Super Bowl LI: Which colleges have the most former players on the Falcons and Patriots?
The college football season may have ended three weeks ago — in spectacular fashion — but a select number of the NCAA's past stars are not done yet.
A total of 106 players with roots to the FBS, FCS and Division II, representing 86 different schools, will compete on Feb. 5 when the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots square off in Super Bowl LI.
Here's a look at the colleges being represented on Super Bowl Sunday in Houston:
Falcons: Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw | Patriots: Dont'a Hightower, DeAndrew White, Cyrus Jones
The Crimson Tide has won four of the past eight championships and narrowly missed out on a fifth earlier this month. It should be no surprise that Alabama is tied for the lead on this list with five former players in the big game.
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones finished second in the NFL this season with 1,409 receiving yards and added six touchdown catches. The receiver has been the go-to target for quarterback Matt Ryan (Boston College alumnus) and the NFL's highest-scoring offense this year. In the Falcons' NFC Championship win over the Green Bay Packers, Jones helped clinch a Super Bowl berth with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones played for the Crimson Tide from 2008-10, finishing with 17 total touchdowns. In his junior season, he led the Tide with 78 receptions for 1,133 yards in Alabama's 2010 national championship run.
Jones' former Alabama teammate Dont'a Hightower (2008-11) has been at the center of the Patriots' defense for five seasons. The linebacker finished with 65 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 13 games this season and is gunning for his second Super Bowl ring.
Hightower started 44 games for the Tide over four years (his true sophomore season was cut short due to injury) and anchored one of Alabama's most dominant defenses in 2011 as a team captain and All-American honoree. During that title season -- his second at Alabama –-- Hightower accumulated 85 tackles and four sacks.
Falcons: Mohamed Sanu | Patriots: Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Jonathan Freeny
While Rutgers is joined by two other schools with five Super Bowl-bound players, it does have sole possession for the lead in starters. Impressively, all five former Scarlet Knights are expected to start on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Patriots have called on the state school of New Jersey for three contributing pieces in the secondary, led by Devin McCourty. The sixth-year free safety has been a starter since his rookie season in 2010 and has picked up 19 career interceptions. He has nine tackles and one pick through two games this postseason.
McCourty was a top playmaker for Rutgers from 2006-09 -- alongside twin brother Jason McCourty (now with the Tennessee Titans) -- as an elite defensive back, explosive kick returner and dangerous punt blocker. He had two pick sixes and a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown in four years.
On the other side of the ball, the Falcons were uplifted by the free-agent signing of wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. After spending four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Sanu came to Atlanta and had a career-high 59 receptions for 653 yards and four touchdowns. He's caught a touchdown in each of the Falcons' first two playoff games and has fit in as an excellent complementary receiver to Jones.
At Rutgers from 2009-11, Sanu's speed and athleticism was used in a number of ways, including in wildcat formation. He was always a consistent receiver -- he finished with 115 catches his junior year -- but also picked up nine touchdowns as a runner and added four touchdowns passing in three years.
Falcons: Levine Toilolo, Austin Hooper | Patriots: Tyler Gaffney, Cameron Fleming, Jordan Richards
Jones and Sanu headline a superb cast of pass catchers in the Falcons' high-flying offense that includes former Cardinal tight ends Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper.
Toilolo had 13 receptions for a career-high 264 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth season in Atlanta while Hooper added 19 receptions for 271 yards and three scores in his rookie season. Both have made some big catches in crucial moments this season.
Toilolo burned a talented Seahawks defense for a 46-yard touchdown for what would have been the game-winning score in their regular season matchup if not for Seattle's fourth-quarter comeback. Hooper finished with five receptions in a 33-32 Week 8 win over Green Bay.
At Stanford, Toilolo (2010-12) had 10 career touchdowns and Hooper (2014-15) eight.
For the Patriots, running back Tyler Gaffney hasn't appeared in a game yet and defensive back Jordan Richards has 23 tackles in limited action through his first two seasons with the Patriots. Meanwhile, 6-foot-6, 320-pound backup offensive tackle Cameron Fleming has appeared in 35 games, including 14 starts (two this season) over his three-year career. All three were teammates at Stanford during a run that included two Pac-12 titles.
Fleming started 39 games at right tackle from 2010-13 and was named to the Pac-12 second team as a junior. Gaffney was part of the program from 2009-11 and 2013 and had 21 touchdowns in his senior season en route to being named second team Pac-12 and Pac-12 championship game MVP. Richards (2011-14) had nine interceptions and two forced fumbles in four seasons.
Conference leaderboard and other quick hits:
* The 86 NCAA schools represented in Sunday's game surpasses last year's total by 14.
* Only one school had five representatives last season (Ohio State). This year there are three.
* This is the second straight season that SEC schools lead the way. In Super Bowl 50, 31 players were from the SEC.
* No former Boston College quarterback has ever won the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan is trying to become the first.
* With Tom Brady starting his record seventh Super Bowl, Michigan joins an elite list of schools who have had seven starting quarterbacks in the big game. The other two schools are Notre Dame (Joe Montana - four, Joe Theismann - two, Daryle Lamonica - one) and Stanford (John Elway - five, Jim Plunkett - two).