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Universal All-Americans: Let’s combine all college football awards into one thing

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Sort of like the NCAA’s “consensus All-Americans” idea, but much more encompassing and definitive.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

College football has a ton of individual awards. While we’ve spent a couple decades narrowing down the number of FBS teams who can claim trophies at year’s end, the number of players and coaches who can claim to be the best among their peers only seems to grow every year.

It was pretty simple at the beginning.

In 1889, magazine writer Caspar Whitney and football stepdad Walter Camp came up with the All-America Team, meant to honor the best players at each position from across the country. “The country” happened to mean just Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. It was a start.

“All-American” has remained a definitive college football term, even as the list of media/historian/etc. All-America teams recognized at one point or another by the NCAA has grown to 22, with plenty of others arriving each year. (As of right now, the NCAA considers the AP, Camp Foundation, Coaches Association, Sporting News, and Writers Association as contributing to its “consensus All-America” team and “unanimous All-American” designation.)

Additionally, every local club in the world decided to make its own version of the Heisman, leading to each December’s bewildering hardware deluge:

And this doesn’t even include the Piesman or BVP!

Similar to the situation with Coach of the Year awards, we end every season with like 37 schools claiming to have an All-American running back, plus running back awards and multi-position awards.

Does anyone outside of the universities associated with winners care about the majority of these? We shouldn’t get rid of things, but we should have awards everyone can care about, and we should try and unify this mess somewhat — though college football should always have a little sprawl.

I think the All-Americans concept is the best starting point. Even if we have a hundred different outlets doing them, we can merge their picks into one Universal All-America Team, similar to the NCAA’s “consensus” team, but incorporating more inputs.

We can keep all the quirky little trophies, but let’s also make it so people can look at just one thing and get the season’s gist.

I’m open to how this might work, but I’ve dropped a starting idea at the end. I plan to update this with 2019’s team, based on a finalized method.

And let’s take this Universal All-America Team and merge all the individual awards into it as well.

This should mean considering which players were named finalists and winners by all those specific trophies.

For example, is the overall consensus unclear on which punter is most deserving of the Universal All-America spot? Well, the Ray Guy Award’s voters get to help make the call, simply by voting for an award they were going to vote for anyway. Now the top punter has a single résumé item: College Football Punter of the Year, per the Ray Guy Award and true All-America consensus. (The other punters can still claim to be a Guy finalist, all-conference, a PFF second-teamer, and what have you.)

Will those individual awards ever actually alter this calculation? And doesn’t the NCAA’s “consensus” thing already cover this? Yep and nope, respectively.

For example, in 2018, Kyler Murray won the Heisman, won the O’Brien Award for best QB, was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded QB, and was a first-team AA per seven major traditional outlets (AP, CBS, CFN, ESPN, FWAA, SI, USA Today), two of which (the ones in boldface) count toward NCAA “consensus” designation.

But the season’s definitive player was not officially an NCAA consensus All-American.

Tua Tagovailoa took the honor due to the NCAA’s “consensus” formula, which includes three of the four major outlets (AFCA, Athlon, Camp, Sporting News) that had him up top, despite Kyler clearly having more support overall. Tua also won a couple non-Heisman national MVP awards.

No matter which player you preferred, do the Sporting News and Maxwell Award deserve more tiebreaker weight than the top overall player award, the top quarterback award, CBS, CFN, ESPN, PFF, SI, and USA Today?

The point isn’t to discount the wonderful Tua or heap more rewards on a guy who already got plenty, but to make this whole thing more representative of the complete picture.

Yep, we’ll incorporate the Heisman, and this might be the best part.

First, we can be honest: the Heisman is for offensive players. (Don’t worry, I have an idea for defenders as well.) No one-way defensive player has ever won it, as they typically have to also play offense and special teams just to get votes. Let’s call it what it is and thus stop implying no defenders are good enough to win it.

Let’s also ensure the Heisman acknowledges the guys who form about half of each offense. The only OL since 1973 to finish in the top four of voting was Ohio State’s Orlando Pace in 1996. Some of the most important players are basically never considered for an award given to the most “outstanding” player, and that is insane.

Henceforth, let’s consider every Universal All-America first-teamer on offense a Heisman finalist, whether the Trust invites him to New York City or not.

(The Maxwell and all the other Basically Less-Famous Heisman trophies can still exist and factor into our considerations. We’re not here to eliminate hardware, just make it coherent.)

We should do the same on defense, elevating the Bronko Nagurski Trophy to “defensive Heisman” status. It’s been around slightly longer than the Chuck Bednarik Award, so sure.

This would make it similar to the NFL’s joint Offensive and Defensive MVP awards and FCS’ defensive award (the Buck Buchanan) having more notoriety, relative to its offensive counterpart (the Walter Payton), than FBS’ defensive awards have. And again, all 11 first-team Universal All-American defenders are Nagurski finalists.

A lot of this is section is technically beyond our power, but college football is all about declaring things and believing them to be true. If you and I say A&M punter Braden Mann is a Heisman finalist, who can tell us otherwise?

We can also improve some position honors by giving weight to more authoritative groups. Alex Kirshner explains his vehement belief in one such example:

Right now, media members are supposed to pick three-plus finalists at every position. This is dumb, for two big reasons:

  1. College football is large. Nobody can watch all of it, least of all media members whose jobs are to follow one team closely or dozens less closely.
  2. Most media members have no idea how to evaluate some positions.

I’ve covered college football for most of the last decade, and I love offensive linemen as much as the next person. But I’m not qualified to judge. I can identify that, oh yes, one lineman is throwing that other backward, but am I such an expert that I can compare the technique of a handful of the most elite linemen? No way.

In fact, I couldn’t even narrow down the best linemen, because it’s impossible for me to watch them closely enough. I don’t know the play calls, whose responsibility is blocking whom, or how much help that lineman’s gotten from teammates. That’s if I’m even watching their games, which I’m probably not, because I have just two eyeballs.

The result is that if you asked me to name the best linemen, I’d probably go along with what every other media member said. Maybe I’d pick a team with a great running game that doesn’t give up many sacks and see which guy on that team has the best NFL Draft stock.

The situation is even worse with linebackers and defensive backs, whose best contributions sometimes mean they’re invisible on TV.

For the Universal All-Americans idea, we can lean a bit more on things like the Joe Moore Award, selected by former offensive linemen, and other actual experts. We could also hope to develop a player/coach panel helps determine the finalists and winners for non-ballcarrier positions.

Thanks, Alex! And finally, since college football will never agree to an accord like this, I say we just do it ourselves and maintain that record as we go.

As 2019’s awards release, this space will eventually be updated with a Universal All-America Team that factors just about everything into one tidy list.

Honestly, I’m pretty flexible on what it includes, but at least the position awards, 10 or so traditional All-America teams, Pro Football Focus’ All-America team, and perhaps another unique thing or two. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

If anybody likes the idea, perhaps I’ll look at previous seasons as well.

(Spoiler: Joe Burrow and Chase Young will make the cut.)