A few days ago DocNice did a nice series on the question of whether the SEC fields more talented football players than any other conference. I have lived in South Carolina since 2002, and the truth of SEC dominance is axiomatic in this part of the world--and not without some justification.
Still, I think it's an extraordinarily difficult question to answer in ways that are data driven rather than reliant on the never-ending stream of SEC-football-is-all-things-to-all-men hype. I'm not really a "conference" guy. Although "real" differences in the talent between conferences may exist, they are almost certainly small but blown entirely out of proportion. Or, to quote a good friend, "It's about programs. It's not about conferences."
DocNice takes a good approach to addressing the question by looking at SEC draftees since 2000. Limiting the sample to only NFL draftees is the way to go, but a shortcoming is that sometimes GMs can be fooled by the same hype as fans. There is so much you cannot know until someone plays in an NFL game. What I want to do is look at things from the opposite direction. Rather than incoming NFL talent, I want to look at whether the SEC is over-represented among elite NFL talent.
Now that's admittedly a pretty conservative test. These are presumably the best players in the league. So it seems unlikely that any one conference would dominate NFL All-Pro teams. These players are voted on by NFL media, which is generally less parochial than college football media if much of what we've read from SEC beat writers is any indication. Nevertheless, if the SEC supplies the NFL with the best overall players in college then that should eventually be reflected on All-Pro rosters.
A few quick caveats. I use NFL All-Pro rosters from 2000-2011 available at pro-football-reference.com and count roster appearances by conference (i.e., each BCS conference, plus an aggregate category for all other non-BCS schools, independents, and FCS schools). I suppose a better test--one I don't currently have time to conduct--would involve doing the same using NFL rosters; not just All-Pro rosters. Maybe someday.*
*Coding just the All-Pro rosters was kind of a pain in the arse, frankly.
Please note again that I am tracking appearances on NFL All-Pro rosters by college conference, not unique players supplied by each conference. (So, for example, Tom Brady gets multiple marks for the Big 10.) Also, because conference affiliation can change I count affiliation based on where a school is located in a given year--not when the player played there. (So, All-Pros from Miami are coded as Big East until 2004 and ACC thereafter even if they never played in the ACC.)
And of course, I apologize for any coding errors.
NFL All-Pro Appearances by Conference, 2000-2011
|ACC||BIG EAST||BIG 10||BIG 12||PAC 10/12||SEC||OTHER|
Perhaps surprisingly, the ACC has produced the most NFL All-Pros of any conference this century by a decent margin. The ACC probably isn't top of mind when considering who produces the most elite NFL talent. Yet, the conference has generated lots of household names in the last decade (e.g., Julius Peppers, Walter Jones, Ed Reed, Reggie Wayne). Perhaps more importantly, the aggregation of non-BCS schools, Notre Dame, and FCS schools, remains the largest producer of elite NFL talent. No single BCS conference outproduces these also-rans. This strongly suggests that being named All-Pro isn't just an extension of college hype. (Subjectively, I'd say there is a good bit of movement on the rosters year-to-year.)
As noted, this data doesn't address the claim that the SEC (or any conference) produces the most NFL players (regardless of elite or non-elite status). Well, I'd say first that I've been in a lot of conversations about SEC dominance, and many of those who believe in it also think the SEC produces the most elite talent, and that it's not close. I think we can put that to rest.
As to whether the SEC produces the most NFL talent without considering how good it is, you'd need to go through the NFL rosters over the same time period.