It didn't take long for the fallout from the Big Ten's weak performance in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft to make its way around the college football world.
Fans and pundits from other conferences, most notably the SEC, helped broadcast the apparent woes of that once-great conference up north, and with 12 first-round picks from the SEC, we can certainly understand their schadenfreude.
But we all know the SEC is the king of the college game. The important question that needs to be asked is what does this poor showing from the Big Ten say about that conference?
After the first-round hoopla settled into reality, the Big Ten had just one player—Wisconsin's Travis Frederick—selected in the first round. What's just as bad is the fact he was selected second to last with the 31st pick in the opening round, and even then the Dallas Cowboys were ridiculed for the selection. That single pick put the Big Ten's first-round success behind the lowly Big East (which had two picks) and on par with Conference USA and the MAC.
At first glance, the news isn't good; a MAC team from the Big Ten's footprint—Central Michigan—produced the No. 1 overall pick, a corner from Houston went No. 12 overall, Alabama alone had three picks and every other BCS AQ conference had two first-round selections before the Big Ten had its lone appearance.
Wasn't the Big Ten supposed to be better than this by now?
To figure out what's going on, we need to understand what the NFL draft really means. While there are many who see draft picks as the penultimate measure of college football program success behind only national championships, having x number of draft selections really only means these individuals were impressive during their college careers. Much like recruiting and national signing day, the hype makes for better television than reality.
The truth is none of these players have played a single NFL snap, and there's no guarantee any particular player will find success on Sundays simply because he was taken in the first round of the NFL draft.
Keep in mind that Tom Brady was the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. The top overall pick that year was Penn State's Courtney Brown. Figure out for yourself which one had a better NFL career.
There's no question the Big Ten took a step backwards this season, but I honestly don't see NFL drafts with one first-round pick from the Big Ten becoming the norm. First, the top programs in the conference—Michigan and Ohio State—are both in the midst of transitioning coaching staffs. In Michigan's case, Brady Hoke is trying to rebuild a program that Rich Rodriguez desperately tried to turn into a Big East-style team. For Ohio State, Urban Meyer is trying to pick up where Jim Tressel left off—minus the NCAA violations, that is.
Indiana, Illinois, Penn State and Purdue have all recently hired new head coaches, and there's the entire issue surrounding Penn State that will surely have an impact for years to come. Nebraska is new to the Big Ten, and the Huskers are just finding their footing—especially when it comes to filling their roster with typical Big Ten players that can continue to be competitive in the conference.
So, do Big Ten fans have any reason for optimism at this point?
The conference expands again in 2014 with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. While that doesn't necessarily add any hotbed recruiting states to the footprint, Rutgers had seven players drafted this year. By comparison, the current Big Ten program with the most draftees this year was Illinois with four.
I'm not sure if Rutgers carrying the conference's banner is encouraging or not.
The Big Ten has some future NFL'ers right now who are brightening the conference's upcoming draft prospects. Braxton Miller and Taylor Lewan are potential first-round picks in 2014, and they will undoubtedly be joined by others from around the league as 2013 wears on.
Was 2012 a down season for the Big Ten? Sure. Was the 2013 NFL draft a bust? Pretty much. Was the first round an embarrassment? Absolutely. But one bad draft a trend does not make. The Big Ten is showing signs of life from some very talented underclassmen. With conference realignment (hopefully) starting to settle down and coaching transitions coming to an end for the major programs in the league, the conference's future still looks bright.
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