MORGANTOWN — This is not another piece about the Big 12’s performance in last week’s NFL draft. This is not another swing of the sledgehammer at the league’s crumbling reputation. This is not another rally cry to recruit better, because any suggestion that it’s that easy is hollow and hopeless. This is not a defense of the record-low 14 draft picks or the average of 1.4 per team. This is different.
This is an attempt to understand what’s happening and why. Solutions? Perhaps they’re found within, but perhaps it’s wiser to leave those to others. The simplest explanation out there is the Big 12 is struggling because it’s the simultaneous victim of a cycle and of stasis.
Those two items might seem contradictory. You may wonder how can things change when they stay the same, and you’d be right to ask that question, but treat them as separate entities. Accept that the Big 12 can acknowledge the cycle and do nothing about the stasis. That’s important.
The Big 12 can’t turn its bases into more fertile recruiting areas or change the way college programs rely on their states, borders and populations of each. The National Federation of State High School Associations counted up all the schools playing 11-on-11 high school football in 2015. Texas and California led the nation with 1,064 schools. The Big 12’s other four states — Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and West Virginia — totaled 879.
Georgia and Florida combined for 956. Those two states fill rosters in the SEC, which has had the most draft picks for 11 years running, and the ACC. Those two states produced the most NFL draft picks this year. California and Texas were third and fourth, if you’re curious why the number of high school teams matters or why WVU is trying so hard to enhance its image in Georgia.
When you rank states by the number of high school football programs, six of the Big 12’s 10 schools reside within the bottom 30 borders. One state and four schools can be found in the top 20. The SEC claims 11 states as opposed to the Big 12’s five, and the same ranking says seven states and nine programs are found between the Big 12’s best (Texas) and second-best (Iowa) states. And yes, that means Iowa has more high school football than Oklahoma.
West Virginia had 107 high school teams. Fourteen states and Washington, D.C., had fewer. Maybe that’s misleading. According to NCAA research, from 2013-16, 2.7 percent of our state’s prep players were considered, in a very broad description, Division I recruits. Consider that Texas also claimed 2.7 percent. But of the 15 territories with fewer high schools, eight had a higher percentage of Division I recruits.
Florida and Georgia led the way there, too, and five of the top eight states house SEC schools. But the AAC — not the ACC — has a presence in those states, too. It had 15 players drafted. Six were from Florida, Georgia or Louisiana, which has the three highest percentage of Division I recruits. Three more were from Texas, which has the most high schools and the most talent.
SBNation.com added up five- and four-star recruits in the 247Sports rankings from the past five years. Texas produced the most, with its 229 edging Florida’s 226. California (199) and Georgia (144) followed while Ohio (79) was a distant fifth. There were 253 picks in the 2017 draft. According to 247Sports, 23 were five-star recruits, 76 were four-star players.
That’s static, and the Big 12 not only lacks the access to elite recruits that the SEC and ACC enjoy, but it can’t change that, either. It matters, as does the cycle that’s the result of changes around and within the Big 12.
Begin with Texas, the state that’s the heartbeat of the league but the place where the University of Texas is no longer the unrivaled king. TCU jumped up and won a Rose Bowl and later earned a spot in the Big 12. Baylor rose sharply soon thereafter. Both came close to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Houston has been a top-10 team for separate coaches. Texas A&M’s move to the SEC compelled kids in Texas to give greater thought to the SEC, and SEC coaches returned the favor.
The Big 12 still hasn’t settled, never mind recovered, after conference realignment, either. Losing Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M was a significant development for competition, appeal and, for the purpose of this conversation, draft pick tallies. Those four have had 53 players drafted in the past five years. The Big 12 replaced them with WVU and TCU, and they’ve had 27 draft picks. That’s a greater rate, but a lower number. The four that left had 11 picks this year, three fewer than the entire Big 12.
Stick with the past five years. Since the end of the 2012 season, there have been six head coaching changes in the Big 12: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Texas Tech and Texas twice. We can exclude Baylor, because the change just happened and the Bears were producing draft picks, but what’s left is still a lot of turnover and teams that were heading the wrong way or have not yet reversed course. It’s rarely easy for new coaches to inherit a mess and clean up on signing day, much like how it’s hard for schools to win with coaches they cannot keep.
Yes, the nature of Big 12 offenses and defenses will conspire against player reputations. No, college coaches aren’t employed to fill NFL rosters. But NFL teams find talent, and college coaches are expected to do the same. It’s easy to point at the Big 12’s problem, but it’s important to understand it, too. There are explanations, but there can be no excuses for this existing and continuing story.