WACO, TX - NOVEMBER 19: Robert Griffin III #10 of the Baylor Bears runs during a game against the Oklahoma Sooners at Floyd Casey Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
SBNation.com's college football staff has put together its first-ever All-America team, featuring two Baylor players, a defense that graciously includes non-SEC players, and a wizard at head coach.
The 2011 season was full of star power and spectacular stories. Kansas State won ten games, Baylor won a Heisman trophy, and Alabama and LSU almost combined to field the 11 best defensive players in the country. Teams won with explosive offense, dynamic defense, crafty coaching and, in LSU's case, some of the most game-changing special teams the country has ever seen. The result: one hellacious list of All-Americans. To get a gauge for college football's star power in 2011, just look at who didn't make this list -- Andrew Luck, LaMichael James, Kellen Moore, Courtney Upshaw, Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, Caleb Sturgis, David Amerson, and Lavonte David, among many others.
Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Jason Kirk: From numbers to moments, no player better defines everything that was great about the 2011 season than RG3 does. Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden were outstanding, but this feels like just about the easiest choice on the board.
Bill Connelly: Richardson was the No. 1 running back and No. 2 receiver on one of the two best teams in the country. If you like advanced stats, he's your guy. If you like aesthetics, then he's your guy. He is one of the strongest runners in the country, but he can literally juke you to the ground as well. And he was single-handedly responsible for 37 percent of Alabama's total yardage.
Bill Connelly: There was a dead heat between Ball and LaMichael James for the second running back slot. Why did Ball get the nod? Because of two numbers: 38 and 55.6. Ball scored a ridiculous 38 touchdowns in 2011 and has a chance to break Barry Sanders' single-season record (39) in the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, he was an advanced stats dynamo; he posted a plus-55.6 Adj. POE, which means he generated over nine touchdowns more than an average back in 2011. He was 18 points ahead of No. 2 (Richardson, at plus-37.7). He is powerful, smooth and ridiculously efficient. James (18 touchdowns, plus-34.5 Adj. POE) was very good, but Ball was better.
Andy Hutchins: Fun stat about Blackmon: cfbstats.com has him with 10 more catches than any other FBS player in the red zone, and 11 red zone receiving touchdowns. When you can be used as a go-to pass-catcher to that degree, you're special.
Bill Connelly: There was another dead heat in the ballots between Wright and USC's Robert Woods. So why Wright? Consider the following: while both receivers accounted for over 35 percent of their team's overall targets (Wright 35.3 percent, Woods 38.3 percent), Woods did most of his damage on standard downs. He caught 83 passes, had a 73-percent catch rate, and averaged 8.7 yards per target on standard downs but caught 28 passes with just a 54-percent catch rate and 5.8 yards per target on passing downs. Meanwhile, when Baylor fell behind schedule and found themselves on second- or third-and-long, Wright got better: 68 catches, 75-percent catch rate, 10.4 yards per target on standard downs, then 27 catches, 75-percent catch rate and 13.0 yards per target on passing downs. Wright was more explosive than Woods, and when Baylor needed a big catch, Wright came up bigger.
Coby Fleener, Stanford
Bill Connelly: Fleener was the face of one of the odder receiving corps in the country. Lacking any sort of wideout depth after Griff Whalen and Chris Owusu, Andrew Luck turned quite often to tight ends and fullbacks to move the chains. Tight ends Fleener, Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz and fullback Ryan Hewitt were all among Luck's six most frequent targets, and Fleener provided by far the most explosiveness. How many tight ends score 10 touchdowns and average 20.2 yards per catch? Not many. Plus, he was a nearly automatic conversion on passing downs, catching 75 percent of the passes thrown his way on second- or third-and-long.
C.J. Schexnayder: Quite possibly the most important player on the Alabama offense. Barrett Jones was anchor of a line that lead the way for a back that won the Heisman trophy as well as another who was a finalist. Or to put it another way, he missed the 2010 Iron Bowl with an ankle injury and watched from the sideline as the offense sputtered out three times in the red zone in the second half.
Bill Connelly: Stanford had one of the most flexible, reliable lines in the country, ranking among the nation's Top 15 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate. Only two other lines could claim that feat -- Oregon and Texas A&M -- and no single lineman was more responsible for a high level of achievement than DeCastro, a three-year starter and mean-looking dude.
Jason Kirk: Melvin Ingram, South Carolina's best offensive weapon, and Whitney Mercilus, sack machine, earned plenty of attention all year, but for me Sam Montgomery provided the fearsome face of the nation's meanest front. Second in SEC defensive linemen in sacks and a half-digit off the conference lead in tackles for loss, Montgomery's one of many reasons the Tigers are in New Orleans. Did "ability to be tall and scary" serve as a tiebreaker on at least one ballot? Yes, it seems it did.
Dont'a Hightower, Alabama
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Luke Kuechly, Boston College
C.J. Schexnayder: Hightower and Courtney Upshaw make up the best linebacker pairing in the nation, bar none. While both are elite athletes who have played at the top of their game in 2011, their seamless cooperation in Alabama's complex 3-4 defensive scheme has been a key reason Alabama has produced one of the most stifling rushing defenses in years.
Andy Hutchins: Luke Kuechly has 191 tackles, 44 more than Akron's Brian Wagner, who is second nationally with 147. The difference between first and second in the FBS in tackles is the same as the difference between second and a tie for 53rd.
Andy Hutchins: I nominate LSU's entire secondary, despite what Trey Burton thinks. The fearsome Tigers back four gave up more than 240 yards through the air just once, to a West Virginia team that attempted 65 passes, and did so against a schedule far more rugged than the nation-leading secondary from Alabama. Also, Alabama gave up a touchdown pass to Florida's Andre Debose on the only deep passing play Florida had that worked at all in 2011 just like LSU, but 'Bama's didn't require an uncalled offensive pass interference penalty to happen.
Bill Connelly: Malone breaks the Bama/LSU monopoly because of some ridiculous ball skills. Only 18 defensive backs managed at least 16 passes defended (interceptions plus passes broken up), and of those, only two did so with more than five interceptions: N.C. State's sophomore ball-hawk David Amerson (11 interceptions, five passes broken up) and Malone (seven and nine). Unlike Amerson, however, Malone took on a series of ridiculously good quarterbacks in the Big 12 and still managed the feat.
Kicker: Brett Maher, Nebraska
Punter: Brad Wing, LSU
Returner: Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
Jason Kirk: Hail Brad Wing, unanimous 2011 SBNation.com All-American. He was unanimous because we didn't list a blank on the ballot next to Punter, but instead just Brad Wing's name. There are other options, as the Ray Guy Award folks and various other All-America teams have somehow discovered, but Wing made his mark as one of the clutchest players in the nation all year.
Bill Snyder, Kansas State
Bill Connelly: Kansas State went 10-2 without the love of either stats or recruiting rankings. They won games with nothing but special teams, field position, turnovers, Collin Klein and craftiness. Vanderbilt's James Franklin worked wonders in his first season in Nashville, Art Briles turned Baylor -- BAYLOR! -- into a nine-win team, and hell, Lane Kiffin engineered a ferocious mid-season turnaround at USC. But Kansas State simply had no business winning ten games in a fierce Big 12; to get there, Snyder simply pulled off the best coaching job of his career.