The Big 12, the SEC and the NFL Draft: 'It's the Same Old Conversation,' With a Twist

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley says he's not concerned about his league's continued poor showing in the draft, maybe because the Sooners are carrying their own weight.
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Lincoln Riley says he sees no reason to panic about the Big 12 Conference’s performance in the NFL Draft.

The league had just 22 players selected in last weekend’s three-day draft, by far the fewest of any Power 5 Conference and almost exactly one-third of the 65 players taken from the Southeastern Conference.

Most damning of all: the Big 12 was the only Power 5 conference without a first-round draft pick — the first time that's ever happened.

While the Big 12’s 10 schools produced just 22 total picks, the SEC’s top three — Alabama, Georgia and Florida — produced 27.

Where this matters, of course, is recruiting.

If a recruit thinks he has a better chance of making it to the NFL by playing in the SEC, then he’ll likely go play for an SEC school.

For a more direct correlation, the Big 12 in 2017 — when many of this year’s draft picks were either recruits or freshmen — was the only Power 5 Conference without a 5-star prospect, according to the 247 Sports team rankings.

No 5-star recruits. Four years later, no first-round picks. That's no accident.

Oklahoma does currently lead the nation with a 14-year streak of having at least four players drafted. That’s impressive and should be applauded. It’s why the Sooners remain the Big 12’s only representative in the College Football Playoff.

But looking at the big picture, Alabama had six players drafted — in the first round alone.

“It’s the same old conversation,” Riley said last week. “If you go look at the history of the draft over the last 10 years and take Alabama out of the SEC, what’s the SEC’s draft record?”

Actually, the SEC’s draft record without Alabama isn’t bad at all. This year, it was 55 — that 25 percent more than the second-place Big Ten (44). Last year it was 54, or 13 percent more than the Big Ten’s 48. And in 2019, it was 53, or 33 percent more than the Big Ten's 40.

2021 NFL Draft: By conference

  • SEC: 65
  • Big Ten: 44
  • ACC: 42
  • Pac-12: 28
  • Big 12: 22
  • AAC: 19
  • Independent: 15
  • Conference USA: 5
  • FCS: 5
  • MAC: 4
  • D2/D3: 4
  • Mountain West: 3
  • Sun Belt: 3

The SEC has led all conferences in total draft picks for 15 consecutive years, and during that time, the SEC has produced by far the most first-rounders, 147 — almost 10 a year.

Again, it's no coincidence that during that same 15-year stretch, the SEC has won 11 national championships.

Since 2010, the SEC has had 123 players selected in the first round, more than double the second-place ACC (60). Last year, when 63 SEC players were drafted, 20 of the first 50 picks came from the SEC.

Now consider that in that 2010 draft, the Big 12 produced nine first-round draft picks, including each of the first four (Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams). The following year, the Big 12 had eight first-round picks.

They haven’t had more than five since then.

Since the Big 12’s last national title in 2005, there have been four SEC schools (Florida twice, LSU twice, Alabama six times and Auburn), two ACC schools (Clemson twice and Florida State) and one Big Ten school (Ohio State) that have won it all.

How times have changed. A decade later, Big 12 has a lot of ground to make up as Alabama and Clemson (but really, Alabama) have all but cornered the market on championships.

“The other thing that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot is just the number of teams we have in our conference versus some of these other Power Five conferences,” Riley said. “Just by sheer numbers, it is what it is.”

He’s right. With 10 member institutions in the Big 12 as opposed to 14 in the SEC, the total will always be lower. But even just over the last three years, the SEC has averaged 4.57 players drafted per school, while the Big 12 has averaged just 2.3 per school — half as many.

This year, once again, OU led the Big 12 in the draft. The Sooners had only six players in the draft, and five of them were picked. Texas also had five, followed by Oklahoma State with four.

The bottom line: Lincoln Riley doesn’t need to go around defending the Big 12’s honor. He’s been carrying the flag since he took over in Norman in 2017, and at times he and the Sooners have been the only ones capable of fighting that fight.

The only way this will change is by winning a national championship (or three). And the only way that will change is by landing more 5-star recruits. And the only way that will change is by sending more players to the draft, whereby future 5-star recruits can buy into what a Big 12 school can do for them.

It’s an unending and vicious cycle.

“We had a good run of players go after the first round,” Riley said. “We’ve had several first-rounders, us and other teams in previous years. I think we will in the coming years as well. We still continue to produce draft picks at an extremely high level. I think we’ll continue to do that.

“I just don’t hear about it as much of a topic anymore, honestly. I think you’re going to have years where that happens. Right now the reality is if a couple schools in our league don’t have a first-rounder, we may not have one. That’s just the nature of it.”