Best player in each SEC program's history
It’s hard enough to determine the best player to ever suit up for teams in a specific conference, but that task is significantly harder when you’re doing it for those in the SEC.
Multiple players on this awesome list can stake the claim of being the best college football player ever.
There is no magic criteria involving statistics, popularity and other factors that can be combined to come to a definitive answer for this. This is just SDS, a group of hardcore SEC fans, bestowing this title on a legend from each school.
Editor’s note: These selections are bound to spark reaction and you may vehemently disagree, but please, keep it civil and state your case. We value your opinion as hardcore SEC fans.
Alabama — Derrick Thomas, LB, 1986-88
Thomas may have died young at the age of 33 but not before terrorizing quarterbacks and leaving an indelible mark on football at both levels. Consider that Thomas is the only Alabama defensive player to be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame. For those who haven’t seen Thomas’ numbers with the Crimson Tide, they’re sure to rub their eyes and do a double take. He recorded 52 sacks in his three years, including an out-of-this-world 27 sacks in 1988. To put that into perspective, only two players have even hit the 20-sack plateau since the turn of the century and neither Terrell Suggs (24 in 2002) or Elvis Dumervil (20 in 2005) were able to match Thomas. He also had 44 QB hurries that season, 11 more than any other Tide player in a single season.
Arkansas — Darren McFadden, RB, 2005-07
McFadden hurt opposing defenses in a number of ways. That’s why the rushing, receiving and returning threat finished his career with the Razorbacks second all-time in career all-purpose yards. Only LSU’s Kevin Faulk (6,833) had more than McFadden (5,881), but Faulk played four seasons while McFadden only played three. McFadden’s name can be found all over the SEC record books as he’s second all-time in career rushing yards (4,590) and third all-time in career rushing yards per game (120.8). He’s also one of only three players in conference history to rush for 1,000 yards in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons along with fellow Razorback alum Alex Collins and Herschel Walker. McFadden finished his career as a two-time All-American, two-time Doak Walker Award winner and two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Auburn — Bo Jackson, RB, 1982-85
The ’80s saw Alabama’s rival, Auburn, also produce its greatest player ever. That belongs to Bo. The three-sport sensation who also starred in baseball and track, still holds the SEC record for most yards per rush (minimum 400 attempts) at 6.6, making the case to be one of the most explosive running backs to ever play college football. For a school whose history is littered with impressive running backs, the man with the two-letter nickname stands above them all with the career rushing record of 4,303. He won the Heisman in 1985 by rushing for 1,786 yards, a 162.4 yards per game average that ranks third only Herschel Walker’s 171.9 in 1981 and Leonard Fournette’s 162.8 this past season.
Florida — Tim Tebow, QB, 2006-09
There was plenty of hype surrounding “The Chosen One” coming out of St. Augustine Nease. Tebow didn’t just live up to it, he has a strong case for being the greatest college football player ever. After helping Florida to a national title as a freshman, Tebow guided the Gators to another one in 2008 after winning the Heisman the previous season. Nobody in SEC history has found the end zone more than Tebow, who’s responsible for more career touchdowns (145) and single-season touchdowns (55) than any player in the league. Meanwhile, no player in the college football record books has scored a touchdown (of any variety) in more games than Tebow’s 38. He had several iconic moments in his career, but none of them were bigger than the “promise” he made after a loss to Ole Miss, saying no player and no team would play harder than Florida. The team reeled off 10 straight to win it all, beating Oklahoma and Heisman winner Sam Bradford to do so.
Georgia — Herschel Walker, RB, 1980-82
You’ve already read Herschel’s name a few times during this article, and that should tell you (not that you don’t already know) just how incredible of a career he had. No SEC player was more of a workhorse as he holds the two highest averages for rushing attempts in a season at 35 in 1981 and 30.4 in 1982. In fact, he averaged 30.1 for his career while the next-closest player is Emmitt Smith at 22.5. Furthermore, no one was more productive as his career rushing total (5,259) and career yards per game average (159.4) is comfortably unequaled. He never finished any worse than third in the Heisman voting in any of his three seasons between the hedges, winning the award in 1982. Walker is the only SEC player to be named a three-time consensus All-American.
Kentucky — Babe Parilli, QB, 1949-51
Under the direction of Bear Bryant, Kentucky quarterback Babe Parilli led the school to its first ever SEC title in 1950. Parilli was a two-time All-American and guided the Wildcats to each of the school’s three major bowl appearances, including back-to-back victories, the first of which was against No. 1 Oklahoma in the 1950 Sugar Bowl before doing so against No. 11 TCU in the 1951 Cotton Bowl. While Tim Couch would arrive later on and put up bigger numbers in Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid” offense before being drafted No. 1 overall, Parilli was the pioneer in Lexington.
LSU — Billy Cannon, ATH, 1957-59
This was a tough one between Cannon and the great Tommy Casanova. You really can’t go wrong either way, but Cannon gets the nod as the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history. Cannon was a two-time First-Team All-SEC selection in 1958 and 1959, capturing the Heisman in 1959. He made his mark on offense, defense and special teams during his career in Baton Rouge, leading to his iconic No. 20 jersey being retired by LSU at the conclusion of his collegiate career before being drafted No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Rams (before swiftly signing a deal with the AFL’s Houston Oilers). He was inducted into the National College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Mississippi State — Dak Prescott, QB, 2012-15
Most Mississippi State fans would agree that they just got done watching the best player in their program’s history. Prescott finished his career in Starkville by setting 38 school records (15 career, 15 single-season, 8 single-game), while taking the school to unprecedented heights. With Prescott under center, the Bulldogs held the No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll for five weeks of the 2014 season after never holding the top spot at all previously. The four-year player is one of only four players in FBS history (with Tim Tebow being the only other SEC player) to throw for at least 70 TDs and rush for at least 40 TDs. The only other MSU signal-caller to earn First-Team All-SEC honors in back-to-back seasons was Billy Stacy in 1956 and 1957. There will be future success in Starkville, but there won’t be another Dak.
Missouri — Kellen Winslow, TE, 1975-78
Winslow didn’t even play football until his senior year in high school, which explains why he was so underutilized in his first two seasons with Missouri. However, he quickly caught on as he earned All-SEC honors as a junior before being named a consensus All-American as a senior. Over his last two seasons with the Tigers, Winslow compiled 54 catches for 837 yards and 9 TDs. Winslow and Alabama’s Ozzie Newsome helped usher in a new era for tight ends that could stretch the field during their time in the late 1970s. Admittedly, Winslow’s place here is partly because of what he accomplished at the next level as he would end up going down as one of the best to ever play the position in the NFL. However, it was Missouri where he began revolutionizing the position, and clearly the San Diego Chargers recognized his potential by drafting him with the No. 13 overall pick in the 1979 NFL Draft.
Mississippi — Eli Manning, QB, 2000-03
While his father paved the way for many quarterbacks, especially those of the mobile variety, Eli’s numbers at Ole Miss were significantly better than his old man’s. Of course, you can attribute that to different eras, but the discrepancy is too large in this case. Eli holds career school marks when it comes to passing yards (10,119), passing TDs (81) and completions (829). While a lot is made of Chad Kelly throwing 31 TDs last season to lead the SEC, he did that in 13 games. Eli threw that many in just 11 games back in 2001 to set the school’s single-season mark. Before the Rebels’ 10-win campaign last season, the only other 10-win season by Ole Miss since 1971 was with Eli under center in 2003, when he won the Maxwell Award. In four seasons, Eli completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 10,119 yards, 81 TDs and 35 INTs. In three seasons, Archie completed just 52.8 percent of his passes for 4,753 yards with 31 TDs and 40 INTs. Advantage, Eli.
South Carolina — George Rogers, RB, 1977-80
The Gamecocks were an independent during Rogers’ time in Columbia, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rogers is the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history. He earned the award in 1980 — beating out Pittsburgh’s Hugh Green and Georgia’s Herschel Walker — after rushing for a NCAA-best 1,781 yards and 14 TDs in 1980. He was second in the NCAA in rushing the previous season with 1,681 as part of a string of three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Rogers was then taken No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Saints in the 1981 NFL Draft. QB Connor Shaw certainly has a case as South Carolina’s all-time winningest quarterback and leading the team to three consecutive New Years bowl wins as a starter.
Tennessee — Peyton Manning, QB, 1994-97
It’s impossible to overlook what Peyton Manning did once he wasn’t wearing the big orange uniform. That’s because “the Sheriff” turned himself into arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He currently holds just about all prestigious passing records in the NFL and just won his second Super Bowl before calling it a career. Even before that, Manning was a star in Knoxville as the Heisman runner-up and SEC Player of the Year in 1997. He was a three-time All-American (third team in 1995 and 1996 before being a consensus first-teamer in 1997). Meanwhile, Manning’s 11,201 career passing yards are fourth-most in SEC history. No Volunteer is more recognizable than this guy.
Texas A&M — Johnny Manziel, QB, 2011-13
He may have only actually played two seasons, but what a heck of a two seasons it was. When you hear the term “video game numbers,” Johnny Football showed us some in reality. Manziel shattered several SEC records while with the Aggies and will forever be known as the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, which came in 2012. That remarkable year saw Manziel post nearly 400 yards of total offense per game (393.5), which is a single-season SEC record. Over his two years, he averaged 384.2 total yards, which is exactly 100 yards more than the next-best player (Arkansas Ryan Mallet with 284.2 from 2009-10). He holds the three most productive games and the two most productive seasons in SEC history when it comes to total yards. Manziel was successful as a passer under Kevin Sumlin as well with an SEC-record 68.9 career completion percentage and ranking second only to Tim Tebow in career passer efficiency (164.1). While his off-the-field exploits can throw dirt on his name, there’s no denying how productive he was in College Station.
Vanderbilt — Bill Spears, QB, 1925-27
During the early stages of Commodores football, it was all about quarterback Bill Spears. In his three years as the starting quarterback at Vanderbilt with coach Dan McGugin, the school only lost five games: Georgia, Georgia Tech and Auburn in 1925, eventual national champion Alabama in 1926 and Texas in 1927. He would get his revenge against the Crimson Tide in 1927, outgaining the opposition on his own in a 14-7 win in Birmingham to cap a 8-1-2 season. The Heisman Trophy wasn’t awarded until 1935, but the First-Team All-American would’ve been a favorite to win it that year. Spears was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1962. Jordan Matthews, the SEC’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, gets a much-deserved honorable mention here.