The all-playoff era team: The best CFB players of the past decade

Sports

Who were the best players of the four-team playoff era (2014-23) in college football?

It’s a simple premise and yet a near-impossible challenge. The story of the past decade of college football is littered with superstars — from Lamar Jackson‘s mystifying talent to Baker Mayfield planting the Oklahoma flag at Ohio State to Tua Tagovailoa rescuing Alabama from the brink of defeat to a former walk-on in Stetson Bennett putting an end to Georgia’s miserable four-decade streak without a national title. The list of campus legends is extensive.

But when an era comes to an end, as the four-team playoff has, it requires a proper accounting and some hard choices to be made.

So, challenge accepted.

Our goal is to not just identify the players who won the most or posted the best stats or had the most highlights. Even that would’ve been difficult. But rather, this list is meant to include all those metrics and also something more ephemeral — to reward the players whose performances were so essential to the fabric of college football over the past 10 years, that the story of the four-team playoff era couldn’t be told without them.

Here are our choices for the best of the best at each position from the past decade of college football: Our All-Playoff Era team.

Quarterback

Joe Burrow, LSU

A conundrum: Is it better to celebrate sustained success or epic, if short-lived, greatness? Certainly, other quarterbacks — from Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence to Tagovailoa to Mayfield — offered more over the course of longer college careers. But no one offered such a breathtaking high watermark as Burrow, whose 2019 season at LSU effectively reimagined what a quarterback could accomplish.

He passed for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns while completing 76.3% of his throws. In seven games against ranked foes, he averaged 10.3 yards per pass with 27 touchdowns and just two picks. Put another way, he had more TD passes against ranked teams in 2019 than all but 11 QBs had total in 2023. There remains, of course, a strong case for the utter magic of Jackson, the immediate brilliance of Lawrence, the championship drive of Bennett or the sheer amount of Mayfield’s success. But in the end, how can we choose anyone but Burrow? We’ve learned never to say never in sports, but it’s hard to fathom we’ll see a season like Burrow’s 2019 campaign again soon.

Second team: Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Third team: Mayfield, Oklahoma

Honorable mentions: Jackson; Bennett; Oklahoma and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts; Alabama’s Tagovailoa, Mac Jones and Bryce Young; LSU’s Jayden Daniels; Indiana and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr.; Lawrence; Oklahoma and USC’s Caleb Williams; Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones; Oregon’s Marcus Mariota; and Florida State’s Jordan Travis and Jameis Winston.


Running backs

Derrick Henry, Alabama; Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

To consider Henry the greatest running back of the playoff era almost understates his magnitude. Yes, he was a football player who ran with the ball in his hands so, technically, a running back. But his sheer size — 6-foot-3, 245 pounds — made him more akin to a wrecking ball, crashing through the line of scrimmage and leaving nothing but carnage in his wake. His endurance was legendary. In 2015, as a junior, he carried the ball 395 times. That’s 45 more rushes than any other player in the playoff era and 115 more than anyone in the NFL carried the ball in 2023. (Oh, by the way, it was Henry who led the NFL in rushing attempts last year at 280.)

Henry’s impact was nothing short of dominant. It’s easy to forget that Alabama was once a ground-and-pound offense that won national championships almost despite its quarterbacks. How many people even remember who the starting QB was for the Tide in 2015 when they beat Clemson for the title? (If you guessed Jacob Coker, give yourself a nice round of applause, then ask yourself some hard questions about whether you’ve devoted too much time to remembering random college football QBs.) Henry won the Heisman that year, later became an NFL superstar, and presumably will one day battle Mothra for control of the seas. Our money is on Henry.

If Henry’s 2015 season set the standard for running backs, it was Taylor’s career at Wisconsin that created the blueprint for consistent greatness. There have been 17 player seasons during the playoff era in which a tailback racked up 1,900 yards on the ground. Taylor is responsible for three of them. He finished his four-year Badgers career with 6,174 yards on the ground, the fourth-most all time (and second only to Donnel Pumphrey in the playoff era). He’s the only player in history with multiple 2,000-yard seasons. He finished in the top 10 of Heisman voting three times. Taylor’s Wisconsin teams made the Big Ten title game three times (2016, 2017 and 2019) but lost all three, leaving one true void on his résumé: reaching the playoff.

Second team: Saquon Barkley, Penn State and Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
Third team: Dalvin Cook, Florida State and Travis Etienne Jr., Clemson

Honorable mentions: Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon III, Stanford’s Bryce Love, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Pitt’s James Conner, San Diego State’s Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny, Texas’ Bijan Robinson and D’Onta Foreman, Michigan’s Blake Corum, Alabama’s Najee Harris, Georgia’s Nick Chubb, Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn, Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and FAU’s Devin Singletary.


Receivers

DeVonta Smith, Alabama; Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State

Here’s a truly wild stat about Smith’s illustrious Alabama career: In 2020, he came three touchdowns shy of doubling his total from the season before, which as it turned out was double the previous season, which was also double his freshman season. He went from three in 2017 to six in 2018 to 14 in 2019 to 25 in 2020. Had COVID-19 not cut Alabama’s season short by two games, he might well have done it. All he was left with was the twin consolation prizes of a Heisman Trophy and a national championship.

Smith is the easy choice. Who garners the second receiver spot is much tougher. Ja’Marr Chase was a superstar at LSU and was, arguably the most dangerous playmaker on the most explosive offense of all time in 2019. Dede Westbrook racked up 80 catches, 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2016 and dropped just one pass all season. Oklahoma State’s James Washington finished his career with nearly 4,500 yards and 39 touchdown grabs. Jordan Addison, Tee Higgins, Amari Cooper, Justin Jefferson — the list goes on and on. Indeed, Ohio State alone could offer its share of viable options, with Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba all blossoming into first-round NFL draft picks (and four others going in the second round in the playoff era), but we’re going with the Buckeyes’ most recent superstar.

Harrison and Smith are the only two Power 5 receivers with multiple seasons in the playoff era in which they caught 60 balls for at least 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. The son of a Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver, Harrison was clearly the best player on the field for Ohio State’s offense in each of the past two seasons — a resounding statement given the sheer level of talent around him. He’ll add to the Buckeyes’ track record of churning out top draft picks at the position next month, too.

Second team: Chase, LSU and CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Third team: Amari Cooper, Alabama and Higgins, Clemson

Honorable mentions: Clemson’s Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow, Baylor’s Corey Coleman, TCU’s Josh Doctson, Oklahoma State’s Washington and Tylan Wallace, Pitt and USC’s Addison, Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, Washington’s Rome Odunze, Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins, UMass’s Andy Isabella, Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Oklahoma’s Westbrook, Florida State’s Rashad Greene and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis.


Tight end

Brock Bowers, Georgia

The easiest pick on this list? That’d be Bowers. Sure, there have been some other exceptional tight ends in the past decade as the position has flourished in the post-Gronk era of big-time football. But no one did it like Bowers, who was a superstar from day one in Athens. As a true freshman in 2021, he hauled in 56 passes for 882 yards and 13 touchdowns, serving as Georgia’s best offensive weapon en route to the school’s first national championship in 41 years.

In 2022, he repeated the feat, catching more balls for more yards and adding three rushing touchdowns to his repertoire. Last year, Bowers battled injuries throughout the season, missing four games, and still led UGA in receiving with 714 yards. He leads all playoff-era tight ends in catches, yards (by more than 350) and total touchdowns (eight more than anyone else in the Power 5). He is a one-of-a-kind matchup nightmare who both dominated during his time in college and helped lift Georgia to the top of the sport.

Second team: Kyle Pitts, Florida
Third team: Michael Mayer, Notre Dame

Honorable mentions: Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely, Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews, Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar, FAU’s Harrison Bryant, Colorado State’s Trey McBride, Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Arkansas’ Hunter Henry.


Center

Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa

From 2019 through 2021, only six Power 5 teams had a better record against FBS opponents than Iowa. All six — Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Clemson, Oklahoma and Notre Dame — made the playoff in that stretch, and all six are blue-blood programs with a deep well of blue-chip talent.

And then there’s Iowa. How, oh how, has Iowa so consistently performed as one of the best programs in the country? Because the Hawkeyes do the ugly stuff better than anyone in America. When it comes to the brute-force brawling that wins games in Iowa, few did it better than Linderbaum.

“Tyler Linderbaum is as good of a lineman as I’ve worked with on any level,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said in 2021.

Given that Ferentz had been coaching for nearly half a century at that point, that’s a good indication of how good Linderbaum was.

The 2022 first-round pick arrived at Iowa as a defensive lineman, but he swapped sides of the line in 2019 and immediately became the team’s center, starting 35 games in his career. Over more than 2,200 snaps at center, he allowed just three sacks and was flagged for just two penalties. In 2020, he was an All-America and Rimington Trophy finalist. In 2021, he won the Rimington while earning unanimous All-America honors.

Second team: Landon Dickerson, Florida State/Alabama
Third team: Olu Oluwatimi, Virginia/Michigan

Honorable mentions: NC State’s Garrett Bradbury, Auburn’s Reese Dismukes, Ohio State’s Pat Elflein and Billy Price, Alabama’s Ryan Kelly, Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson, Wisconsin’s Tyler Biadasz and Minnesota’s John Michael Schmitz Jr.


Other offensive line

Penei Sewell, Oregon; Cooper Beebe, Kansas State; Cam Robinson, Alabama; Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame

Before coming to any conclusions here, we reached out to a few Notre Dame experts to gauge their opinion on the best O-lineman the school had during the playoff era. This is no simple question. The Irish had no less than seven offensive linemen earn All-America status over the past decade. But the unanimous response to our inquiry? Nelson by a mile. He was the prized student of legendary Notre Dame O-line coach Harry Hiestand for good reason. He was a 6-foot-5, 330-pound battleship, a top-50 recruit who burnished his legend before ever taking a college snap, bulldozing future NFL defenders in practice while redshirting as a true freshman. By 2016, he was a unanimous All-American and eventual first-round draft pick, where he blossomed into a six-time Pro Bowler.

Like Nelson at Notre Dame, Robinson’s aura stands out even among an elite collection of teammates who’ve excelled in the playoff era at Alabama. A five-star recruit, Robinson started all 14 games for the Tide as a true freshman — the first to start at left tackle for the Tide in the Nick Saban era. The result? He allowed just three sacks all year. In 2015, he earned first-team All-SEC and helped Alabama to a national championship. In 2016, he was a unanimous All-America choice and won the Outland Trophy.

Sewell, too, became a starter for Oregon as a true freshman in 2018, though an injury cut his season short. As a sophomore in 2019, he blossomed into a superstar. He finished as the top-graded offensive lineman in the country by Pro Football Focus, playing more than 900 snaps without allowing a sack. Sewell won the Outland Trophy and was a unanimous All-America selection. The COVID-19 pandemic cut his college career short, however, after he opted out of the 2020 season amid the Pac-12’s early cancellation. He’d later be selected No. 7 overall in the 2021 NFL draft.

From 2021 through 2023, Beebe was named first-team All-Big 12 three times, was twice an All-American, and in 2023 earned unanimous All-America honors. In more than 1,200 snaps as a pass-blocker in that span, Beebe allowed just one sack.

Second team: Orlando Brown Jr., Oklahoma; Brandon Scherff, Iowa; Alex Leatherwood, Alabama; Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
Third team: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss Rebels; Olu Fashanu, Penn State Peter Skoronski, Northwestern; Andrew Thomas, Georgia

Honorable mentions: Florida State’s Tre Jackson; Duke’s Laken Tomlinson; Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. and Wyatt Davis; Clemson’s Mitch Hyatt; Baylor’s Spencer Drango; Stanford’s Joshua Garnett; Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks, Mike McGlinchey and Sam Mustipher; Alabama’s Jonah Williams and Evan Neal; Wisconsin’s Beau Benzschawel and Tyler Biadasz; Georgia’s Sedrick Van Pran; NC State’s Ikem Ekwonu; Louisiana and Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence; and Michigan’s Zak Zinter.


Defensive ends

Chase Young, Ohio State; Myles Garrett, Texas A&M

Young had an exceptional sophomore season in 2018, racking up 10.5 sacks — including 3 in the Big Ten title game — 14.5 tackles for loss and 9 QB hurries, all while battling ankle injuries. And if that had been the high point, he’d be in the discussion of best pass-rushers of the era. But what came next was arguably the best performance by a 4-3 edge rusher of the past decade.

In 2019, Young racked up 16.5 sacks — tops in FBS — to go with 21 tackles for loss, 7 QB hurries, 3 pass breakups and a whopping 6 forced fumbles. His pressure rate of 19% was also best in the nation among players with at least 200 pass rush attempts, and he racked up 28 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. With Young on the field, opposing quarterbacks faced pressure 46% of the time — on non-blitz plays. In other words, few players of the playoff era dictated the action quite like Young did as a junior at Ohio State.

Garrett arrived at Texas A&M as arguably the best prospect in the country in 2014, and it took him just six games to set the school’s freshman record for sacks. He finished the year with 11.5 sacks and 10 QB hurries and was named a freshman All-American. As a sophomore, Garrett improved, racking up 19.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and an interception en route to All-America honors. By his junior season, it was clear Garrett was perhaps the best NFL prospect in college football, and he was easily the most feared pass-rusher. Although injuries limited him throughout the season, he still finished with 8.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 10 QB hurries. Garrett is one of just 10 Power 5 defensive linemen of the playoff era to record multiple seasons of 10 sacks or more, and had he been fully healthy as a junior, he almost certainly would have made it three. Nevertheless, the Cleveland Browns took him with the first overall pick of the 2017 draft, and he has since become one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers.

Second team: Aidan Hutchinson, Michigan and Joey Bosa, Ohio State
Third team: Clelin Ferrell, Clemson and Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon

Honorable mentions: Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker, Jared Verse and Brian Burns, Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey, UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, Iowa’s AJ Epenesa, Utah’s Hunter Dimick, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV, Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson, Penn State’s Carl Nassib, NC State’s Bradley Chubb, USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu, Pitt’s Rashad Weaver, Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett.


Defensive tackles

Christian Wilkins, Clemson; Ed Oliver, Houston

A five-star recruit coming out of high school, Oliver had his pick of scholarship offers from places such as Alabama, Oklahoma and LSU. Instead, he opted to stay close to home and play at Houston, becoming the first ESPN five-star ever to opt for a school outside the Power 5.

Turns out, it didn’t matter where Oliver played. He was simply a force of nature.

As a true freshman in 2016, Oliver finished the season with 22.5 tackles for loss, third most in the nation, a total burnished during a dominant performance against Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in which Oliver racked up 5 tackles — 3 for a loss — with 2 sacks, a QB hurry, a forced fumble and 3 pass breakups.

Oliver was a first-team All-American all three years of his career at Houston, including earning consensus honors as a sophomore and a junior. He finished with 53.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and 193 total tackles in his college career.

Like Oliver, Wilkins was a star from the outset. His gregarious personality and indomitable work ethic made him an instant favorite among teammates, coaches and fans at Clemson. He was immensely talented despite his 310-pound frame, as evidenced by his post-championship split in 2017, but also by the fact that he caught a pass on a fake punt in a playoff game, had a reception for a touchdown and scored twice as a runner. He played inside and on the edge and, in one spring game, begged coach Dabo Swinney for work at safety, too.

Wilkins’ impact on the field was immense, as shown by three All-America nods (unanimous in 2018), 40.5 career tackles for loss and two national titles, but his role in the locker room might have been even bigger. In what’s now etched into Clemson lore, it was Wilkins who invited freshman QB Trevor Lawrence out to breakfast in early October 2018 to let him know that, despite any controversy in the media or among fans, this was now Lawrence’s team. Three months later, Lawrence, Wilkins and the Tigers finished off Alabama for a national championship.

Second team: Jordan Davis, Georgia and Quinnen Williams, Alabama
Third team: Jalen Carter, Georgia and Jonathan Allen, Alabama

Honorable mentions: Auburn’s Derrick Brown, Pitt’s Calijah Kancey, Texas’ T’Vondre Sweat, Baylor’s Andrew Billings and James Lynch, Illinois’ Jer’Zhan Newton, Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence II, Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson, Washington’s Vita Vea, Ohio State’s Michael Bennett and Michigan’s Maurice Hurst II.


Linebackers

Will Anderson Jr., Alabama; Micah Parsons, Penn State; Nakobe Dean, Georgia

A brief accounting of Anderson’s 2021 season: 101 tackles, 17.5 sacks, 33.5 tackles for loss, 9 QB hurries, 79 QB pressures.

Every one of those numbers is borderline absurd, and the wildest part is that Anderson wasn’t the 2021 edge rusher who earned an invitation to New York for the Heisman. That would be Aidan Hutchinson, who has his own case for inclusion here.

Reasonable observers can argue about whether Anderson was snubbed (he was), but what’s inarguable is that he was, during his time at Alabama, as productive a pass-rusher as there was in the country.

Indeed, Anderson’s 34.5 career sacks are the most by any player over the past decade, and the production ultimately earned him the No. 3 overall selection in the 2023 NFL draft.

If Anderson’s pass-rush ability put him on the list, Parsons served as the more all-around star. In 2018, as a true freshman and playing middle linebacker for the first time, Parsons led the Nittany Lions with 82 tackles. In 2019, he started 12 games and blossomed into the complete package at linebacker. He recorded 109 tackles (14 for a loss) with 5 sacks, 5 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles, won the Butkus award as the nation’s top linebacker and consensus All-America honors before dominating in the Cotton Bowl. He figured to be an All-American again in 2020, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the Big Ten’s initial decision to scrap the football season, Parsons opted out and prepared for the 2021 NFL draft, where he was selected 12th overall.

Dean’s place on this list might warrant some argument, even from Georgia fans. After all, another Bulldogs legend, Roquan Smith, probably has as good a claim to first-team honors as anyone, winning the Butkus award and earning unanimous All-America honors in 2017. But as good as Smith was, he wasn’t a part of the team that changed the fate of Georgia football forever. Instead, it was Dean, the unquestioned leader on arguably the best defense of the playoff era — and maybe ever — who did that.

As a junior in 2021, Dean racked up 72 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and six sacks to go with two picks and two forced fumbles, but the stats only hinted at the impact he made. Dean was the heart and soul of a unit that allowed just 10 points per game and led the Dawgs to their first national championship since 1980. In the process, he won the Butkus award, was a unanimous All-American and burnished a legend that will put him among the most beloved Georgia players of all time.

Second team: Smith, Georgia; T.J. Watt, Wisconsin; Reuben Foster, Alabama
Third team: Josh Allen, Kentucky; Payton Wilson, NC State; Devin White, LSU

Honorable mentions: Arizona’s Scooby Wright, Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace Jr., Clemson’s Dorian O’Daniel, Ben Boulware and Isaiah Simmons, Iowa’s Jack Campbell and Josey Jewell, Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, Utah’s Devin Lloyd, Michigan’s Devin Bush, USC’s Su’a Cravens, UCLA’s Eric Kendricks, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Texas’ Joseph Ossai.


Safeties

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama; Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

There have been some fine safeties in the four-team playoff era, but Fitzpatrick and Peppers stand at the pinnacle of impact by anyone at the position.

Peppers might have been as physically imposing a safety as there was in the playoff era. A five-star recruit, it wasn’t until his second season — Michigan’s first under Jim Harbaugh — that the college football world got a true taste of his ability. He played offense, scoring twice as a runner and catching eight passes. He played special teams, returning 17 punts and eight kickoffs. But where he made his mark was on D, racking up 10 PBUs and 5.5 tackles for loss, earning All-Big Ten honors and finishing as a finalist for the Hornung award. In 2016, Peppers reached a new level. He was a dominant force on defense, collecting 71 tackles, including 15 for a loss. He was a consensus All-American, a Heisman finalist and took home the Butkus trophy and the Nagurski award as the nation’s top defender.

How good was Fitzpatrick’s career at Alabama? As his head coach revealed in the run-up to the 2018 NFL draft, Fitzpatrick gained the nickname “Coach Saban’s son” because he’d become such a favorite of the Alabama legend over the years. That’s arguably the highest compliment a player could earn.

“He’s the exact model you love to have as a coach,” Saban said in 2018. “The guy is very talented. He’s smart, bright, can learn. He really competed to be the absolute best at what he does. I don’t even know if I can describe him well enough.”

Like Peppers, Fitzpatrick was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, and he made an instant impact on Alabama’s defense, starting 10 games as a true freshman, returning two interceptions for touchdowns along the way, as the Tide won the national championship. A year later, Fitzpatrick returned a pick-six for 100 yards, breaking a school record, in a game against Arkansas in which he finished with three INTs. He was a consensus All-American as a sophomore, then upped the ante as a junior, winning the Badnarik and Thorpe awards. For his career, he finished with 171 tackles, 9 interceptions — 4 of which he returned for TDs — and 24 passes defended.

Second team: Budda Baker, Washington and Antoine Winfield, Minnesota
Third team: Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame and Grant Delpit, LSU

Honorable mentions: Florida State’s Derwin James Jr., Wake Forest’s Jessie Bates III, Alabama’s Landon Collins, Xavier McKinney, Notre Dame’s Julian Love, Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph, Duke’s Jeremy Cash, Texas’ DeShon Elliott, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, Georgia’s Lewis Cine, Virginia Tech’s Terrell Edmunds and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Vonn Bell.


Cornerbacks

Derek Stingley Jr., LSU; Sauce Gardner, Cincinnati

Stingley arrived at LSU in 2019 as perhaps the top recruit in the country, and though he joined a team absolutely loaded with talent, it was clear from the outset that he was something special.

He earned a starting corner job from day one, and never looked back. He finished his freshman campaign with six interceptions, including a streak of three straight games with one early in the year and ending with two picks against Georgia in the SEC title showdown. His 21 passes defended led all Power 5 defenders, and he was named a consensus All-American. In two playoff games, he allowed just one completion, for 13 yards, and LSU marched its way to a national championship.

Injuries upended much of the rest of Stingley’s LSU career, as he missed three games in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign and was limited to just three in all of 2021. But the brilliance of his freshman season is now the stuff of legend in Baton Rouge, and his talent — which ultimately made him the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft — is unquestioned.

If Stingley’s college career was marked by a dizzying high early on, Gardner’s story offers another route to stardom. A three-star recruit, Gardner landed at Cincinnati, and though he played as a true freshman — hauling in three INTs — it wasn’t until his sophomore season that he garnered genuine national acclaim. That year (2020), he finished with 3 picks, 6 PBUs and 28 tackles, allowing just 13 completions on the season as the Bearcats earned a New Year’s Six bowl bid.

Then, as a junior, Gardner went from burgeoning star to all-timer. He held opponents to just 26% completions. He allowed just 60 yards receiving on the year. He picked off three passes again, but mostly, opposing quarterbacks stayed away from his side of the field. Receivers caught just eight balls against him all season when he was the primary defender. His work helped Cincinnati become one of the most dominant defenses in the country and, in the process, earn the first playoff invite of any team outside the Power 5. Perhaps the most impressive stat for Gardner: In three years as a starting corner, he never allowed a touchdown.

Second team: Pat Surtain II, Alabama and Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Third team: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida and Desmond King II, Iowa

Honorable mentions: Iowa’s Cooper DeJean, Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry, Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., Utah’s Clark Phillips III, Ohio State’s Jeff Okudah, LSU’s Greedy Williams, USC’s Adoree’ Jackson, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson.


Kicker

Roberto Aguayo, Florida State

It’s unfortunate that Aguayo’s career will best be remembered as an NFL bust — a second-round draft pick (the highest for a kicker since 2005) who spent just one year on an active NFL roster. As a college player, however, he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of kickers (which we assume is not as popular a tourist destination as the one with the presidents). He won the Groza Award as a freshman while helping Florida State to a national title and was a three-time All-America selection, connecting on 69 career field goals.

Second team: Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia
Third team: Jake Moody, Michigan

Honorable mentions: Utah’s Matt Gay, Miami’s Jose Borregales, Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez and Missouri’s Harrison Mevis.


Punter

Matt Araiza, San Diego State

When a player garners the nickname “Punt God” and generates weekly buzz on social media with his behemoth boots, it’s safe to say he wins this honor going away. Araiza’s 2021 season is one for the ages. He set the NCAA record for punting average at 51.2 yards, won the Ray Guy award and was a unanimous All-America selection.

Second team: Braden Mann, Texas A&M
Third team: Tom Hackett, Utah

Honorable mentions: Georgia Tech’s Pressley Harvin III, Iowa’s Tory Taylor, Kentucky’s Max Duffy and Texas’ Michael Dickson.


Returner/All-Purpose

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford

In the playoff era, there have been two seasons by a Power 5 player in which they’ve averaged at least 200 all-purpose yards per game. Both belong to McCaffrey. His 2015 campaign was the stuff of legend. He racked up 2,019 rushing yards, 645 receiving yards and 1,200 return yards — a total of 3,864 all-purpose yards or, put another way, 30% more all-purpose yards than any other player in college football has had in a single season during the playoff era. That McCaffrey didn’t win the Heisman remains a point of contention among many fans, but it’s safe to say that any retelling of the history of the playoff era — or of college football in general — should include a chapter on McCaffrey’s singular brilliance.

Second team: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Third team: Dante Pettis, Washington

Honorable mentions: Purdue’s Rondale Moore, Kansas State’s Deuce Vaughn, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer, Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr., Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Alabama’s Smith, Houston’s Marcus Jones, Boise State’s Avery Williams, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Memphis’ Darrell Henderson Jr.

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