When we set out to build the ideal college football team for the
'90s, the blueprint was simple: For each position, we would
identify the program that has produced the best players at that
spot, then combine the positions as one team. Recognizing that
some of the old truisms are no longer true--Penn State is no
longer Linebacker U, it's Linebacker Used to Be; and at USC,
Student Body Left the program long ago--we set these criteria.
1) THE WINDOW OF EVALUATION IS 10 YEARS. Players whose careers
were finished before 1988 are ineligible for consideration. The
more recently a program has produced great players, the more
weight that program is given. (To wit: Miami wide receivers
Michael Irvin and Brett Perriman, who last played in '87, do not
count at all; the Hurricanes' Horace Copeland, who last played
in '92, counts a little, but not as much as Yatil Green, who
played in '96.)
2) COLLEGE PRODUCTION COUNTS MOST. NFL draft status is a second
consideration because it is a measure of college talent. NFL
production is a distant third. (For example, Georgia gets little
credit for All-Pro running back Terrell Davis because he did
little for the Dawgs.)
Using these two rules and a bounty of data, we built our team,
both offense and defense. Here's how they line up.
August 30, 1998
QUARTERBACK Washington State
THE STORY Washington State coach Mike Price stole his offensive
ideas from Jack Elway (John's father) two decades ago, when the
elder Elway was coach at Cal State-Northridge and Price was an
assistant coach at Washington State, but Price's keep-it-simple
teaching style and cockeyed sense of humor are strictly his own.
On every Cougars pass play, for example, one receiver goes deep
and is designated, in Washington State terminology, the "hero."
Why? "He runs long, scores the touchdown, gets the girl," says
Price. "He's the hero." Price vigorously recruited Peyton
Manning and Brian Griese, and although both liked him, neither
could imagine four winters in Pullman. Price's solution: Make
stars out of less-touted guys who don't mind the Northwest.
BIG NUMBERS In their final seasons Timm Rosenbach, Drew Bledsoe
and Ryan Leaf each threw for more than 3,000 yards and led the
Cougars from a sub-.500 record in the previous year to at least
DEAD MYTH All great quarterbacks spring from the fertile earth
of California or Pennsylvania. Bledsoe hails from Walla Walla,
Wash., and Leaf from Great Falls, Mont.
RUNNERS-UP Washington (Cary Conklin 1988-89, Billy Joe Hobert
1991, Mark Brunell 1990-92, Damon Huard 1993-95, Brock Huard
1996-98). Quantity but less quality than Washington State.
Michigan (Elvis Grbac 1989-92, Todd Collins 1991-94, Brian
Griese 1994-97). Quality--but not quite Cougars quality. Florida
(Shane Matthews 1990-92, Terry Dean 1991-94, Danny Wuerffel
1993-96). A Heisman winner and two grinders in a brilliant system.
TAILBACK Ohio State
THE STORY Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. No other school
recruits as effectively as Ohio State, and running back is
always a high priority for the Buckeyes. "Every year we look at
the top five running backs in the country and pick out the two
we want," says Ohio State coach John Cooper. "Sometimes we get
only one, but we never get shut out." Four years of this, and
the Buckeyes' roster becomes stacked with high school
All-Americas at tailback. The survivors become stars. "When guys
go to Ohio State, they know there are going to be four or five
other running backs," says Robert Smith, a Buckeyes alumnus and
a six-year veteran with the Minnesota Vikings. "Only the guys
who aren't scared to compete end up there in the first place."
BIG NUMBERS In the past six years Ohio State has had five
tailbacks run for 173 yards or more in a game.
DEAD MYTH Three yards and a cloud of dust. With the Buckeyes
tailbacks of the 1990s, it's now "Six yards and a divot."
RUNNERS-UP Nebraska (Derek Brown 1990-92, Calvin Jones 1991-93,
Lawrence Phillips 1993-95, Ahman Green 1995-97). Loads of
production from the Huskers assembly line makes Nebraska a very
close second. Tennessee (Reggie Cobb 1987-89, James Stewart
1991-94, Charlie Garner 1992-93, Jay Graham 1993-96). All good,
but Ohio State's Smith and Eddie George were better. Georgia
(Rodney Hampton 1987-89, Garrison Hearst 1990-92, Terrell Davis
1992-94, Robert Edwards 1994-97). Davis is much better as a pro
than he was in college. Edwards was injured too often.
FULLBACK Notre Dame
THE STORY Lou Holtz, who coached Notre Dame from 1986 to '96,
loved fullbacks. "One thing you always knew about Lou's offense
was that he was very committed to the fullback," says Michigan
coach Lloyd Carr. Holtz would run the option with his fullback,
he would throw to his fullback, and he would demand that his
fullback block like Anthony Munoz. He would rather use his
fullback than eat or sleep; accordingly, over the last decade
the Irish fullbacks have often been their best athletes. "Notre
Dame keeps the guys it knows can do everything at fullback,"
says Jerome Bettis, a Pro Bowl running back with the Pittsburgh
Steelers. "We had the vision of a tailback, but we played
BIG NUMBERS Four of Notre Dame's five starting fullbacks since
1988 were drafted by the second round. The fifth, the late
Rodney Culver, was taken in the fourth round.
DEAD MYTH Tailbacks are always the cover boys. Notre Dame's
tailbacks in recent years have included Tony Brooks, Ricky
Watters, Reggie Brooks, Lee Becton, Randy Kinder and Autry
Denson. The Irish fullbacks have been a more dangerous crew.
RUNNERS-UP Penn State (Sam Gash 1988, 1990-91, Brian O'Neal
1990, 1992-93, Jon Witman 1992-95, Brian Milne 1993-95). Plenty
of power, not as much flash. Michigan (Leroy Hoard 1987-89,
Jarrod Bunch 1987-90, Chris Floyd 1994-97). Blue-collar pounders
lacked the Irish fullbacks' speed.
The story Florida coach Steve Spurrier is just as hard on his
wideouts as he is on his quarterbacks, of whom he is famously
demanding. "It's a tough system to learn, and he throws a lot at
you very quickly," says Ike Hilliard, a former Gators receiver
who was the first-round draft choice of the New York Giants in
1997. "We spent most of our practice time working on the passing
game." Off the field Florida eschews traditional
quarterbacks-only meetings. "We have the quarterbacks and wide
receivers together," says Spurrier. "I don't know how some
coaches can have a passing game keeping them apart." Also,
Florida receivers don't eat quiche. "We look for guys with speed
and with good hands, but we want courage, too," says Spurrier.
Those brave wideouts have made Spurrier's passing game one of
the two seminal offenses of the 1990s. (Nebraska's option is the
BIG NUMBERS By the fall of 1995, it was obvious Florida could
throw and catch. But when Hilliard, Reidel Anthony and Chris
Doering had six touchdown catches in a 62-37 comeback blitzing
of Tennessee that season, it became apparent that the Gators
could do it better than any other college team ever.
DEAD MYTH It's just the System. Hilliard and Anthony were taken
in the first round of the NFL draft in 1997, and another Florida
receiver, Jacquez Green, went in the second round in '98. The
pros draft talent.
RUNNERS-UP Ohio State (Brian Stablein 1989-92, Joey Galloway
1991-94, Terry Glenn 1993-95, David Boston 1996-98). USC (Curtis
Conway 1990-92, Johnnie Morton 1990-93, Keyshawn Johnson
1994-95). Colorado (Mike Pritchard 1988-90, Charles Johnson
1991-93, Michael Westbrook 1991-94, Rae Carruth 1992-96). The
Gators trump them all with volume at a higher level.
TIGHT END Washington
THE STORY Good tight ends possess freakish skills. They have to
block tackles and pass-rushing linebackers, outrun safeties and
cornerbacks on pass routes and be able to catch the ball. In
many programs the tight end is a tackle wearing a number in the
80s and isn't an offensive threat. Washington has long recruited
versatile athletes to play tight end--two of them, Ernie Conwell
and Aaron Pierce, were also decathletes--and given them an
identity. "I call them the enforcers for the offense," says
Myles Corrigan, who coached Huskies tight ends from 1987 to '93.
"I used to tell my guys, 'You're bigger than anybody in the
secondary; deliver a lick when you get out there.'" Mark Bruener
played both ways in high school and was recruited as a defensive
end by many colleges. "Washington recruited me as an athlete,"
says Bruener, All-Pac-10 for the Huskies in '93 and '94. "They
saw the situation and said, 'You're going to be a tight end.'"
BIG NUMBERS Bruener played at 245 pounds and caught 90 passes
in his career. Conwell and Pierce caught 47 each, and Cameron
Cleeland caught 50. Washington's tight ends are so respected
that Jeremy Brigham, a backup in 1997, was drafted in the fifth
DEAD MYTH Tight ends either block or catch. Washington's do
both. Runners-up Mississippi (Wesley Walls 1988, Tyji Armstrong
1990-91, Kris Mangum 1994-96). Good, but not good enough. Penn
State (Troy Drayton 1991-92, Kyle Brady 1991-94). Five beats two
OFFENSIVE LINE Nebraska
THE STORY "Of all the positions on the field, offensive line is
where you have the best opportunity to make players," says Tom
Osborne, Nebraska's coach for 25 years before his retirement
last January. "It's a place where diligence in the weight room
can really pay off." The Cornhuskers take 240-pound high school
linemen and routinely build them into 300-pound monsters.
Nebraska linemen are graded weekly according to a complex
formula (perfect plays, pancakes, sacks allowed and penalties
committed are parts of the mix) that makes the pass-efficiency
rating seem simple. A fifth measurement is more subjective: "We
like kids with spunk," says offensive line coach Milt Tenopir.
BIG NUMBERS Since 1988, seven Huskers linemen have been
DEAD MYTH Nebraska linemen are great in college but can't cut
it in the pros. In late August, 11 Huskers blockers were on NFL
RUNNERS-UP Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State,
Wisconsin. Nebraska is in a class by itself. End of discussion.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES North Carolina
THE STORY Under Mack Brown, who took over at North Carolina for
the 1988 season and left last winter for Texas, the Tar Heels
revamped the position. "We want our defensive tackles to be
athletic," says Carl Torbush, Brown's defensive coordinator and
now the North Carolina coach. "We want them to be disrupters,
guys who mess up the offense." For that, quickness is required,
so players who are recruited as defensive ends are moved inside.
"They don't care how much you weigh," says Marcus Jones, a
former Tar Heel who's a third-year tackle with the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, "as long as you can run to the ball."
BIG NUMBERS North Carolina's defense has allowed only 11.5
points and 75.9 rushing yards over the last two seasons, best in
the nation and the foundation of the Heels' resurgence.
DEAD MYTH Defensive tackles are all Jenny Craig candidates.
Don't challenge the Tar Heels to a footrace.
RUNNER-UP Notre Dame (Bob Dahl 1988-90, Chris Zorich 1988-90,
Jim Flanigan 1990-93, Bryant Young 1990-93, Renaldo Wynn
1993-96). Strong overall but weaker in the last few years.
DEFENSIVE ENDS Florida State
THE STORY When he was coaching at Miami from 1984 to '88, Jimmy
Johnson invented the practice of turning high school defensive
backs into college linebackers and high school linebackers into
college linemen. In recent years Florida State has perfected
that approach. "I weighed 215 pounds when I got to college,"
says Peter Boulware, who weighed 255 when he left the Seminoles
to become the 1997 NFL defensive rookie of the year. "Some
programs would have put me at linebacker, but Florida State put
me at defensive end and turned me loose."
They all get turned loose. The Seminoles' defensive ends often
line up several yards outside the widest offensive linemen,
poised for a mad sprint at the quarterback. "We play for the
offense to pass on every down with those guys," says defensive
ends coach Jim Gladden. "It's attack, attack, attack."
BIG NUMBERS Four first-round NFL draft picks in the last four
DEAD MYTH Pass rushers arrive in Tallahassee fully formed and
NFL-ready, needing only a quick buffing before choosing an agent
and a Mercedes. Andre Wadsworth was a skinny, undercoached
walk-on and left as the No. 3 pick in the draft. "Florida State
doesn't just find defensive ends," says Tom Braatz, director of
college scouting for the Miami Dolphins. "It trains them."
RUNNER-UP Nebraska (Broderick Thomas 1985-88, Trev Alberts
1990-93, Jared Tomich 1994-96, Grant Wistrom 1994-97). Also a
voracious bunch. Florida State's defensive ends get the call for
being a little quicker and getting drafted a little higher.
THE STORY Bob Simmons, a defensive assistant at Colorado under
Bill McCartney from 1988 to '94 who's now the coach at Oklahoma
State, developed linebackers Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee
in lockstep with the Buffaloes' rise to the '90 national title.
Brian Cabral, who joined McCartney's staff as a graduate
assistant in '89 and now coaches under McCartney's successor,
Rick Neuheisel, has continued the development work. He teaches
what former Colorado star linebacker Chad Brown, who's now with
the Seattle Seahawks, calls "NFL technique." Rather than telling
his charges to attack with their forearms, Cabral stresses using
the hands. "When you're taking on linemen, you can't throw
forearms in there because you'll just get rocked," says Matt
Russell, another ex-Buffaloes linebacker. "From Day One he tells
the freshmen their greatest weapon is their hands."
BIG NUMBERS Colorado's record in the 1990s with the nine
linebackers that it had drafted by the NFL is 70-20-4 (counting
as victories five wins last fall that it later had to forfeit
because of an ineligible player). In the previous eight years,
in which one Colorado linebacker was drafted, the Buffaloes were
DEAD MYTH Excellence at one position is always tied to one
coach. McCartney made linebacking the centerpiece of the
Colorado defense, and Neuheisel has kept it that way.
RUNNERS-UP Texas A&M (John Roper 1985-88, Jeroy Robinson
1986-89, Quentin Coryatt 1990-91, Marcus Buckley 1990-92, Reggie
Brown 1992-95, Dat Nguyen 1995-98). Not quite as consistent or
deep as Colorado. Illinois (Dana Howard 1991-94, Kevin Hardy
1992-95, Simeon Rice 1992-95). Great talent, not quite as many
guys. Miami (Bernard Clark 1986-89, Jessie Armstead 1989-92,
Micheal Barrow 1989-92, Darrin Smith 1989-92, Ray Lewis
1993-95). Superb run in early 1990s, but, like the rest of the
program, the Hurricanes' linebackers have fallen off of late.
CORNERBACKS Kansas State
THE STORY Among Bill Snyder's first moves when he became the
Kansas State coach in 1989 was to hire, as his defensive
backfield assistant, Bob Stoops, then 28, who immediately put
the Wildcats' cornerbacks in bump-and-run coverage. Recruiting
efforts were also pointed at putting talent on the corners. "It
was a matter of finding the right guys," says Stoops, now the
defensive coordinator at Florida. "They weren't all 4.3 guys,
but they were all great athletes." Not coincidentally, during
Snyder's tenure Kansas State has risen from the worst
major-college football program in the country to a contender for
the national championship.
BIG NUMBERS The Wildcats have led the Big 12 (and its
predecessor conference, the Big Eight) in pass defense every
year since 1994 and have been among the top seven in the country
three times. In that period Kansas State has won 39 games.
DEAD MYTH Top players won't go to Kansas State. Snyder has
proved the contrary: Play a player's style and establish a
tradition, and they will. Any corner with designs on the NFL
will put Kansas State on his list.
RUNNERS-UP Florida State (Deion Sanders 1985-88, Terrell
Buckley 1989-91, Corey Sawyer 1992-93, Clifton Abraham 1991-94,
Byron Capers 1993-96, Samari Rolle 1994-97). Big names, but the
Seminoles' defense didn't prosper until it grew a pass rush;
cornerbacks didn't build Florida State's program as they did
Kansas State's. Alabama (George Teague 1989-92, Antonio Langham
1990-93, Deshea Townsend 1994-97). Better early in the decade.
Colorado (Deon Figures 1988, '90-92, Chris Hudson 1991-94). Two
Jim Thorpe Award winners but not as strong as Kansas State since.
THE STORY UCLA's safety tradition has serious legs. It began
with All-Americas Kenny Easley (1977 to '80) and Don Rogers
(1980 to '83) and has endured ever since. It's no accident. Many
teams view free safeties as light-hitting centerfielders and
strong safeties as linebackers in disguise, but UCLA has long
recruited both positions as combination linebacker-cornerbacks.
BIG NUMBERS It's rare for a defensive back to lead his team in
tackles and interceptions. Bruin safeties have done it twice in
this decade: Eric Turner in '90 and Marvin Goodwin in '93.
DEAD MYTH The Pac-10 is a pass-happy collection of surf dudes
who play finesse football. Think again. The Bruins' safeties are
some of the most vicious hitters in the country.
RUNNERS-UP Penn State (Darren Perry 1988-91, Kim Herring
1993-96). Syracuse (Markus Paul 1985-88, Donovin Darius 1994-97,
Tebucky Jones 1997). Miami (Darryl Williams 1989-91, Tremain
Mack 1994-96). Everybody else looks soft after UCLA.