Up next in our series of “ultimate all-conference” teams: the Big Ten and Big 12. Because while sports may still be on hiatus, that doesn’t mean the competition needs to end. ESPN has assembled a collection of all-conference teams that should intrigue college football and NFL fans alike.
Our panel of NFL analysts and college and NFL Nation reporters — Andrea Adelson, Matt Bowen, Courtney Cronin, Turron Davenport, Jeff Legwold, Adam Rittenberg, Mike Triplett, Jake Trotter and Field Yates — selected 22-man starting lineups of current NFL players based on their college conferences. Notre Dame was paired with the ACC because of the Fighting Irish’s affiliation in other sports.
The criteria: Choose rosters for the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and non-Power 5 that are best suited to win the next Super Bowl.
We then ranked the teams to determine which group deserves the ultimate bragging rights. We will roll out the all-star lineups by region Monday through Wednesday, then reveal the final rankings on Thursday. On Friday, we will rank the top three lineups from individual schools.
Each offense had to include a quarterback, running back, two receivers, a tight end, two offensive tackles, two guards, a center and a flex player from any of the skill positions. Each defense had to include two edge rushers, two interior linemen, two linebackers, four defensive backs and a flex spot that could come from any spot of the defense.
NFL ultimate all-conference team: Big Ten
QB Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
WR Michael Thomas, Ohio State
WR Chris Godwin, Penn State
TE George Kittle, Iowa
Flex Saquon Barkley, Penn State
OT Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin
G Rodger Saffold, Indiana
C Pat Elflein, Ohio State
G Brandon Scherff, Iowa
OT Taylor Lewan, Michigan
Edge Joey Bosa, Ohio State
DT Cameron Heyward, Ohio State
DT Kawann Short, Purdue
Edge Nick Bosa, Ohio State
LB Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB Devin Bush, Michigan
Flex J.J. Watt, Wisconsin
CB Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State
CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
S Devin McCourty, Rutgers
S Micah Hyde, Iowa
Toughest choice: Quarterback. How on earth are you supposed to choose between Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson? Our panel narrowly went with Wilson (four votes, compared to three for Brady and two for Brees) based on the criteria that we’re constructing the best roster for 2020.
Personally speaking, this was probably the choice I wrestled with longer than any other in this whole exercise. I would have gone with Wilson if we were building a team for the next two or three years. I would have gone with Brady if they were all playing at their peak right now. And I wanted to avoid making a “homer pick” with Brees since I cover the Saints. But at the same time, that helps me appreciate how well Brees is still playing. He was the MVP runner-up in 2018, then had the best passer rating of his career in 2019. He got my vote, since I still trust him most to get the best out of this stacked offense.
Biggest strength: Edge rushers. Wow, this is right up there with the SEC secondary as contenders for the most loaded position group in this entire project. It was so overcrowded that we had to split up the Watt brothers, leaving T.J. off the list. We also didn’t have room for the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, Chase Young, among others.
“No league has produced a deeper and more varied group of elite-level pass-rushers than the Big Ten,” Rittenberg said. “Ohio State supplies the Bosa brothers and now Chase Young. Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt is approaching a decade of dominance in the league. And don’t forget Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue, who is an excellent value.”
Missing piece: Retired O-linemen. Obviously, the offensive line has always been a calling card for the Big Ten. But just imagine how much stronger this unit would be if guard Marshal Yanda and center Travis Frederick hadn’t just hung up their cleats.
Player pitch from Marshon Lattimore: “The recent talent from Ohio State alone speaks for itself when you think of some of the skill players like [Thomas] and Ezekiel Elliott and some of the talent on defense like the Bosas and [Ward]. I have another teammate, Ryan Ramczyk from Wisconsin, who’s a dominating lineman as well as some others from these schools around the league. Then you look at how two of the top quarterbacks of all time in Drew Brees and Tom Brady have come out of the conference as well as Russell Wilson, and it shows how the Big Ten has phenomenal players in the league right now.”
Louis Riddick analyzes the details of Patrick Mahomes’ contract negotiations and says it will “ground breaking” for future contracts.
NFL ultimate all-conference team: Big 12
QB Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech
RB Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
WR Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
TE Mark Andrews, Oklahoma
Flex CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
OT Lane Johnson, Oklahoma
G Quinton Spain, West Virginia
C Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
G Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State
OT Trent Williams, Oklahoma
Edge Jerry Hughes, TCU
DT Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
DT Jordan Phillips,Oklahoma
Edge Bruce Irvin, West Virginia
LB Jordan Hicks, Texas
LB Kenneth Murray, Oklahoma
Flex Jeff Gladney, TCU
CB Chris Harris Jr., Kansas
CB Xavien Howard, Baylor
S Earl Thomas III, Texas
S Kenny Vaccaro, Texas
“Several quality backs hail from the Big 12. But Mixon’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield gives him the slight edge over Carson, Williams and Peterson,” Trotter said. “Though Peterson is still effective despite all the tread on his tires — he is now 35.”
Biggest strength: Quarterback. Mahomes is so dominant that he single-handedly lifts up a roster that would likely finish last in the voting without him.
“Mahomes is the rare quarterback that can destroy defenses with both his running and throwing ability,” Davenport said. “When all of the receivers are covered, Mahomes can break the pocket and rip off long runs or make defenses pay by escaping pressure and using his tremendous arm strength to generate chunk gains. He’s borderline unstoppable!”
Missing piece: Defensive front seven. Having the game’s best quarterback is huge, obviously. But pressuring the quarterback probably ranks as the second-most important factor when it comes to building a roster. And the Big 12 isn’t nearly as loaded up front as the other all-star teams we’ve assembled.
Player pitch from Kenny Vaccaro: “It really was the guys before me that kind of set the precedent when it was Michael Huff, and obviously Mike G [Michael Griffin] got drafted to the Titans,” Vaccaro said of Texas’ long tradition of producing NFL DBs. “Number of good players, Cedric Griffin, Aaron Williams, guys I played with. Earl Thomas, who is all-decade in the NFL. Quandre Diggs has done a really good job. There’s been a lot of talent come through. We’ve just got to keep pumping them out. I’m not pleased with these last couple of years.”
NFL ultimate all-conference team: ACC
QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Pitt
TE Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame
Flex DeVante Parker, Louisville
OT Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
C Rodney Hudson, Florida State
G Zack Martin, Notre Dame
OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
Edge Chandler Jones, Syracuse
DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson
Edge Bradley Chubb, NC State
LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Flex Calais Campbell, Miami
CB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
CB Jaire Alexander, Louisville
S Derwin James, Florida State
S Harrison Smith, Notre Dame
DeAndre Hopkins joins Jalen & Jacoby to rank himself against the elite wide receivers in the NFL like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones.
Toughest choice: Quarterback. Jackson, the NFL’s reigning MVP, won comfortably with seven out of nine votes. But the ACC had plenty of notable candidates, including Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston. “It was a very difficult choice to make, but the jump Watson made from Year 2 to Year 3 and what I think he’s capable of in his fourth season led me to vote for him,” said Cronin, who was one of two panelists to go that route. “Watson is an MVP-caliber quarterback, too. I respect all that Jackson did in 2019 and think he’s a more dynamic all-around player. But I go back to last season and see moments where Watson single-handedly won or kept the Texans in games in spite of everything else that was going wrong for Houston.”
Biggest strength: Offensive line. There are plenty of good answers for this category in a star-studded lineup led by Jackson, Donald and Hopkins. But this offensive line deserves special mention because it might be the best of any conference once you add in that ridiculous amount of talent from the Irish.
“Hey, the scheduling partnership the ACC has with Notre Dame in football has its benefits!” Adelson said. “But in all seriousness, nobody thinks much about the ACC producing talent at offensive line because the default generally goes to the Big Ten. But the conference has consistently turned out good players, including three that received votes here in Anthony Castonzo, Joe Thuney and Brian O’Neill.”
Missing piece: Luke Kuechly. The linebacker’s retirement left the ACC without one of its biggest stars. Another area where the conference will have trouble measuring up is tight end, where Rudolph beat out young riser Darren Waller and aging stars Greg Olsen and Jimmy Graham.
Player pitch from Broncos DE Bradley Chubb: “It’s crazy, I was just talking about this with somebody the other day. People look at the ACC now and maybe they say ‘they don’t have many great teams’ or whatever. But you look at it when I was in there, there was a whole bunch of players with NFL talent making impact plays. Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey and Jameis Winston and Lamar. When you look at the talent some of those teams had and look at what some of those guys are doing in the NFL right now, you have to give some respect to that. It’s right there for people to see. That team could play with anybody. You have the MVP at quarterback, two of the best pass-rushers in the league just to start in Chandler Jones and Aaron Donald. For me to even be in there somewhere is a blessing for sure.”
Mike Triplett, Matt Bowen and Andrea Adelson list their biggest SEC snubs on the all-conference team, including Alvin Kamara.
NFL ultimate all-conference team: SEC
QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
RB Derrick Henry, Alabama
WR Julio Jones, Alabama
WR Mike Evans, Texas A&M
TE Jared Cook, South Carolina
Flex Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
OT Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
G Trai Turner, LSU
C Maurkice Pouncey, Florida
G Elgton Jenkins, Mississippi State
OT Andrew Whitworth, LSU
Edge Von Miller, Texas A&M
DT Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State
DT Chris Jones, Mississippi State
Edge Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
LB C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
Flex Danielle Hunter, LSU
CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina
CB Tre’Davious White, LSU
S Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
S Jamal Adams, LSU
Toughest choice: Running back and wide receiver. There was an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, where we couldn’t find room for Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper or A.J. Green among others. Jones was the only unanimous choice at receiver or running back.
“Henry received the most votes at running back, and I get it. He’s a volume back with the physical traits to take over games in the fourth quarter. But what about the dual-threat ability of Kamara?” said Bowen, who was one of five panelists to vote for Kamara at either running back or the flex spot. “He’s a three-down impact player at the position. And let’s not forget about Chubb, who can hammer the ball between the tackles and rip off explosive plays. I could have voted for all three.”
Biggest strength: Defensive back. If the SEC winds up winning this competition, the defense will be the reason — especially this loaded secondary. Because of tiebreakers, The Associated Press named seven defensive backs as first-team All-Pros last season. And a whopping six of them came from the SEC. This group is so stacked that we had to leave out Minkah Fitzpatrick, Eddie Jackson, Marlon Humphrey and Patrick Peterson.
“You could have told me to pick the starters for the SEC secondary and then said, ‘Actually, those players are not available to you,’ and I’d still feel great about my group!” Yates said. “Outstanding players were bound to miss the cut.”
Missing piece: Quarterback. No offense to Prescott (or runners-up Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton). But he is going to be measured against the likes of Patrick Mahomes from the Big 12; Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Russell Wilson from the Big Ten; Lamar Jackson from the ACC; and Aaron Rodgers from the Pac-12 when we vote for the ultimate champion. And that’s the one area that could hold back the mighty SEC.