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Auburn's poor showing at center of historically paradoxical NFL draft

If we were to follow the logic that the best college football teams produce the most NFL draft picks, we would be left to deduce that the 2010 season did not go according to plan. Apparently in some parallel universe -- or at least one without NCAA investigators -- USC and North Carolina were meant to play for last season's national championship, while Auburn and Oregon were meant to play in the Music City or Las Vegas bowls.

By the time the final pick had been announced at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday, the Trojans and Tar Heels -- both of whom finished 8-5 last season -- were tied for the most selections in this year's draft with nine apiece. Miami, which went 7-6 and fired coach Randy Shannon, came in next with eight. Apparently those who felt Shannon underachieved in Coral Gables were absolutely right.

Obviously, both UNC and USC suffered from extenuating circumstances. Three of the Tar Heels' first four draftees (defensive end Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Marvin Austin and receiver Greg Little) never played last season after being suspended by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits. Five other players missed the season, and 14 missed at least one game amid investigations into agent and academic issues, derailing a potential dream season in Chapel Hill.

Meanwhile, NCAA sanctions last summer banned USC from the postseason and prompted several upperclassmen to transfer, depleting an already thin roster in Lane Kiffin's first season. Only tackle Tyron Smith went in the first three rounds, so this wasn't exactly the Matt Leinart-Reggie Bush USC team, but it was one that probably should have won two to three more games than it did.

Across the board, however, the presumed connection between wins and talent was almost nowhere to be found this year. Clemson and Georgia, both of whom finished 6-7, had more draft picks (six) than any of the 10 BCS bowl participants. Meanwhile, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward became the sole first-round draft pick to play in the Buckeyes' back-to-back BCS bowl wins. From 2006-09 -- at the height of its "can't win the big one" backlash -- OSU produced 10 such picks.

But the most fascinating paradox of all was the historically low draft presence of the two teams that played for the BCS National Championship last season.

While it boasted the No. 1 overall pick (Cam Newton) and another first-rounder 12 picks later (Nick Fairley), national champion Auburn did not turn out another draftee until the seventh round, when defensive tackle Zach Clayton and offensive lineman Lee Zeimba were picked. That still gave the Tigers a decided advantage over the Ducks, who produced just one draft choice: fourth-round linebacker Casey Mathews.

Rose Bowl champion TCU, which finished 13-0 and No. 2 in the polls, edged both with five draftees, though quarterback Andy Dalton (second round) was the Horned Frogs' lone player taken in the first four rounds.

All told, just five players who stepped foot on the slippery turf at University of Phoenix Stadium for the national title game heard their name called in New York over the weekend, a historically low anomaly. The past 13 drafts have included an average of 12 players who participated in the most recent BCS title game.

Oregon at least has the excuse that several of its most decorated players -- including running back LaMichael James, quarterback Darron Thomas and cornerback Cliff Harris -- are still in school. The 2010 Ducks may end up more heavily represented on Sundays come 2012 or '13. Still, several of that team's most important players -- top receiver Jeff Maehl, offensive line anchor Jordan Holmes, linebacker Spencer Paysinger -- went undrafted. (Note: I'd be willing to bet a steak dinner that Maehl ends up on an opening-day roster, provided the lockout is ever resolved.)

While NFL general managers' evaluations should not be taken as gospel, it's not a stretch to think 8-5 USC had more overall talent than 12-1 Oregon. Yet the Ducks have throttled the Trojans each of the past two seasons. It shows just what a difference coaching makes at the college level, and what a profound impact Chip Kelly has had on Oregon in his two seasons. His innovative up-tempo offense flummoxed opponents so thoroughly that the Ducks didn't need a bevy of future pros to make it to Glendale.

If Kelly is the game's most renowned offensive guru right now, Auburn coordinator Gus Malzahn is a close second. His impact on the Tigers has been profound. But even that can't explain how Auburn transformed itself from a middle-of-the-pack SEC team into a 14-0 national title team. Because based on the draft results, it appears the Tigers were the least talented team ever to win a BCS championship -- and it's not even close.

Unlike Oregon, Auburn was a senior-heavy team. Only six of last year's starters remain in school, and of that group maybe two or three (most notably freshman running back Michael Dyer) will eventually add to this year's crop of four draftees. Even then, the Tigers would fall far below average and lowest of the 13 BCS title teams to date in terms of NFL output.

Nearly all the previous BCS champions boasted a starting lineup of roughly two-thirds NFL-level players. Some particularly loaded teams like 2001 Miami, 2002 Ohio State and 2004 USC went even higher (though a few of those players were upperclassmen backups). Before Auburn, the lone champion to produce fewer than 12 draftees was 2000 Oklahoma -- but it doesn't look like the Tigers will even equal the Sooners' eight.

But Auburn did have two first-rounders, one of whom was arguably the most dominant player of his generation. Whether or not Newton ever starts a game for the Carolina Panthers, the fact that Auburn navigated possibly the toughest road of any BCS champion while fielding the least NFL talent of any BCS champion is a stunning testament to his impact (and to Malzahn and Fairley).

There's little chance another difference-maker of Newton's magnitude is currently lurking in anonymity. With time and familiarity, Oregon's scheme will become less of a built-in advantage (though Kelly is recruiting better players). Soon we'll return to the more predictable formula of the teams with the best players winning the most games -- so long as those teams have a competent coach, a capable quarterback and manage to stay off probation.

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