Historic NFL draft haul reinforces SEC dominance
For seven straight seasons, the SEC has lorded over college football, racking up national championships, producing must-see Saturday games and inciting endless debate between its supporters and detractors. With each year The Streak lives on, fans outside the South wonder when some other conference or team will begin to close the gap.
If this year's NFL draft is any indication, however, the discrepancy is actually wider now than it has been at any point since The Streak began.
When the final name was called on Saturday, the SEC had set a modern record with 63 draft picks, more than double that of any other conference. The SEC East alone had more picks (32) than the next-nearest conference, the ACC (31). The SEC's total was the most any league had produced since the Pac-10's 55 in 1983 and represented one-quarter of all players drafted. The league also tied another record with 12 first-round selections. Even if you tossed out the combined seven picks produced by SEC newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri, the league still would've broken the Pac-10's mark.
Paralleling its run of BCS titles that began in 2006, the SEC has had more players drafted than any other league during that span, but never to this extent. Over the previous seven drafts it averaged 39.5 picks overall and 7.7 first-rounders. Just last year, the SEC barely edged the Big Ten for most picks, 43-42. This was clearly an unprecedented talent crop even by the SEC's own lofty standards -- but that doesn't mean it was necessarily an anomaly.
The spike makes sense considering that most of the players drafted entered college in 2008 or '09. That means their recruitment began at least a year earlier. Well, what was happening around 2007 and '08? For one, Nick Saban had just arrived at Alabama. Obviously, much of the SEC's recent draft dominance has centered on Saban's dynastic program.
But the conference had also just begun its BCS streak. While SEC fans at the time pointed to Florida's 41-14 rout of No. 1 Ohio State in the 2006 BCS championship game as evidence of their league's superiority, the truth is the overall talent differential wasn't that great yet. Just a year earlier, in fact, the ACC had led the way with 51 NFL draft picks and 12 first-rounders. At the time, one might have reasonably expected the cycle would eventually spin in a different direction.
Not anymore. No ESPN or media conspiracies -- not even everyone's favorite SEC criticism, oversigning -- can explain such an enormous discrepancy. It's pretty simple: The best coaches and recruiters reside in the SEC (thanks in part to the schools' greater financial commitment), and the best players increasingly reside in the South. It's also fair to assume that once the SEC won those first few BCS titles, a self-fulfilling prophecy arose. The conference became a selling point to elite recruits, an increasing number of whom saw the league as their best opportunity to win titles and play in the NFL. Now, even more of them choose an SEC school than when The Streak began.
Case in point: Take a look back at the infamously polarizing storyline of the 2011 season, the LSU-Alabama BCS championship game rematch. While the Tigers' 9-6 overtime win in the first edition infuriated fans in other parts of the country, SEC proponents viewed it the ultimate display of "Big Boy Football." Well -- they were right. A staggering 31 players who took the field that night have now been drafted, 22 of them on the defensive side of the ball. And there's still a handful (Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr., etc.) who could still be drafted in the next two years. While it's too early to say whether that combined number will ultimately match the total from the epic 2002 Ohio State-Miami Fiesta Bowl, in which 37 starters were drafted, it's certainly well above average.
People in other parts of the country won't want to hear it, but the long-held belief in the South that the SEC is playing a different level of football than everybody else has become reality. Those hoping to see that trend change course must hope that perhaps next season, SEC teams will run into trouble reloading after losing that record haul. Few doubt Saban's ability at this point to replace nine draft picks, but LSU should be hard-pressed to replace eight defensive draftees in one offseason. Ditto for Georgia, which lost seven. Then again, recent recruiting rankings suggest their replacements could be just as talented.
Otherwise, there would need to be some sort of deeper paradigm shift, and so far there's no indication the current population trend is going to start heading back north. More realistically, a couple of the marquee programs could lose their successful head coaches, and their schools could make bad hires in replacing them. Or, one or more of those same teams could run afoul of the NCAA. Sanctions like those that recently hit USC, Ohio State, North Carolina and Miami can disrupt even the most talent-laden program.
Short of that, there's always the four-team playoff that begins next year, which should give at least couple of new challengers a shot. Just remember, though, six of the top-10 teams in the final BCS standings last year hailed from the SEC. This year's record draft haul was staggering, but, given that context, not exactly surprising.
Some other interesting college-related draft notes:
• It was apparent to anyone who had to watch their teams' games last season that the Big Ten was historically bad in 2012. The draft only confirmed that. The league produced its fewest picks (22) since 1994 and nearly got shut out of the first round for the first time since 1953, with Wisconsin offensive lineman Travis Frederick saving the day at pick No. 31.
Much like the SEC's haul coincided with certain events four to five years ago, the Big Ten's can be traced, at least in part, to the beginning of Rich Rodriguez's disastrous tenure at Michigan. The Wolverines stopped producing their usual spat of pros. But the real puzzler is Ohio State -- coming off an undefeated season -- producing just three picks. For all the heat Jim Tressel's teams took for their 2006 and '07 BCS blowouts, those teams were actually far more talented than the present Buckeyes. According to Todd Jones of the Columbus Dispatch, Ohio State had 23 players taken in the first three rounds from 2003-07, but since 2008, it has produced just nine. Here's guessing that number is about to rise.
• For years, we've been asking when Florida State would be "back." Well, apparently it already happened. The 'Noles' 11 draft picks were not only the most of any team, but also a program record, which is stunning considering all the stars who came through Tallahassee during Bobby Bowden's run of 14 straight top-four teams from 1987-2000. Few would have placed last year's FSU team in their company, which, of course, leads many to question whether current coach Jimbo Fisher is underachieving.
There's no question that was the case in 2011, when the 'Noles went 9-4 with many of the same standouts who heard their names called last weekend. But can we really say a 12-2 ACC champion and BCS bowl winner underachieved last season? Clearly, FSU had no business losing to NC State, but even without that defeat it still wouldn't have played for the national championship. Having said that, Fisher has recruited extremely well the past three classes and fans should now rightfully expect a contender over the next several seasons.
• Finally, I've long since given up trying to project NFL quarterback prospects, but Matt Barkley's slide from prospective No. 1 pick to fourth-rounder is flat-out mystifying. Yes, Barkley had a rough senior season. Anyone who watched him could tell he was pressing and was clearly uncomfortable behind his offensive line. He threw 15 interceptions. Still, he was the nation's 12th-rated passer. In 2010, Washington's Jake Locker seemed to similarly regress as a senior, ranked 73rd in pass efficiency -- and slipped all the way to the No. 8 pick. I give up. Seriously, did any college fan who watched each of the past two seasons ever guess E.J. Manuel would go two and a half rounds higher than Barkley?
As uninspiring as this year's quarterback class was, here's guessing this time next year will be another story. Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and possibly Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel could be available for the taking. Remember that LSU defense that produced eight draft picks? Boyd was a cool 36-of-50 for 346 yards and no picks against them in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Similarly, Bridgewater's impressive Sugar Bowl performance (20-of-32, 266 yards) came against a Florida defense that produced a pair of first-rounders (Matt Elam and Sharrif Floyd) and three other picks.
But what do I know? By next April, the scouts will probably declare they all have weak arm strength and terrible work ethic.