Just because sports is on hiatus doesn’t mean the competition needs to end. While we wait for the live action to return, ESPN has assembled a collection of “ultimate all-conference teams” that should intrigue college football and NFL fans alike.
Our panel of NFL analysts, 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 conference. Notre Dame was paired with the ACC because of their affiliation.
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, tight end, two offensive tackles, two guards, 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.
It all kicks off Monday with the NFL’s ultimate all-conference teams for the ACC and SEC. Let the second-guessing begin.
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
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.”
DeAndre Hopkins joins Jalen & Jacoby to rank himself against the elite wide receivers in the NFL like Michael Thomas and Julio Jones.
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, Alabama
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 tie-breakers, 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.