CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary Top 20 Players
Who were the top 20 players since CFN started in 1998? No. 2 Matt Leinart, QB USC
CFN Era Top 20 Players: No. 2, Matt Leinart, QB USC
CollegeFootballNews.com is turning 20 this season, so we’re looking back on the greatest players, games, coaches and more since we first kicked things off back in 1998.
For the Top 20 Players since CFN started, the rules are simple. Who made the biggest impact, who were the most important, and who were ones who generated the most buzz – for good and bad?
This isn’t necessarily a list of the most talented players – that’s what the NFL Draft is for. Who were the defining players of the last 20 years?
Also, nothing before 1998 counts.
Matt Leinart, QB USC (2001-2005)
The mid-2000s was an odd time for college quarterbacks.
The spread offenses were rumbling, as quarterbacks were starting to put up statistics at an all-timer of a level in a traditionally running back-dominated sport.
So even though Tom Brady was growing into being Tom Brady at the next level, it was hard for dropback, pro-style passers to get too much love and attention in the college game when others were running wild and doing sensational, highlight reel things.
Michael Vick changed the game.
But USC was still able to find big-time passers who fit the traditional NFL-passing mold, with Carson Palmer winning the Heisman as the first big star of the Pete Carroll era, and with pure passing prospects all on the radar to be groomed as potential pro stars.
Matt Leinart chose USC before Carroll arrived, and while he was a big-time recruit, he was still a bit overshadowed by other big-time recruits. He stuck around through the coaching change, even though Matt Cassel appeared to be the next-man-up after Palmer was finished, and he managed to quietly grow into the No. 1 spot.
But it wasn’t easy.
Going into his sophomore season, Leinart was about to be bypassed by John David Booty, a superstar high school junior who got to USC early to be the Next-Big-Sure-Thing. But instead, Leinart cooly and calmly was terrific in practice after practice, earning a starting job he wouldn’t let go of for the next three seasons.
What followed was one of the most decorated and storied careers in college football history.
Leinart might not have been splashy like teammate Reggie Bush, and he didn’t come up with that one signature game to make him a beloved legend quite like Vince Young, and he wasn’t a cult hero like Tim Tebow became.
Whatever. On resume, he became among the greatest players of all-time, and the perfect leader for a team full of rock stars.
The National Championship Season: Part One
Welcome to the starting job, Matt Leinart. Now go out and deal with No. 6 Auburn at Auburn to start your career.
Leinart was fine, completing 17-of-30 passes for 192 yards and no picks, but it was the D that carried the day in a a stunning 23-0 win.
Leinart looked the part of a first-year starter twice in his sophomore season, throwing three picks in a Week Two win over BYU, and getting intercepted three times a few weeks later in a loss to Aaron Rodgers and Cal.
As the USC starting quarterback, Leinart would then win 34 straight games before the 2006 Rose Bowl.
Even more importantly in that 2003 season – at least for his college career arc – he threw just three interceptions in the final nine games.
He lit up Notre Dame for 351 yards and four scores in South Bend, and followed it up with 351 more yards and four scores in a win at Washington.
Momentum was building around the Trojans, helped in a big way by Leinart’s six-game run of 20 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
He finally got picked off again – twice – in the regular season finale win over Oregon State. He also threw five touchdown passes in the 52-28 win.
USC had gone 11-1 with a Pac-10 championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Against Michigan, Leinart threw for 327 yards and three scores – with no picks – and even caught a touchdown pass in the 28-14 win.
While the Trojans were ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season by the human polls, the BCS rankings had LSU and Oklahoma ranked higher – and rightly so, at least in terms of schedules. However, the AP named USC the national champion, while LSU was the Coaches Poll champ.
Leinart finished sixth in the Heisman voting, completing 63% of his passes for 3,556 yards and 38 touchdowns with nine interceptions on the season.
The tone was set for …
The National Championship Season: Part Two
From pillar to post, 2004 would be USC’s season, starting out ranked No. 1 in both polls, starting out No. 1 in the BCS Standings, and never, ever wavering from there.
And Leinart started out as the Heisman favorite, and never did anything to change that.
Oklahoma RB Adrian Peterson cranked up an amazing season, but Leinart was the main man from the start for a team that had a wee bit of a fight late against UCLA, and got by Cal 23-17, but rolled the rest of the way.
Unlike 2003, when Leinart’s interceptions came in bunches, he spread out his six picks throughout the season, while completing 65% of his throws for 3,322 yards and 33 touchdowns.
He even ran for three scores.
Rock-steady throughout, he threw two touchdown passes or more in every game but two, clobbered Notre Dame with five scoring throws, and in the national championship against Oklahoma, threw for 332 yards and five touchdowns in the 55-19 demolition.
Leinart had won 22 straight games. a national title, half of another, and a Heisman.
Choosing to come back for his senior season, the stage was set for one more run.
The National Championship Season: Almost
2005 wasn’t all that easy.
USC might have been loaded and confident at the idea of a threepeat national championship run, and Reggie Bush might have made the season a blast on his way to the Heisman, but there were some fights along the way.
From the Bush Push win over Notre Dame, the Bush heroics needed to get by Fresno State, there were some bumps. But USC was still supposed to beat Texas in the Rose Bowl, and Leinart was supposed to end up as the most decorated college quarterback ever.
He and USC were close.
Leinart was once again his steady, efficient self, finishing third in the Heisman voting behind Bush and Vince Young, setting the stage for an epic national championship showdown between the Trojans and Longhorns.
Lost in Young’s all-timer of a performance was Leinart’s final act. He might have thrown an interception, but he also hit 73% of his throws for 365 yards and a touchdown to close out his final season with 3,815 yards and 28 scores with eight picks.
It might have been a disappointing thud to a great career, but still, almost no one can match …
College Football Hall of Fame: Announced 2017
Career Starting Record: 37-2
National Championships: 2003 (AP), 2004
2004 Heisman winner, 2003 sixth-place finish, 2005 third-place finish
2004 Rose Bowl MVP
2005 Orange Bowl MVP
All-American: 2004, 2005
Johnny Unitas Award: 2005
Walter Camp Award: 2004
Career Stats: 65% for 10,693 yards, 99 touchdowns, 23 interceptions, nine rushing scores
CFN 20th Anniversary lists compiled by Rich Cirminiello, Pete Fiutak, Phil Harrison & Russ Mitchell
Photo Credit: USC Athletic Department