It is Not All About the SEC: Conferences and the NFL

In the big, prick-waving dick fight among college football fans, one that stands out is strength of conference.  Conference X is just as good as the NFL; Conference Y is garbage; Conference Z cannot win the big game; etc.

But people measure conferences in different ways — ranked teams; titles; head-to-head in both regular season and exhibition games; post-season awards; All-Americans; even average attendance!

Some argue that the Pac-10 is the best, although recently it has been a one-team conference.

Another way that some fans have attempted to measure the strengths of conferences is by looking at the NFL.  Someone from Bleacher Report who likes to write articles to incite reactions (and I’ve gone round and round with him on Ichiro) claims that looking at the NFL, the Pac-10 is the conference for NFL talent, not the SEC.

While the information he presents certainly reflects this, there are two fundamental flaws with his argument (other than he is a douche).  First, his “facts” are subjective and numbers are completely arbitrary.  People like to claim numbers do not lie, but when you arbitrarily decide that the break for sacks is seven, then you are purposely excluding people.

For example, looking at defensive linemen with seven sacks or more, the number is 3-to-1 in favor of the Pac-10.  However, use six sacks as the threshold and it shifts to 5-to-3 in favor of the SEC.  Thus, people will pull the numbers that only make their argument look better; it is a common ploy in academic research as well.

The other flaw in any argument about pro players from a particular conference, and more to the point of this article, is that when it comes to the NFL teams are looking for the best player; not what conference they are from.

Yes, pro teams do have a propensity to target players from the big conferences.  There is a consistent train of good players that come from these conferences — the SEC, Pac-10, Big 10, Big 12, ACC and even the Big East.  But when it comes down to it, the difference in talent from the SEC and talent from the Pac-10 is minuscule.  The fact is teams in all of these conferences are replete with some of the top talent in the country.

So choosing between players from any of these conferences is not necessarily a life or death situation.  But the NFL also demonstrates that a player does not have to be from a BCS-conference school; hell, they do not even have to be from a Division 1 school!  NFL teams are going to take the best player regardless of where he played his college ball.

The fact that an NFL team will take the best player for their team is manifested in a number of ways.  First, let’s look at the top three performers in each major statistical category (yes, three is arbitrary…but at least I admit it).

QUARTERBACKS

Passing Yards QB Rating TDs
Matt Schaub Drew Brees Drew Brees
Peyton Manning Brett Favre Brett Favre
Tony Romo Philip Rivers Peyton Manning

RUNNING BACKS

Rushing Yards TDs
Chris Johnson Adrian Peterson
Steven Jackson Maurice Jones-Drew
Thomas Jones Thomas Jones
Chris Johnson

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Receptions Receiving Yards TDs
Wes Welker Andre Johnson Vernon Davis
Steve Smith Wes Welker Randy Moss
Brandon Marshall Miles Austin Larry Fitzgerald
Andre Johnson Roddy White
Miles Austin
Visanthe Shiancoe

DEFENSE

Solo Tackles Sacks Interceptions Forced Fumbles
Patrick Willis Elvis Dumervil Asante Samuel Shaun Phillips
Jon Beason Jared Allen Darren Sharper Julian Peterson
Kirk Morrison Dwight Freeney Jarius Byrd Charles Tillman
LaMarr Woodley Charles Woodson

Now, let’s look at the conference breakdown:

  • ACC: 5
  • Big Ten: 5
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 5
  • Pac 10: 4
  • Big East: 3.5
  • Conference USA: 3.5
  • Big 12: 2
  • Independents: 2
  • SEC: 2
  • Sun Belt: 1

Now, this needs a little explaining.  The five FCS players (Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jared Allen and Darren Sharper) are spread across five different conferences.  Some players (Brett Favre, Andre Johnson, Randy Moss, Asante Samuel) played college ball at schools that have since changed conferences.  Two were on independents (Favre with Southern Miss and Asante Samuel with UCF) that are now both with C-USA, while Johnson’s Hurricanes [Big East to ACC] and Moss’s Thundering Herd [MAC to C-USA] have since changed conferences.

As for the Big East and C-USA having a half, that is because Louisville changed from C-USA to the Big East while Elvis Dumervil was still playing for the Cards.

Point of this stat is that the top performing players from the past season are spread fairly evenly across the college conference landscape.  No one is arguing that C-USA is better than the SEC (or the Big 12).  But what this notes is that quality players come from all conferences and all teams.

But stats are not everything.  Darrelle Revis [Pittsburgh, Big East] might not have the numbers of Charles Woodson, but he is still an outstanding shutdown corner.  However, Revis is a Pro Bowler.  So, let’s look at the conference breakdown for each Pro Bowl team.

AFC

  • Big Ten: 7
  • Big East: 7.5
  • Pac-10: 5
  • SEC: 5
  • ACC: 4
  • Big 12: 3
  • MAC: 3
  • Conference USA: 2.5
  • WAC: 2
  • FCS: 1
  • Mountain West: 1

NFC

  • Football Championship Subdivision: 6
  • SEC: 6
  • Big 12: 5
  • Big East: 5
  • ACC: 4
  • Pac-10: 4
  • Big Ten: 3
  • Conference USA: 3
  • Division II: 2
  • Independents: 1
  • Mountain West: 1
  • Sun Belt: 1

Same precautions from above apply here.  I wanted to do the breakdown by AFC and NFC just to show how different the two conferences are.  Here are the combined numbers.

  • Big East: 12.5
  • SEC: 11
  • Big Ten: 10
  • Pac-10: 9
  • ACC: 8
  • Big 12: 8
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 7
  • Conference USA: 5.5
  • MAC: 3
  • Mountain West: 2
  • WAC: 2
  • Division II: 2
  • Independents: 1
  • Sun Belt: 1

Again, what we see is a fairly even distribution among the top conferences.  And once again there is a good representation not only among the second-tier FBS conferences, but also the FCS and even Division II (Eagles FB Leonard Weaver from Carson-Newman and Saints guard Jahri Evans from Bloomsburg).  Point?  Conferences still are not the most important factor when a team seeks out talent.

But, then again, the Pro Bowl is partial to fan biases.  And, many players are not on teams that made the playoffs.  Ergo, let’s look at playoff teams.  For the sake of brevity, I will look only at playoff teams still in the hunt (as of 20 January):

  • Big Ten: 42
  • SEC: 32
  • ACC: 31
  • Big 12: 31
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 28
  • Pac-10: 22
  • Big East: 13
  • Mountain West: 13
  • Conference USA: 7
  • MAC: 7
  • Division II: 7
  • WAC: 4
  • Independents: 2
  • Canada: 2
  • Sun Belt: 1
  • Division III: 1

Brees leads not only the Saints, but also the Big Ten in terms of playoff team rosters.

Again, another word of caution, this is based on the conferences teams are currently in as, to be honest, I am too lazy to go through and sort out the conference-jumping.  Nevertheless, even if I were to do that, it would not change much.

Plus, the pattern is clear.  Among the playoff teams, the talent is spread across the BCS conferences, with the Big Ten accounting for 17.28 percent of the rosters (both active and IR).  But there is a decent number of non-BCS players (72 total, just under 30 percent), as well as a number of players from outside of the FBS (15.6 percent, or 38).

Yeah, not all of these players are starters.  Good point.  So, let’s look at that.  In this case because the data was easier to manage, I did take into account conference jumping.

  • Big Ten: 16
  • SEC: 16
  • Big 12: 12
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 9
  • ACC: 8
  • Big East: 8
  • Pac-10: 5
  • Independents: 3
  • Mountain West: 3
  • Conference USA: 2
  • MAC: 2
  • Division II: 1
  • Division III: 1
  • Sun Belt: 1
  • WAC: 1

Once again the pattern holds true.  A majority (65 of 88 starters) come from BCS conference schools, with the Big Ten and SEC accounting for just over 36 percent of all starters.  The “smaller” conferences are still well represented with 23 players, 11 from non-FBS colleges and universities.  So, there is no much separating the conferences in terms of starters in the playoffs.

We could look at draft picks to determine the strongest conference in college football.  Here is the breakdown of the last five NFL drafts by conference.

  • SEC: 187
  • ACC: 184
  • Big 10: 159
  • Pac-10: 159
  • Big 12: 148
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 90
  • Big East: 89
  • Mountain West: 61
  • Conference USA: 44
  • MAC: 44
  • WAC: 44
  • Division II: 25
  • Independents: 18
  • Sun Belt: 13
  • Division III: 4
  • Canada: 1
  • Community College: 1
  • NAIA: 1

At this point, it should not be surprising that BCS conferences are at the top of the list.  And, to continue the dead horse beating, it is clear that the difference between those conferences is small.  Then again, when teams need to, they are not afraid to step out of the BCS conferences, with 346 players coming from non-BCS schools, including 122 from beyond the FBS.

But what about first rounders?  The pattern is similar.

  • SEC: 39
  • ACC: 35
  • Big Ten: 26
  • Big 12: 20
  • Pac-10: 18
  • Big East: 8
  • Conference USA: 3
  • MAC: 2
  • Sun Belt: 2
  • WAC: 2
  • Football Championship Subdivision: 2
  • Independent: 1
  • Mountain West: 1

The SEC is likely to have many players selected in the 2010 Draft.

Here, however, the numbers are top heavy in favor of BCS conferences.  Yet, the difference is not great between the SEC and ACC.  What this proves again is that when it comes to draft picks, specific conferences are not as important as talent.

In the end, it is important to recognize that good players in college do not necessarily translate to good players in the NFL.  While the 1997 Heisman winner Charles Woodson is still at the top of his game, 2003 winner Jason White was never heard from in the NFL.

But it is not just the Heisman, but other awards such as the Davey O’Brien (Michael Bishop?  Brad Banks?), the Outland (Kris Farris?  Greg Eslinger?), and Thorpe (Jamar Fletcher? Derrick Strait?) have players that have failed at the NFL level.

Furthermore, looking back at the Pro Bowl rosters, only about half of all Pro Bowlers were All-Americans in college.  Also, less than 27 percent were award winners in college.  Therefore, if the best college players are not always the best pro players, then it seems illogical to use the NFL to measure college conferences.

Thus, overall, the NFL and number of players from a particular conference in professional football is not an adequate measure of a collegiate conference’s strength with regards to college play.

Certainly looking at the above numbers shows a difference between the Big Ten and the Sun Belt conferences.  But drawing clear differences between the Big Ten and the SEC (or any of the other BCS conferences) is futile and only serves as a way to further the endless debate of conference superiority.

Besides, we already know the SEC is the best conference so the debate is moot anyway.  After all, they have the highest average attendance!

Passing Yards

QB Rating

TDs

Matt Schaub

Drew Brees

Drew Brees

Peyton Manning

Brett Favre

Brett Favre

Tony Romo

Philip Rivers

Peyton Manning

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