The Best SEC Athlete of All Time: Round 3
Earlier this month, SEC Country selected the greatest athlete in each school’s history. Now, in the spirit of March Madness, we’ve put together a 14-player bracket, and we’re getting closer to declaring a champion.
Our setup mirrors the SEC basketball tournament, so this is the third of five rounds. Tonight’s matchups include Georgia’s Herschel Walker vs. Arkansas’ Darren McFadden, Florida’s Tim Tebow vs. LSU’s “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Auburn’s Bo Jackson vs. Mississippi State’s Rafael Palmeiro, and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning vs. Alabama’s Joe Namath.
Here’s the breakdown:
Herschel Walker, Georgia running back
Walker is undoubtedly the best Georgia football player of all time. There also is a case to be made for Walker as the greatest college running back — and possibly greatest player — of all time.
In three seasons at Georgia (1980-82), Walker rushed for 5,259 yards, a school record that stands. As a freshman (my god, a freshman) he led Georgia football to the 1980 national title. He won SEC Player of the Year all three seasons at Georgia, was a consensus All-America selection all three seasons and won the 1982 Heisman Trophy.
In addition, Walker was a two-time All-America selection as a member of Georgia’s track team.
Darren McFadden, Arkansas running back
McFadden still owns the two greatest single-season rushing performances in Arkansas history, the ones from his sophomore and junior seasons. No one in school history has run the ball as many times he has (785), ran for as many 100-yard games as he has (22) or finished more highly-decorated.
In all, McFadden had two second-place finishes for the Heisman, two SEC Offensive Player of the Year awards, two first-team All-American honors, three All-SEC honors and is the second-leading rusher in SEC history behind only Herschel Walker. …
It’s not an overstatement to suggest Arkansas may never see another player like him.
It’s a shame we need to eliminate McFadden before the semifinals, but this isn’t much of a discussion. Walker is not only the greatest Georgia Bulldog of all time, but probably the greatest SEC football player to ever step on the field. Add his dominant track career to the mix, and … why are we still discussing this? The winner: Walker.
Tim Tebow, Florida quarterback
The Gators won 2 national championships and 2 SEC titles with Tebow at quarterback. Tebow collected numerous accolades and set multiple NCAA, SEC and UF records during his career. In 2007, he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, and also won the Davey O’Brien Award, the Maxwell Award and the Sullivan Award.
Among the most dominant and decorated quarterbacks in college football history, Tebow transcended sports with his faith, philanthropy and popularity.
“Pistol” Pete Maravich, LSU point guard
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak is most frequently cited as the most unbreakable record in sports. But Maravich’s 3,667 career points — the NCAA Division I scoring record — is even more unlikely to go down. The closest men’s competitor is Portland State’s Freeman Williams, who came up 418 points shy and graduated in 1978. …
Had he played all 4 years, the scoring record would be well north of 4,000 points — probably closer to 4,500. And had the 3-point shot existed in Maravich’s era, his career average of 44.3 points per game would most certainly be above 50. Former LSU coach Dale Brown once charted his shots and estimated Maravich would have averaged 57 points per game.
This is easily the toughest quarterfinals decision. Both men were bigger than the game they played. Both were among the most-decorated athletes in history. Their legends will live on for another century, at least.
Maravich, often cited as one of the best ballhandlers ever, was simply better at his craft. In three varsity seasons, he averaged at least 43.8 points in each without the help of a 3-point line or a shot clock. The biggest knock against Pistol Pete is that his teams never made the NCAA Tournament, but the LSU program was garbage before he showed up. Tebow was an effective leader and a career winner — and compiled plenty of impressive stats himself — but he also took over as starting quarterback for a team that already had won a national title his freshman season.
It’s a tight race. The tiebreaker: Pistol Pete directly affected the way modern basketball is played. You won’t ever be able to say the same about Tebow and football. The winner: Maravich.
Bo Jackson, Auburn running back
On the football field, Jackson averaged more than 6.6 yards per carry and scored 45 total touchdowns in four seasons with the Tigers. That includes a 1984 junior season in which Jackson missed a substantial amount of time due to injury. He snapped a 9-game losing streak against Alabama with “Bo Over the Top” as a true freshman, and he unofficially recorded one of the fastest 40-yard dashes in NFL combine history.
In baseball, Jackson batted .401 as a junior and had four straight MLB seasons with 20-plus home runs. He played both baseball and football professionally from 1987 to 1990, winning the MLB All-Star Game MVP in 1989 and making it to the Pro Bowl in 1990. On top of all that, he was an accomplished track and field athlete at Auburn.
Rafael Palmeiro, Mississippi State first baseman
Born in Havana, Palmeiro played his high school baseball in Miami and was drafted in the eighth round as a senior in high school. He decided to attend Mississippi State instead, and proceeded to have a monster career.
In 1984, he became the only SEC player to win the triple crown, leading the conference in batting average (.415), home runs (29) and RBI (94). He hit .372 during his time in Starkville while hitting 67 home runs and was chosen 22nd overall by the Chicago Cubs in the 1985 MLB Draft.
It’s a bit unfair to simplify it like this, but what happens if you put Palmeiro on the football field? We know what would happen to Jackson on a diamond: he’d knock the bejeezus out of the ball and use his freak athleticism to rob opposing hitters. There’s never been a more famous combo star in the SEC. He’d win this battle on his football résumé alone. The winner: Jackson.
Peyton Manning, Tennessee quarterback
Tennessee’s all-time football great was 39-6 as the Vols’ quarterback, including a sterling 22-2 mark in Neyland Stadium under the direction of College Football Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer and current Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
Accolades include: Tennessee all-time yards leader (11,020), Tennessee all-time TD passes leader (89), 1998 No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick, 1997 Heisman Trophy runner-up, 1997 Consensus First Team All-American, 1997 SEC Player of the Year.
Joe Namath, Alabama quarterback
Namath is respected in all circles for his play, his bravado and magnetic personality. He commands every stage he’s on, and is seen as one of the dignitaries of the sport.
But let’s not forget how good of an athlete Namath was as well. Under the direction of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Namath helped Alabama to the national championship in 1964.
After finishing his college football days, Namath had interest from multiple Major League Baseball teams, and likely would have been a top pick had there been a draft back then.
Namath squeaked past South Carolina running back George Rogers in the previous round, but he doesn’t have the firepower to eliminate Rocky Top’s finest. Manning might be the best player in college football history to have never won a Heisman Trophy or a national title. Those are a couple glaring omissions from his trophy case, but whom would you rather put under center? The winner: Manning.