The Greatest NFL Player From Every FBS School Part 7: The AAC
The American Athletic Conference, aka the conference formerly known as the Big East, is an odd one. It's a backwards place where they think that they're a Power 5 conference (they're not) and that teams who don't play in the National Championship Game deserve to be National Champions. But despite that, they're still likely the best Group of 5 conference.
UCF may have never won a National Championship, they may have never had a Hall of Famer, but they have some very good players. Asante Samuel won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. He also had a third in his hands but that’s neither here nor there. They also had Daunte Culpepper, who made three Pro Bowls with the Vikings. But UCF’s best player is Brandon Marshall. Marshall has made six Pro Bowls, an All Pro team, and led the NFL in touchdowns in 2015. Maybe 2018 will be his first postseason trip.
I assumed that this would be a Kelce, but the question would be which one. Now Travis has made three Pro Bowls and was named to an All Pro team. His brother Jason also made an All Pro team, but has only gone to two Pro Bowls. The difference though? Jason Kelce helped the Eagles to a Super Bowl LII victory.
Connecticut has never had a player make the Hall of Fame. That's not the craziest thing in the world, especially for a G5 program. Connecticut has never had a player make an All Pro team. That's a little weird, but still fair to assume that, they are mostly a women's basketball school after all. But they've also never had a Pro Bowler. Even for G5, that's really strange. With all that in mind, I went with Will Beatty as the greatest Huskie. Why him? Well, he never made a Pro Bowl or All Pro team, but as a backup he did win Super Bowl XLVI with the Giants and Super Bowl LII with the Eagles.
East Carolina has produced several solid players in the NFL. David Garrard led the Jaguars to the playoffs in 2007. Was he good in the playoffs? Not at all! But he made it so that’s what counts. Linval Joseph is an important part of the Vikings defense. Earnest Byner played in two AFC Championship Games with the Browns. But their best player was easy. Chris Johnson made three Pro Bowls, an All Pro team in 2009, he was the 2009 Offensive Player of the Year, and that season he also rushed for 2,006 yards. They even called him CJ2K for a bit. Since he left the Titans, he hasn’t even combined for that many yards with the Jets and football’s retirement home, the Arizona Cardinals, but that 2009 season will always be special.
The Cougars have fared slightly better than most of their conference counterparts in recent years, including two 13-1 seasons (2011 and 2015) by coaches who later left to join Power 5 schools (Kevin Sumlin and Tom Herman). When it comes to the NFL though? Not great. Their best player is probably Riley Odoms. Odoms played tight end for the Broncos for 12 seasons, from 1972-83, following being drafted fifth overall by Denver. In his career, while he only had over 700 receiving yards once in his career, he was named to a Pro Bowl four times, and was an All-Pro in 1974 and 1975.
The Tigers have none in the Hall of Fame, but still have some very good active players. Dontari Poe is the QB/DT nobody thought they needed. Stephen Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the league today, if not of all time.* But their greatest is Isaac Bruce. Bruce is the forgotten member of the Greatest Show On Turf. While everyone is focused on Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Orlando Pace, they brush over their great receivers. Bruce made the Pro Bowl four times in his career, led the NFL in receiving yards in 1996, and, as mentioned, won Super Bowl XXXIV and went to Super Bowl XXXVI with the Greatest Show On Turf.
*as long as the game doesn’t mean anything
Navy is possibly the easiest selection in this conference. Despite only sending 32 players into the NFL, they managed to have a Heisman Trophy winner and a Hall of Famer. This man needs no introduction, it’s Roger Staubach. Staubach didn’t make his NFL debut until he was 27 because, you know, Navy. He wasn’t a regular starter until he was 29. That season he won his first Super Bowl. And Super Bowl MVP. Six years later, he would win his second Super Bowl. He would also make six Pro Bowls, including one in his last season, after which he decided to hang them up, because his legs couldn’t take playing quarterback anymore. And did I mention he fought in Vietnam?
As easy a choice Navy was, SMU may have been even easier. They do have five Hall of Famers, including Doak Walker (like the Award) and Raymond Berry, but there’s only one Eric Dickerson. Dickerson rushed for over 13,000 yards in his career, led the NFL in rushing three of his first four and four of his first six years. He was a Pro Bowler or an All Pro six times in seven years from 1983-89. He won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1983, and Offensive Player of the Year in 1986. He also just so happened to rush for more yards than anyone ever has in a single season with 2,105 in 1984.
South Florida didn’t start playing football until 1997. So it makes perfect sense that they’ve never have a Hall of Famer. They do have one solid player though, even if his career is on the decline. Jason Pierre-Paul played his junior season at USF after transferring from a junior college. He was a first round pick to the Giants, where he was named to two Pro Bowls and an All Pro team. He even won Super Bowl XLVI with the Giants. However, his career quite literally blew up in his face in a well-known accident where he screwed around with fireworks and lost half his hand. It’s impacted him as a player, but he has gotten better since he traded the club for the oven mitt. The Giants traded him to Tampa Bay this offseason, so he can return to where he played his college football.
Temple, like most of this conference, has yet to have their first Hall of Famer. But there is one guy who should probably be in. Joe Klecko played 12 years in the NFL, mostly with the Jets as part of the New York Sack Exchange with Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, and Abdul Salaam. But let’s talk about sacks for a second. Klecko had only 24 for his career, but sacks weren’t recorded until 1982, so he definitely has more. He made four Pro Bowls in five years from 1981-85, as well as two All Pro teams.
Tulane has no Hall of Famers. Their highlights as a program are that Joe Montana’s son played there for two seasons and that they somehow had an undefeated season in 1998. But who’s their best player? It’s Richie Petitbon, who played 14 seasons for the Bears, Rams, and Redskins from 1959-72. As a defensive back, he recorded 48 interceptions for his career. He made four Pro Bowls and was named an All Pro in 1963.
The Golden Hurricane has produced three Hall of Famers, in addition to several solid players. Bob St. Clair was an NFL player and the mayor of Daly City, California at the same time. Drew Pearson was a three time Pro Bowler and All Pro as well as a Super Bowl Champion with the Cowboys. Gus Frerotte was a solid backup for 15 seasons and even made the 1996 Pro Bowl. But the best Tulsa player? Steve Largent. Largent was named to seven Pro Bowls, made the All Pro team in 1985, led the NFL in receiving yards twice, and was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Don’t fall for the lies this conference will tell you. They are not a Power 5 conference. But there’s no shame in being the sixth best.