Mythbusting the SEC: What About 'The U'?

In a recent fanpost, in response to the question of which BCS conference produces the most elite NFL talent, I coded NFL All-Pro rosters for appearances by BCS conference (plus an aggregate category for the 'also-ran' non-BCS schools) since 2000. As I noted at the time, my prior is that conference doesn't much matter when it comes to producing elite talent. The only things conference really determines are quality of week-to-week opponents and at least a subset of your competitors for recruits, and I don't think that matters much in producing good pros--much less elite ones.

In a nutshell, if you didn't read the prior fanpost here's what I found.

1. No single BCS conference outperforms the aggregate category of also-rans. That part is important to remember. This is of course imminently logical, since the aggregate category lumps together all of the non-BCS schools, Notre Dame and other independents, and all FCS schools that have produced NFL All-Pros over the period. This clump of schools produced about 30% of the All-Pro appearances. (And it's not just a Notre Dame effect either.) Yet many college football fans are continually surprised to find that elite football players can come from outside the BCS conferences.

2. The ACC produced the most All-Pro appearances over the period. The SEC was 2nd most, but it wasn't that close.

How-evah... (to quote the irascible Stephen A. Smith)

An astute reader correctly noted that the ACC number is likely an artifact of how I counted players from the University of Miami. For simplicity's sake I coded all Miami All-Pro appearances as ACC. Although fully aware that Miami only joined the ACC in 2004, I didn't think it would skew the data terribly. My intent was to avoid having to double-count All-Pro appearances as Big East and ACC for players who overlapped the conference move (at both Miami and Boston College). But, as the reader noted, Miami "was loaded" especially during the early-to-mid aughts. Frankly, I should have been more concerned about that than double-counting.

As it happens the vast majority of Miami's eventual All-Pros were drafted 2006 or before and played only in the Big East. Only a couple of former Hurricane All-Pros (i.e., Devin Hester and Jon Beason) played in both conferences.

So, once I reallocate pre-ACC All-Pro appearances for Miami and Boston College to the Big East it changes the BCS conference totals pretty substantially. I also double-counted All-Pro appearances by Hester and Beason.

2000 7 12 10 3 6 6 25
2001 6 5 7 8 11 6 27
2002 9 8 5 6 7 9 25
2003 6 8 8 8 7 12 16
2004 11 7 8 7 8 13 17
2005 8 6 9 6 6 11 20
2006 12 5 6 5 9 8 13
2007 8 4 7 7 5 9 18
2008 8 8 7 4 5 11 17
2009 6 14 12 5 7 7 18
2010 6 9 8 7 4 9 20
2011 5 10 8 7 8 9 11
TOTALS 92 96 95 73 83 110 227

The ACC tumbles from 121 All-Pro appearances to 92. The SEC remains at 110 obviously, making them the leading BCS conference by roughly the same number of appearances by which they once trailed the ACC.

So, what have we learned?

The SEC Produces More Elite NFL Talent than Any other Conference. Surprise. Surprise. I have absolutely no problem acknowledging my error (in roughly a thousand words). The SEC produces the most NFL draftees AND the most All-Pros which pretty much settles any question about talent production.

What I do not acknowledge, however, is any magical thinking about SEC schools. I think it is most accurate to say that SEC schools draw from the deepest pool of prep talent. It is hardly surprising that one of the two major conferences that stretch across the states of the former Confederacy should produce the nation's most elite football talent overall. Even then, the difference between the two conferences comes down to Miami's (basically arbitrary) decision to move in 2004 rather than earlier.

The more interesting question is what specific role (if any) does conference play in producing or developing this talent? "Week-in week-out nobody faces the quality of opponent you face in the YessEeeSee." Could the unspeakably annoying Bob Davie be right? Well, I feel pretty confident that the SEC's lead in All-Pro appearances is NOT about quality opponents building more battle-tested players or weeding out weak ones. Those championship Hurricanes teams will likely produce multiple NFL first ballot Hall of Fame players (e.g., Ray Lewis, Ed Reed). Yet those teams played very few quality conference opponents. At the other end of the spectrum, non-BCS and FCS players routinely make All-Pro rosters throughout the period. A deep conference loaded with high quality teams is fun for the fans but it isn't a necessary condition for developing elite talent.

My strong suspicion--and all anyone can do is speculate--is that SEC dominance in this area is mostly a function of hitting the demographic lottery and their ability to scout (and sign) elite talent. The demographics are just good fortune. The scouting is a skill that can be replicated.

What does any of this mean for Mizzou? On the field, the Tigers will likely face more elite talent than they did most weeks in the Big 12. Just as importantly for the long-term, Missouri hasn't exactly won the demographic lottery just by joining the SEC. (It hit the one with money, which is nice too.) But then, neither have Tennessee or Arkansas. Both programs have made their bones in the conference by recruiting broadly and specializing in recruiting skill position talent.

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