Which College Conference Produces the Best NFL Talent?

SEC Conference

The NFL Draft: the consistent, inescapable exercise of trying to predict the future. Determining how college kids will react to becoming overnight millionaires and being thrust into foreign locker rooms with men a decade their senior who will probably haze and/or ostracize them for a month or two. The psychological part alone is enough to make it a crapshoot—forget everything else.

But, hard as it may be to accurately foresee who will excel at the next level, that of course won’t stop NFL teams—or us—from trying. The Vikings will continue to do their due diligence leading up to next month’s draft, but in the meantime, I like to look at trends when it comes to which players succeed and which don’t. Lately, it’s been the correlation with college conferences I’ve been focused on; mainly, how big is the difference between power five and mid-major conferences when it comes to developing top-tier NFL talent, and which conference produces the most “good” players?

So, behold, a limited and unscientific, but hopefully somewhat enlightening study. I looked at the first round of every NFL draft in a ten-year span, from 2004-2013, and noted every player that had made at least one Pro Bowl, and which college conference that player came from. A few notes on the process:

  • The most current year in the study is 2013, three years ago, to give the class ample time to develop and reach potential.
  • This study only includes the first round, for two reasons. One: while the entire draft is important, drafting a bust in the first round is a nightmare scenario, and looking at which conferences produce the best first rounders is one way to help avoid that. Two: I could examine 700 total rounds of the NFL Draft, but I occasionally like to step outside, eat, sleep, etc.
  • The schools are categorized in their CURRENT athletic conference to give an idea of which collection of universities is currently producing the best talent. There has been considerable conference realignment in the last decade, and some schools have changed affiliation. So for example, Miami (FL) will be considered an ACC school throughout the study, not Big East, which they were until 2005. Texas A&M will be considered SEC, and so on.
  • The single metric we’re looking at is players who have made a Pro Bowl. In the age of mass “no thank you’s” and endless alternates when it comes to filling our beloved NFL all-star game, making a Pro Bowl is in no way the final word on a player’s value. But it provides a simple, easy-to-categorize benchmark, and is a pretty good indication that the player wasn’t a total bust, at the very least.

NFL Pro Bowlers Produced (First Round)

 SECACCBig TenBig 12Pac-12
20133112
20121213
20119122
20102226
200932213
200814111
200756221
200632722
200532232
200427121
Total3229201817

Takeaways

  • At first glance, it confirms my suspicion: the SEC’s self-indulgent chest beating is at least somewhat warranted. From 2004-2013, the Southeastern Conference produced more first round Pro Bowlers than any other conference. However, it’s close; the ACC has 29 to the SEC’s 32, or just a shade over 90% of the SEC total. So while the SEC is number one, it isn’t by a dominant margin.
  • It’s the SEC and the ACC, and everyone else. The next closest conference, the Big Ten, produced 20 Pro Bowlers in the ten-year span, nine fewer than the ACC. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are two and three data points behind the Big Ten, respectively. So we’re seeing two distinct tiers: SEC/ACC, and Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-12.
  • The SEC had an incredible collection of top-end talent in the 2011 draft, when it produced NINE first round Pro Bowlers, including the first seven picks of the draft. Pretty remarkable.
  • We see a pretty clear regional ramification here: the SEC and ACC schools are largely located in the southeastern part of the United States, a region often said to be rich in football talent. This analysis confirms it.

Of course, not all of these conferences have the same number of member schools, so results could be skewed toward larger conferences. Let’s look at the average Pro Bowlers per member school:

Average Pro Bowlers (First Round, 2004-2013)

 SECACCBig TenBig 12Pac-12
Pro Bowlers3229201817
Schools1415141012
Average2.281.931.431.51.42

Not a huge change, though we do see the SEC widen its lead slightly by nature of having 14 member schools to the ACC’s 15. Also, the Big 12—the smallest conference in the power five—moves ahead of the Big Ten and into third place. Thank you, Texas and Oklahoma.

What About the Mid-Majors?

 C-USAMountain WestMACAmericanSun BeltWAC
2013
201211
20111
2010111
2009
2008111
20071
20061
2005111
20042
Total433321

Yeah. Not much happening here. I’ll admit, while I knew there would be a disparity between the big and little guys, I had no idea it would be THIS big. No more than four first round Pro Bowlers produced in a ten year span, and only once has a mid-major produced more than one in a given year (two, and that was in 2004). It shows just how dominant the power five football conferences are when it comes to recruiting and developing talent.

Another interesting note is which conference we don’t see in any of these tables: the Big East. The once-proud conference dissolved completely in 2013, and reformed as a non-football league shortly thereafter. Obviously, then, we don’t see any NFL players coming from the schools that make up the current Big East Conference, but it serves as a glimpse of the toll conference realignment has taken, given this was once the home of Miami, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia, among others.

Conclusions

  • The SEC and ACC are head and shoulders above the rest of the country in producing first round Pro Bowlers.
  • The gap between the power five conferences and the mid-major conferences is huge. When drafting in the first round, big schools are still the best bet.
  • The best chance to get a future Pro Bowler in the first round is to draft a player from the southeastern part of the country.