Does the SEC's Talent Advantage Explain Recent Success?

Jay HendryCorrespondent IJuly 1, 2010

A few days ago, I wrote an article about the top 10 highest ranked recruiting classes since Rivals introduced their class ranking method. 

You can read that piece here .

Well, I'm not done with Rivals yet. I've spent the better part of this week compiling data on recruiting classes, because it's a slow, summer-y work week, and apparently, that's what I do to pass the time.

Anyway, I was looking for a hierarchy as far as base talent goes. This obviously does little to settle a "X conference is better than Y!" as there is more to football than just fielding the most talented team.

Still, my data shows that the most talented teams have held a monopoly on the BCS championship since 2002 (possibly since the BCS' 1998 inception, I don't have recruiting data prior to 2002, though).

Of the eight schools that have played in national championship games since 2002, five come from the top six recruiting schools and all eight fall into the twelve (FSU narrowly edges out Oklahoma as the fifth best recruiting school otherwise the top five would be five for five).

If I piqued your interest, here are the top 12 best recruiting schools since 2002 (in descending order)

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Ohio State

At the very least, talent is correlated to success. Before you throw Boise State or some other non–AQ at me, know that those schools are at or near the top of the recruiting pile for their conferences for most years.

Now, the argument of the 2000s has been "The esS-eEe-Cee is thuh best confuhrance evurrrrr."  While that statement is impossible to prove, the following facts are usually used as evidence:

The SEC has won four straight national championships
The SEC has the best bowl record of the major conferences

The first two are irrefutable, though not necessarily proof of any SEC advantage. The third is simply fun to tout as fact to piss off the slower, brainy Big 10levenwelve fans who hate hearing about the SEC all day.

The truth is, it's virtually impossible to say one major conference is better than another.  Better is too vague a word.

We can, however, determine which conference starts out with the most talent. 

Again, this does not mean better, and it doesn't even mean that the conference is in fact more talented. It means that the conference starts out with the best recruits, which should mean the best chance to have the most talent.

In order to do this, I took the average recruiting scores for each BCS conference along for each of the last nine years as well as the total average recruiting score for each conference.

I didn't do the Non–AQs, with the exception of the BCS bowl attendees because the non–AQ conferences suck at recruiting. Regardless, none of those teams matter here.  This is big vs. big only beginning with the lowest scoring conference, the Big East.

Big East– 723.35 points

The Big East clocks in as the only BCS conference to hold a mean score under 1,000 points. 

This has nothing to do with the fact that the conference only has eight teams (at least on the surface) and everything to do with the fact that the conference lost Miami and Virginia Tech, its most powerful recruiting teams, to expansion.

In the two years that Miami and VA Tech were in the Big East, the conference averaged 1245.25 and 1336.25 points. Those numbers put the Big East at fifth best, just ahead of the Big 10.

In 2005, the conference plummeted to a 382.86 points average, and although it climbed out of Sun-Belt territory once the conference became more stable, the Big East never again crosses the 1000 point average threshold.

There is a distinct power gap here. The best Big East team is as loaded as a middle–tier team from any other power conference, or a bottom 33 percent team from the SEC. Since the contraction/expansion, no Big East squad has crossed the 1500 points mark, much less the 2000 points threshold that every BCS champion has crossed.

Big 101020.79 points

This should come as no surprise to anyone who really follows college football. It's hard to get kids to go to school up North when there are plenty of elite schools in areas without a real winter.

The biggest difference between the Big 10 and the Big East is that the Big 10 has a couple of real power schools. Both Michigan and Ohio State fell within the top 11 recruiting schools. 

However, after Michigan and OSU, there is a big drop off. Penn State and Michigan State both have sporadic recruiting success, but both find themselves near the bottom of the Big 10 during some years.

This lack of depth lands the Big 10 in the five-spot.

ACC– 1085.42 points

The ACC has a strong top with Miami, FSU, Clemson, UNC (under Butch Davis), but the lack of consistency from the middle of the road teams and a large number of bad recruiters (Duke, GT, Wake) keep the ACC in the middle of the pack. 

The three conferences who recruit better than the ACC have at least one school with a Rivals recruiting score of 2000 or better each year. The ACC fails to break that mark three times. Still, with two schools in the top 10 for recruiting, the ACC definitely has the talent to compete.

Big 12– 1173.17 points

This could be the only upset on the list. The conference that has placed two teams in the last three BCS championship games as well as Texas again in 2005 falls behind USC and friends in terms of recruiting.

If you're going to blame something, blame size (also, Baylor). The Big 12 has more teams over the 1,000 points mark than the Pac 10. It also has more teams over the 2000 points mark than the Pac 10.

However, the Pac 10 only has 10 teams, which means everything counts for a little bit more on average. If you go by Median, the Big 12 is second. Replace USC with any other school, and the Big 12 is second. 

However, I'm using mean to rank, and USC is a Pac 10 member so the possibly real–life stronger Big 12 takes the bronze.

Pac 10– 1219.44 points

This is 100 percent USC. USC is the best recruiting school in the nation, with an average score of 2589.89 points. To put that in perspective, the best Big 12 recruiter, Texas, trails by over 400 points at 2178.78 points.

The rest of the Pac 10 is pretty average in terms of recruiting. Oregon, Cal, and UCLA play a good rotating second chair, but none are up to par of the ACC, Big 12, or SEC's No. twos. 

The large disparity between USC and the rest of the conference probably explains why the Trojans won the Pac 10 for all but one of the nine years the recruiting data covers.

By that same logic, the large disparity between money USC was paying recruits and the broke lives the recruits from other Pac 10 schools were living probably explains the large disparity in USC's recruiting and the rest of the Pac 10.

USC is elite, the rest of the Pac 10 is just decent, although they're trending upward.  Oregon has placed in the top 20 in three of the last four seasons and all that Nike influence could send some would–be Trojan five stars to Eugene during USC's timeout.

SEC– 1526.99 points

The 307 point gap between the SEC and the Pac 10 marks the largest disparity between any two consecutive Be conferences on this list. In the SEC, recruiting is everything, and the teams in the conference do it better than anyone.

Of the six power conferences, four conferences average one or more 2,000 point teams per year (ACC, Pac 10, Big 12, SEC). The Big 12 checks into second place with 1.56 teams per year, but that number crumbles compared to the SEC's 3.67 per year.

The 2,000 point cutoff basically means the team is one of the top 10 recruiters in the nation for that given year. So, on average, the SEC gets over three teams into the top 10 nationally. 

In fact, if you look at the top recruiters again, you'll see just that. Five of the top teams are SEC teams. A sixth, Auburn lurks just outside the top 12. Half the league is as loaded as the best schools in the country.

Look at the list again: Florida, Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn. Do those teams sound familiar? 

Three of them can claim a BCS title in the last three years along with five of the last eight championships. Auburn has the 13–0 season where they got muscled out of a championship chance during that stretch as well. 

Georgia has a Sugar Bowl massacre, which set Non–AQs back a year, a possible claim to best team of 2007 as well as two more BCS appearances. Tennessee hasn't done much recently, but they do have a BCS title, even if it's in the way–back–when year of 1998. 

We're at the halfway point of the league and still talking about the national stage.

Additionally, almost nine members break the 1,000 point barrier per year, putting, on average, 75 percent of the conference in the top 35 teams nationally.

Does that settle it? Is the SEC better? No to both questions. For one, getting talent isn't as important as developing it. 

Look at where Tennessee sits on that list, ninth. How many BCS bowls have they been to during that period? How many losing seasons have they had during that period? If you answered "zero" and "same as Michigan," you are correct!

Both teams can recruit; neither is doing a whole lot with it right now.

Take everything you've read here with a grain of salt if you're going to use it to take any side on the "best" argument. As for me, I'll say this: the SEC may not be the best and it may not be the most talented, but it is certainly putting itself in the best position to be both.