Big 12 Football Has a Talent Problem
The 2017 NFL draft demonstrated just how far the conference has fallen behind its Power Five peers. An inability to lock down Texas high school recruits is largely to blame.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
There's a good reason the Big 12 is the only Power Five member that has not yet won a College Football Playoff game in the tournament's three-year existence: an ongoing, conference-wide talent drain.
The NFL spoke loud and clear on the conference's lack of difference-making players in this year's draft. While NFL teams selected 53 players from the SEC and 43 from the ACC, only 14 players were drafted from Big 12 schools in 2017—the worst showing, by far, of the Power Five, and one fewer pick than the AAC had.
The 2017 NFL Draft
The Big 12 was already trailing its Power Five peers at the top of the draft heading into this year. From 2014-16, it produced an average of 1.3 first- and second-round NFL selections per school each year—well behind the SEC (3.6), the Big Ten (3.4), the Pac-12 (2.5), and the ACC (2.2).
That trend continued in 2017. The SEC had 21 players selected in the first and second rounds; the Pac-12, 12; the Big Ten, ten; and the ACC, seven. Meanwhile, the Big 12 had just two players, Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon. That's half as many picks as the mid-major AAC (4), the same number as the MAC and C-USA, and only one more player than Division II Ashland University produced by itself.
It wasn't always this way. In 2010, the Big 12 became the first conference to have all first four picks of an NFL draft. Since then, however, the conference's talent pool has emptied out, both in terms of overall depth and superstar players.
It's entirely possible new coaches such as Tom Herman at Texas and Matt Rhule at Baylor will help change the Big 12's fortunes, and Bob Stoops did get Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff just two seasons ago.
Still, the conference shouldn't kid itself. Even that Sooners team was thoroughly beaten by Clemson at the Orange Bowl. The Big 12's problem has been building for several years, and it won't be solved overnight.
So what gives? Start with play style. It's pretty clear that the NFL does not like the players being produced in the Big 12's high-scoring, no-defense games. In the eyes of the league, it can seem as if the conference is playing an entirely different sport than the rest of the Power Five. Most Big 12 teams rarely line up in three-point stances, and play calls in the conference are so simplified that it's hard to get a good read on pass-protection skills for linemen. And so you have only one Big 12 offensive lineman getting drafted in 2017: Baylor center Kyle Fuller to the Houston Texans late in the seventh round.
The bigger issue, however, is recruiting. Back in February, the Big 12 yet again lost the talent battle deep in the heart of Texas, a state it desperately needs to secure. The top ten recruits from Texas, based on 247Sports rankings, fled to almost everywhere but the Big 12. Of the seven highest-rated recruits in Texas, not one remained in-state, let alone in-conference:
- Defensive tackle Marvin Wilson to Florida State
- Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah to Ohio State
- Offensive tackle Walker Little to Stanford
- Outside linebacker Baron Browning to Ohio State
- Defensive end K'Lavon Chaisson to LSU
- All-purpose back J.K. Dobbins to Ohio State
- Offensive tackle Austin Deculus to LSU
The top Texas player by 247Sports to join the Big 12 was offensive guard Jack Anderson, who went to Texas Tech. Raise your hand if you thought you'd see a day when a Texas Tech offensive lineman was the Big 12's highest-rated player from Texas.
Imagine the consequences if the SEC failed to land the best players year after year in Florida and Georgia, or if the Big Ten consistently let far too many talented players get out of Ohio and Pennsylvania. That's what's happening to the Big 12, whose league office is based in Irving, Texas. The rest of the country isn't just picking off a few recruits from Texas; they're raiding the talent-rich state, not unlike how the SEC, the Pac-12, and the Big Ten once poached former Big 12 schools Missouri, Texas A&M, Colorado, and Nebraska in conference realignment—moves that helped trigger the conference's talent drain.
Between 2008 and 2012, the University of Texas signed 23 of the combined 50 top-ten in-state recruits. The Sooners were second, with eight top-ten recruits from Texas, a neighboring state that historically has been good to them.
But the Sooners have now gone four straight years without a top-ten recruit from Texas. Over the past five years, Oklahoma signed as many top-ten Texas recruits as Florida, Florida State, Houston, Miami, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, UCLA, and USC.
Meanwhile, the Longhorns signed just eight top-ten players from their home state between 2013 and 2017. Their highest-ranked Texas player in 2017 was rated 20th, marking the first time the Longhorns didn't have a top-ten in-state player in 247Sports' backdated rankings, which go back to 1999.
Herman is just getting started in Austin, but the challenge he faces is that the border is wide open. The Longhorns' struggles on the field, coupled with Texas A&M joining the SEC—but only being a mediocre program so far—have allowed other SEC schools to strip-mine the state.
In 2010, the Big 12 signed 41 of the top 50 recruits in Texas. The SEC got three. In 2016, the Big 12 signed only 22 top-50 Texas recruits, compared to 20 for the SEC. This year, the Texas top-50 scoreboard read: 19 for the Big 12, 15 for the SEC.
This trend is no accident. Former SEC commissioner Mike Slive created a strategy that got his conference squarely into Texas. When Texas A&M left for the SEC in 2012, then-Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds condescendingly said that the Aggies' recruiting was limited to "a sliver down the east side" of Texas. And certainly, Texas A&M has been an inconsistent program in the SEC and hasn't won a championship in its new league.
However, the Aggies' presence alone accomplished what the SEC wanted: opening the door wide open for the rest of the conference to recruit and get exposure in Texas. Of those 20 Texas recruits who went to the SEC in 2016, 14 went to schools other than Texas A&M.
It's the SEC, not the Big 12, that lately owns the Houston TV market. In 2015, six of the ten most-watched college football games in Houston came from the SEC. Last season, Texas A&M-Tennessee drew more exposure than the Oklahoma-Texas game on the same day.
The Oklahoma-Texas rivalry game hasn't paired ranked teams for three straight years, a byproduct of the Longhorns' struggles. Texas and Oklahoma were both ranked in 12 of their previous 13 meetings, including four top-ten matchups. As go Texas and Oklahoma, so goes the Big 12.
Beyond Texas getting better, there is no slam-dunk solution for the Big 12 to quickly reverse its fortunes. The conference has a lot of money—more than $313 million in total revenue for 2015-16, according to the league's latest tax return, which is nearly double what it was earning in 2012—but it's no match for the SEC. In 2015-16, the Big 12 paid each of its schools around $28 million to $29 million. By comparison, the SEC payout was about $40 million per school.
More television cash is not forthcoming. That was evident during the Big 12's latest exploratory round of expansion consideration. If there were an obvious choice to improve the conference's media rights deals, it would have added members, but there was no clear choice.
ESPN told the Big 12 there is no interest in a Big 12 Network. Technology is changing how consumers watch games, as ESPN has learned by losing millions of cable and satellite subscribers who are cutting the cord. Who knows what consumer TV habits and ESPN/Fox will look like in five years during the next round of Big 12 negotiations?
This doesn't mean the Big 12, which has missed the CFP in two of the three years, is hopeless. The conference held its own during bowl season with a 4-2 record, including Oklahoma's Sugar Bowl win over Auburn and Kansas State beating Texas A&M at the Texas Bowl. Herman's ability to recruit and promote his teams could raise the bar not only at Texas but for the competition around the Big 12.
The Big 12 will bring back a football championship game in 2017. Interestingly, after a season in which everybody plays a round-robin schedule, the conference's title game will pair a rematch between the top two teams. This could either help or hurt the Big 12's playoff hopes.
The smartest long-term strategy for the Big 12 could be to push for the CFP to expand to six or eight teams. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon, but most people believe the CFP eventually will grow. A bigger bracket would all but guarantee the Big 12 an annual CFP spot, and possibly help alleviate fears that Texas and Oklahoma may leave the conference for a bigger payday down the road.
For now, the Big 12 has fallen behind its Power Five peers, a state of affairs that didn't just happen overnight. Fixing it isn't likely to happen overnight, either.
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