The Biggest College Sports Stars of the Past 20 Years, Ranked

From college legends like Tim Tebow and Reggie Bush to this era's superstars in Caitlin Clark and Zion Williamson, we ranked the biggest college sports stars of the past 20 years.

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Deion Sanders brought college football to the forefront of sports discourse with his start at Colorado. Whether you're a big sports fan or not, you probably heard of Coach Prime in some capacity. It's hard to avoid him. He's a terrific coach but he's also an elite marketer and he's brought attention to the sport like no other. Colorado's double-overtime victory against Colorado State tallied 9.3 million viewers to make it the most-watched late-night college football game ever on ESPN. The fact Deion can have people staying up until 3 a.m. to watch Colorado is an accomplishment in itself. While Colorado failed to make a bowl game in its first year under Prime, there will be higher expectations next season with a better roster. 

Coach Prime's stardom and effect on college sports triggered the topic of other athletes & names who have caught the country's attention during their careers. From older college legends like Tim Tebow and Reggie Bush to this era's superstars like Caitlin Clark and Zion Williamson, there's always a few standout college athletes who steal the spotlight of America. 

The Complex Sports team put together a ranking of the biggest college stars of the past 20 years. The list was based off the players' impact within the sport but also how well they reached the outside sports audience who may not necessarily watch their sport. This is NOT a ranking based of how good the players were but their performance does factor into their fame. Coach Prime was an outlier as he is the only coach listed but his situation is unique and deserved placement on this list. College football does dominate the list as it's the most popular collegiate sport in America but other athletes were under consideration as well. 

14. Angel Reese at LSU

13. Manti Te'o at Notre Dame

12. Vince Young at Texas

11. John Wall at Kentucky

View this video on YouTube

10. Lamar Jackson at Louisville

9. Cam Newton at Auburn

Colorado has me watching college football for the first time since Cam Newton was at Auburn

— Comfortable Distance (@TravisHyatt10) September 17, 2023
Twitter: @TravisHyatt10

8. Joe Burrow at LSU

Get The Nat

— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) January 14, 2020
Twitter: @LSUfootball

7. Jimmer Fredette at BYU

Jimmer Fredette dropped 34 points to beat Gonzaga in March Madness. (2011)

— ThrowbackHoops (@ThrowbackHoops) October 16, 2020
Twitter: @ThrowbackHoops

6. Caitlin Clark at Iowa

"Caitlin Clark. She's one of the greatest humans of all time."

Travis Scott (@trvisXX) was in Iowa City to see history.

— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) March 3, 2024
Twitter: @NBCSports

5. Tim Tebow at Florida

View this video on YouTube

4. Zion Williamson at Duke

zion williamson at duke might be the greatest college basketball player of all time

— buckets (@buckets) August 18, 2023
Twitter: @buckets

3. Deion "Coach Prime" Sanders at Colorado

2. Reggie Bush at USC

Reggie Bush at USC was UNFAIR!! @ReggieBush watches some of his greatest highlights in college.

— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) August 21, 2023
Twitter: @ComplexSports

1. Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M

Throwback to when Johnny Manziel shocked the college football world 🌎⚡️

— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) April 2, 2020
Twitter: @ESPNCFB

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