Best College Football Conference? Don't Ask the NFL

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Best College Football Conference?  Don't Ask the NFL
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Among the heap of unresolved debates, one that seems to boil the blood of most college football fans is which conference is the best.  But people measure conferences in different ways: ranked teams, titles, head-to-head in both regular season and bowl games, postseason awards, All-Americans, and even average attendance!

Another way that some fans have attempted to measure the strengths of conferences is by looking at the NFL.  For example, my Bleacher Report colleague Steven Resnick claims that looking at the NFL, the Pac-10 is the conference for NFL talent , not the SEC.  However, while the information in his article presents his case, Steven's argument has two fundamental flaws.

First, his “facts” are subjective and numbers are completely arbitrary.  People like to claim numbers do not lie, but when you arbitrarily decide what number will be a break for a particular stat you are purposely excluding people.

For example, looking at defensive linemen with seven sacks or more, Steven demonstrates the Pac-10, compared to the SEC, has more former players with this stat (three to one).  However, use six sacks as the threshold and it shifts to five to three 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, professional 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; heck, 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).  This includes stats in passing (QB rating, yards, TDs), rushing (yards and TDs), receiving (receptions, yards, TDs), and defense (solo tackles, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles).

Because of ties, the total number is 43.  However, there are several repeats (e.g. Chris Johnson is the leader in rushing yards and tied for third in touchdowns) so the actual n is 33.  Nevertheless, here is a look at the conference breakdown:

  • ACC : 5
  • Big 10 : 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

Three quick points:  These numbers reflect the conference a team played in when that player attended the school (e.g. Brett Favre and Southern Miss being independent).  Second, the Big East and C-USA have a half because Louisville changed from C-USA to the Big East while Elvis Dumervil was still playing for the Cards.  Third, the five FCS players are spread across five different conferences.

The 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 (the same precautions from above apply here):

  • Big East : 12.5
  • SEC : 11
  • Big 10 : 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).  The point?  Conferences 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 teams in the conference finals:

  • Big 10 : 42
  • SEC : 32
  • Big 12 : 31
  • Football Championship Subdivision : 29
  • ACC : 26
  • Pac-10 : 22
  • Big East : 19
  • Mountain West : 13
  • Division II : 7
  • Conference USA : 6
  • MAC : 6
  • WAC : 4
  • Independents : 3
  • Canada : 2
  • Division III : 1
  • Southwest Conference : 1
  • Sun Belt : 1

Once again, the pattern is clear.  Among the playoff teams, the talent is spread across the BCS conferences, with the Big 10 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 (16 percent, or 39 players).

In terms of starters, the pattern holds true again.  A majority (65 of 88 starters) come from BCS conference schools, with the Big 10 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 not 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 10 : 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

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, as 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.  Just look at the picture accompanying this article and ask yourself—what ever happened to 1999 O'Brien winner Joe Hamilton?

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 conference strength.

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 the above numbers show a difference between the Big 10 and the Sun Belt conferences.  But drawing clear differences between the Big 10 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!

This long article, with even more stats, originally appeared on Uncle Popov's Drunken Sports Rant on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010.

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