In the tempered excitement of a middling bowl season, ESPN has dropped some of their biggest college football historical pieces in a long time. In order to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the sport, they’ve compiled a list of all-time rankings. Everything from coaches, to games, to teams, and now, arguably the most controversial of all: players.
To combat the difficulty of an extremely large group to pull from, ESPN has limited their task to selecting two All-American teams, whose members must be from All-American teams in the years they played.
What’s the criteria?
The unifying theme of the 25 players on the All-Time All-America team is that their presence on the field changed the game: how it is played, the expectation of a position, even how we watch.
Basically, if you made a mark on the position or the sports itself, you’re in the running for the team. I actually really like this criteria for what it is. Instead of trying to argue endlessly about “Who was better?” you can find more agreement on the players who were revolutionary.
Under that criteria, two Tennessee players made the list.
Here’s their blurb on defensive end Reggie White:
Before White became the “Minister of Defense” and retired as the NFL’s all-time sack leader, he was the most menacing pass-rusher in Tennessee history. During White’s senior season in 1983, he had 100 tackles, 72 unassisted, and set a UT single-season record with 15 sacks. He had a sack in every game but two and had four in a 45-6 victory over The Citadel, another school record. White was a consensus All-American and was named SEC Player of the Year. “There’s never been a better one,” former Volunteers coach Johnny Majors said. “He could turn a football game around like no one else.”
No arguments there! White’s emergence in the early 1980s showed off the “superstar” defensive end on a level never seen before him. As the game’s focus began shifting towards passing, White was the ultimate counter: a massive human being on the outside who could send the quarterback to the dirt faster than he could complete his drop. The scary part? There was no way to stop him. No strategy or development could prevent White from dominating. You just had to hope he went easy on you.
The next name should validate Tennessee fans across the nation: Quarterback Peyton Manning.
The ABCs that endeared Manning to the nation through his 17 seasons in professional football first shone through his four seasons in Knoxville: his affability, his brain for football, and his commitment. He took college football seriously not for the millions it might (and did) afford him professionally, but because he loved it, loved the stories that dad Archie told him about playing at Ole Miss, and loved the stories he created at Tennessee. No, he didn’t win a national championship and (because!) he didn’t beat Florida. But Bear Bryant never beat Notre Dame, and his career turned out all right, too. Manning won the Maxwell Award, Davey O’Brien Award, Sullivan Award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award during his senior season in 1997.
A similar theme emerged with Peyton Manning’s impact on the game. He was simultaneously the culmination of offensive breakthroughs and the precursor to a new era of football. The most hyped quarterback in a generation lived up to his billing the moment he won the starting job, passing like few had before him. He wasn’t just a system quarterback whose numbers got inflated thanks to the coach’s scheme—Manning was simply so good that an otherwise “conventional” coach and scheme knew it was better for him to shoulder the offensive load. This would follow him into his NFL career, and the college game’s full blown investment in passing would continue years after he left.
Those are two pretty good selections, all things considered. If you asked Tennessee fans which two players in program history impacted the sport the most, Manning and White would take up a large majority of the responses.
Just for discussion’s sake, we’ve included a list of other Tennessee greats we think should gain some consideration. Would they beat out any of those already listed? Hard to say, but we think the discussion is worth it.
Who else could make the list?
QB Bobby Dodd (1928-1930)
Most know Dodd from his illustrious career at Georgia Tech—where his name ultimately resides on the team’s stadium—but it was his playing career at Tennessee which made him a household name before he ever coached a game.
Dodd’s tremendous 27-1-2 overall record was made possible by his nationally recognized play at the quarterback position. While most quarterback’s were largely judged on their running ability, Dodd dazzled spectators with his passing and punting. In some games he was a one man wrecking crew, providing an offensive burst that few could slow down...and if they did slow him down, he’d just pin them deep with a punt and let the defense get the ball back. Heck, he even played some defense in his spare time. It wasn’t rare for players to star at all those position, certainly. But Dodd showed how it was possible to not just play all those positions, but excel in them too.
QB Condredge Holloway (1972-1974)
Full disclosure: This selection isn’t entirely based on how he played on the field. That was special in its own right of course—Holloway gained the nickname “The Artful Dodger” for his elusiveness, which paired with an impressive arm and knack for good decision making. Holloway was simply a fun player to watch (according to everyone who watched him live) and something the nation really hadn’t seen before.
In similar veins, the SEC had never seen a black starting quarterback before Holloway. It’s hard to quantify the impact someone like Holloway had in not only impressing at the position, but gaining the admiration and love of a southern fanbase in a way that some considered impossible. Did he pave the way for those beyond him, or was he simply the realization of an already shifting tide? What about both?
S Eric Berry (2007-2009)
We don’t expect anyone to take this seriously at the current moment. But I genuinely urge you to consider how we might view Berry in the years after his retirement from the game of football. Despite the disappointing records of the teams he played on, Berry dominated the game like he was the best player on a national contender. Everyone knew Berry’s name by the 2009 season. He was a playmaker on every level of the field and had a skillset not seen since Sean Taylor. How he played the position may not have been revolutionary, but the pure amount of fun watching him has not been matched since he was drafted. The only one who came close was Tyrann Mathieu, and his career at LSU was cut short.
Perhaps the years will be kinder to Berry as they pass by. If he makes the list in another decade or so, you can point to this article as the preview.