,089) and is tied for fifth with 5 returns for touchdowns.
* * * * * *
Head coach: Nick Saban
Another case, perhaps, of recency bias, but Saban has dominated a league that also featured two rivals we considered for this nod: Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer.
Moreover, he’s done so at two SEC schools. And, of course, after matching Bear Bryant’s six national championships, Saban has shown no signs of slowing down.
Some will argue that Saban isn’t even Alabama’s G.O.A.T. We understand. It’s the SEC. Peyton Manning, Bo Jackson, Emmitt Smith, Tim Couch, Cam Newton, Myles Garrett, etc., etc., were plenty great, too.
* * * * * *
PREVIOUSLY IN G.O.A.T. WEEK: