Editorial Note: As we close in on the final Pac-12 Championship game, Kyle Kensing has a series of articles looking at some of the more memorable storylines from the conference’s most recent (since expanding to 12 teams) history. Earlier this week, Kyle wrote about the 12 upsets that cost the Pac-12 from playing for a national title as well as The 12 most memorable Pac-12 After Dark moments.
Throughout its long and illustrious history, each iteration of the Pac-12 Conference featured players who were transcendent in their generation and vital to shaping the identity of college football.
From defensive dynamos like Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu, Tedy Bruschi, Pat Tillman and Steve Emtman; to breathtaking offensive playmakers like Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Troy Walters, and Jerome Harrison; and the quarterbacks.
Oh, the quarterbacks.
Pac-12 football helped usher in the modern era of quarterbacks putting up eye-popping numbers, thanks to late ‘80s game-changers Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete. But before them, the conference featured John Elway and Jim Plunkett at Stanford, and Sonny Sixkiller and Warren Moon at Washington.
The fraternity of Pac-12 alumni who left impressions on college football deserving of recognition is too long to list with the bandwidth available here. Even trimming it down to the best players of the 12-team era is a major undertaking, starting at quarterback.
Can one really say Andrew Luck wasn’t the best of the Pac-12 era? Well….yes. Yes, one can. And it’s a testament to the excellence of the conference, even in its last iteration.
The following 12-man units representing the Conference of Champions’ best on offense and defense, applies objective metrics like statistical output, individual accolades, and team success.
QB: Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Before Caleb Williams in 2022, Marcus Mariota was the last Pac-12 Heisman Trophy winner – and he remains the last from a member program other than USC since Jim Plunkett in 1970 (Rashaan Salaam’s 1994 Heisman at Colorado came under the Big 8 umbrella).
Coupled with Oregon’s run to the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game in January 2015, Mariota is the quintessential quarterback of the Pac’s 12-team era.
RB: LaMichael James, Oregon
Oregon boasted plenty of standout running backs in its recent history, including the successors to James’ role as the bell-cow back of a prolific attack like Kenjon Barner and Royce Freeman.
Perhaps it’s cheating to invoke James’ achievements from the last season of the Pac-10, when he earned All-American, was a Heisman finalist and the Ducks reached the BCS Championship Game. However, in Year 1 of the Pac-12, James actually rushed for more yards (1,805, up from 1,731) on fewer carries (247 vs. 293).
RB: Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona
The first Heisman ceremony ever to feature six finalists, 2013, whiffed not including Ka’Deem Carey. The nation’s leading rusher in 2012 with 1,929 yards, Carey went for 1,885 en route to a second All-American selection and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
He carried for 42 touchdowns in 2012 and 2013 combined, and set the conference’s single-game rushing record with 366 yards.
AP: Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
While Mariota was the era’s defining quarterback, one can make a strong case that Christian McCaffrey was the 12-team period’s best offensive player.
McCaffrey wore No. 5 in his time on The Farm as an homage to Reggie Bush, and the dynamic, do-everything back was indeed the closest comparison the college game has had to Bush and his USC tenure since.
His Heisman runner-up 2015 season ranks among the conference’s, and college football’s, best ever across any generation. He broke 2,000 yards rushing and became the first player since C.J. Spiller in 2009 to score touchdowns five different ways (rush, reception, pass, punt return, and kick return).
Confoundingly, McCaffrey was only an All-American once despite his 2016 being almost as productive as his 2015. He finished ‘16 with 16 touchdowns from scrimmage and just shy of 2,000 yards.
WR: Marqise Lee, USC
In the long line of generational talents USC has had at wide receiver – Lynn Swann, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett, just to name a few – Marqise Lee added his name with his incredible 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Lee joined a receiving corps featuring Robert Woods – a player worthy consideration of this list in his own right – and immediately became the No. 1 target. He approached 1,200 yards in ‘11, then followed it up with a gobsmacking 1,721 and 14 touchdowns in 2012.
WR: Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
As staggering as Lee’s 2012 numbers were for USC, Brandin Cooks actually one-upped him the next year for Oregon State. OSU boasted arguably the second-best lineage of receivers among all Pac programs behind only USC, featuring 21st Century stars like Chad Johnson, T. J. Houshmandzadeh and Mike Hass, and Cooks belongs to that same club.
After catching for 1,151 yards in 2012, he went off for 1,730 and 16 touchdowns in an unforgettable 2013.
TE: Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Washington
Some of the best pass-catching tight ends from the last 30 years came out of the Pac-10/12, like Tony Gonzalez, Todd Heap, Marcedes Lewis, and Rob Gronkowski.
Austin Sefarian-Jenkins may not have had the NFL career of these predecessors, but he did carry the mantle at the college level in his time at Washington. Though Stanford established a reputation as the conference’s Tight End U in the 2010s, Sefarian-Jenkins was the league’s lone Mackey Award recipient in the 12-team era. He claimed the honor in 2013 when he hauled in eight touchdown receptions.
OL: Joshua Garnett, Stanford
The 2015 Outland Trophy award winner was the best in an impressive collection of offensive linemen who came through Stanford in David Shaw’s tenure. Watch highlights of McCaffrey’s 2015 Heisman Trophy pursuit, and it’s likely you will see Garnett plowing through would-be tacklers to create holes.
OL: Penei Sewell, Oregon
Penei Sewell was absolutely dominant up front for Oregon on his way to winning the 2019 Outland Trophy. Had it not been for COVID-19 impacting the 2020 season, it’s not unrealistic to suggest Sewell would have generated the most Heisman talk for an offensive lineman since Orlando Pace’s fourth-place finish in the 1996 balloting.
C: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
A linchpin of Oregon’s transformative offense in the early 2010s was Hroniss Grasu, a four-year starter on the Ducks interior line. Grasu earned two All-American selections, including as a captain of the 2014 national runner-up team.
OL: Matt Kalil, USC
It’s difficult to quantify if you didn’t witness it for yourself, but arguably the biggest difference in USC going 10-2 and generating the Trojans are back! buzz, and going 7-6 with an uninspiring Sun Bowl loss, was the absence of Matt Kalil from the 2012 team.
Kalil brought the kind of physicality that had been a hallmark of the dominant USC teams in the early-to-mid 2000s, and earned All-American recognition in his final season as a Trojan.
OL: Andrus Peat, Stanford
Interior linemen don’t often generate first-round NFL draft hype, so Andrus Peat going 13th overall in 2015 speaks to just how impressive he was at Stanford. Indeed, Peat garnered All-America and won the Morris Trophy, given to the Pac-12’s top lineman on other side of the ball.
Considering he won the award in the same year USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams was wreaking havoc on opposing backfields, Peat’s win is no insignificant feat.
DE: Will Sutton, Arizona State
The only two-time recipient of the Pat Tillman Award, given to the top defensive player in the Pac-12, Will Sutton’s 2012 was the best for an Arizona State pass-rusher since Terell Suggs in 2002. Sutton racked up 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks that year.
His numbers dipped in 2013, consummate both with defenses throwing the kitchen sink to block him and him playing more on the interior of the defensive line, but he was dominant enough to repeat as the Tillman Award winner.
DT: Leonard Williams, USC
Leonard Williams played an edge-rusher’s style game, with edge-rusher numbers, but did so effectively lining up on the interior. In three seasons, Williams racked up 35.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks, and forced three fumbles in a standout 2014 campaign.
DT: Vita Vea, Washington
Numbers don’t accurately reflect just how dominant Vita Vea was in his time at Washington. Yes, he five sacks for the 2016 Playoff-qualifying team, and 3.5 a year later with four deflected passes.
But more importantly, Vea ate up blocks in a way few tackles ever have to open the field for his Huskies teammates.
DE: Laiatu Latu, UCLA
The current UCLA Bruin has one of the most inspiring stories in college football, after his career was seemingly over when he was at Washington. Laiatu Latu landed at UCLA and returned to the gridiron as one of the nation’s best pass-rushers in back-to-back seasons.
Latu recorded 10.5 sacks in 2022, then upped the ante this past season to post 13 with 21.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions – an especially impressive stat for a defensive end.
LB: Anthony Barr, UCLA
In one of the all-time wise moves, Anthony Barr moved from running back to linebacker and proceeded to become one of the best edge-rushing playmakers the Pac-12’s ever seen. Barr earned All-American recognition once, but really deserved it twice between his 2012 and 2013 seasons.
In 2012, Barr had 21.5 for loss and 13.5 sacks – one of which, his hit on Matt Barkley, ranks among the most memorable moments of the crosstown rivalry. The next year, Barr went for 20 tackles for loss and forced an incredible six fumbles.
LB: Scooby Wright III, Arizona
Football requires 11 teammates all doing a specific job simultaneously in order to succeed. Thus, it’s rare you can point to a single player who made as much individual impact as Scooby Wright III.
Arizona’s rolling ball of knives did everything in 2014: 164 tackles, 31 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, five forced fumbles. He was a run-stopper and eyes for the defense at inside linebacker, a pass-rushing dynamo off the edge, and dropped back into pass coverage with the effectiveness of a defensive back.
LB: Evan Weaver, Cal
Evan Weaver left Cal having recorded more than 400 tackles – a remarkable stat on its own merit, but made all the more impressive considering he racked up around 80 percent of those in just two seasons.
Weaver was everywhere for the Golden Bears in 2018 and 2019, earning the Pat Tillman and All-American recognition in the latter campaign.
LB: Devin Lloyd, Utah
Not having more Utes on this list feels a bit…off, given how Kyle Whittingham built a perennial contender with dominant play on that side of the ball. Utah had plenty of stars worthy of consideration, like Nate Orchard, but no Ute star shined brighter than Devin Lloyd.
Lloyd produced two of the most impressive individual campaigns of any player in the latter years of the Pac-12, finishing 2019 with 91 tackles and 11 for loss.
He followed that up in the next full fall season, 2021, with 111 tackles, 22 for loss, and was one of the nation’s best pass-defenders with four interceptions and six pass break-ups.
DB: Adoree’ Jackson, USC
The conference’s first Thorpe Award winner since Antoine Cason in 2007, and the league’s only recipient of the honor in the 12-team era, Adoree’ Jackson was also the only defensive back to win the Pat TIllman Award.
His exploits on special teams and offense perhaps garnered more attention nationally – and, if Jabrill Peppers hadn’t filled Heisman voters’ quota on defensive players invited to New York, Jackson may well have gone with his two kick returns, two punt returns, and reception for a touchdown.
However, his explosiveness in other phases should not detract from Jackson’s outstanding ball-coverage at USC. In 2016, he picked off five passes and broke up another 11.
DB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
Oregon’s success in the early 2010s was in no small part the result of Chip Kelly’s innovative offense. It cannot be overstated, though, how important Nick Aliotti’s defense was in making the offense so effective. The Ducks had a way of wearing opponents down, like they were playing in quicksand, and one of the key ways was through the shutdown coverage of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the secondary.
A four-year key to Oregon’s defense from 2011 through 2014, Ekpre-Olomu finished with 244 tackles, nine picks, and 23 pass break-ups. He also earned an All-American selection in 2013. The career-ending injury he sustained preparing for the 2015 Rose Bowl Game ranks among the more unfortunate what-ifs in recent college football memory.
DB: Budda Baker, Washington
One of the keys to Washington’s first conference championship in 16 years and the Huskies’ run to the College Football Playoff, Budda Baker was a blue-chip recruit he more than lived up to his recruiting hype.
Baker jumped into the Huskies’ starting lineup immediately and produced 80 tackles with an interception and two forced fumbles in 2014. By 2016, he was doing it all: pass-rushing, picking off throws, stopping the run.
DB: Clark Phillips III, Utah
A great cornerback is sometimes evident in the numbers he doesn’t put up; it means opposing offenses intentionally throw away from him. With five career pick-sixes, one might assume the ball was being thrown Clark Phillips III’s way frequently.
Not the case.
Opponents went out of their way to avoid Phillips, particularly in 2022 after he had 13 pass break-ups in 2021. And yet, he still managed six interceptions for the Pac-12 championship-winning Utes of ‘22.