Ranking College Football Conferences by Their NFL Representation

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2014

Ranking College Football Conferences by Their NFL Representation

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    As Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee wrote Friday, the SEC replanted its flag atop the college football universe with its standout performance on Day 1 of the 2014 NFL Draft, helping the conference forget about Florida State's (and by proxy, the ACC's) victory over Auburn in the national title game.

    The field caught up with the SEC after Day 1, however, and by the end of the draft, the ACC was within seven picks of having the most players selected. If you count the conferences as they'll stand in 2014—with Maryland leaving the ACC and Louisville joining—the gap was even closer at four.

    Which got us thinking: How do the numbers stack up throughout the league? Rosters are technically in flux right now, so it is hard to get a perfectly accurate number, but based just on the active players listed at Pro-Football-Reference.com and the players selected this weekend, which conferences represent what portion of the current NFL?

    Again, it is important to note that the numbers here have been adjusted for 2014 conference realignment. Some web outlets have posted the number of drafted players by conference and included the 2013 conferences, but this list does not.

    Louisville's draftees counted for the ACC, Maryland's counted for the Big Ten, Tulane's counted for the AAC, et cetera.

    Here's how it all shakes out.

11. Sun Belt

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    Sun Belt newcomer Georgia Southern had a Round 3 draft pick in RB Jerick McKinnon.
    Sun Belt newcomer Georgia Southern had a Round 3 draft pick in RB Jerick McKinnon.John Raoux/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 4 (11th)

    Total Representation: 48

    Players Per NFL Team: 1.5

    The Sun Belt finished last by a healthy—but not giant—margin. If not for one of its new 2014 teams—also a newcomer to the FBS at large—things might have been much, much uglier.

    Almost one-fourth of the Sun Belt's active players before this weekend's draft hailed from Appalachian State, which has 10 players currently in the league. The only Sun Belt school with more is Troy, the home of superstar pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora.

    The other FBS newcomer in the conference this year is Georgia Southern, which gave the Sun Belt half of its four 2014 draft picks (two) and its highest selection (RB Jerick McKinnon, No. 96 overall).

10. Independents

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    Notre Dame OL Zack Martin was the only Independent to go in Round 1.
    Notre Dame OL Zack Martin was the only Independent to go in Round 1.Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 9 (T-8th)

    Total Representation: 56

    Players Per NFL Team: 1.8

    Now back down to four teams, the FBS Independents did not surprise by finishing 10th with 56 total active players.

    What's more important is the players per team (14.0), which ranks sixth in the country and first among conferences outside the "Power Five." A big part of that has to do with sample size, but still, Notre Dame and BYU deserve to be recognized for what they are: teams that produce like power-conference schools despite floating in purgatory.

    The Independents only average 1.8 players per NFL roster, but considering the hand they were dealt, that itself is pretty impressive.

9. Conference USA

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    Southern Miss DL Khyri Thornton was the highest C-USA player drafted.
    Southern Miss DL Khyri Thornton was the highest C-USA player drafted.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 10 (7th)

    Total Representation: 67

    Players Per NFL Team: 2.1

    Conference USA was one of seven conferences in the country with double-digit players drafted this season—despite losing a net of two teams to realignment.

    In a weird way, that actually helped in the short term. Ryan Grant (Tulane) was the only player drafted from the three teams that left C-USA for the AAC—which also included East Carolina and Tulsa—while newcomer Western Kentucky had two players selected in the draft.

    Its aggregate leader for active players is Marshall, which has 10 in the league. Following close behind is Louisiana Tech with nine.

8. Mid-American

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 8 (10th)

    Total Representation: 83

    Players Per NFL Team: 2.6

    The MAC continued to dominate the top part of the draft in 2014, sending linebacker Khalil Mack (Buffalo) to the Oakland Raiders at No. 5 overall one year after lineman Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) went to the Kansas City Chiefs at No. 1.

    #MACtion hits the AFC West.

    The rest of the league is nice and balanced, with no team currently sporting more than 10 players but six teams sporting more than seven. The names of those six, however, might surprise you: Toledo (10), Kent State (9), Ohio (9), Central Michigan (8), Western Michigan (8) and UMass (8).

    Not exactly the conference's juggernaut teams.

7. Mountain West

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Draft Picks: 16 (6th)

    Total Representation: 120

    Players Per NFL Team: 3.8

    The Mountain West is buoyed by its two traditional stalwarts: Boise State and Fresno State. Both had at least 15 active players before the 2014 draft (Boise checking in with 18) and added a few more to boot.

    Things get barren pretty quickly behind them, however, although San Diego State is a pleasant surprise with 14 active players. The Aztecs have flown under the radar with an average of 8.5 wins the past four seasons and have translated that to NFL success.

    Just not enough NFL success to compensate for teams such as Air Force and New Mexico, which have not put enough players in the league to allow the MWC to compete with a conference like the AAC.

6. AAC

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Draft Picks: 9 (T-8th)

    Total Representation: 129

    Players Per NFL Team: 4.0

    The AAC was hurt by Louisville's defection to the ACC, but that was old news even before it manifested in the 2014 NFL draft.

    This is still without a doubt the sixth-best league in America, however, and it is still without a doubt the sixth-best producer of NFL talent.

    Because of UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, who was drafted No. 3 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, a non-power-conference school has now had a player selected before the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 in consecutive drafts, and the Golden Knights are poised to continue churning out quality players over the next few seasons.

    Connecticut is also a surprisingly good contributor—those Randy Edsall seasons feel like forever ago, don't they?—and after having two players drafted in 2014, it now has 21 players on an NFL roster.

5. Big 12

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 17 (5th)

    Total Representation: 178

    Players Per NFL Team: 5.6

    No conference has been hurt more by realignment than the Big 12—both on the field and in this hypothetical category.

    A good deal of the Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M players in the NFL right now plied their trade in the Big 12, and all three of those schools would have ranked third in the current conference in active players. Instead, the third-place team is late-bloomer Oklahoma State with a mere 19 before the 2014 draft (and 20 after it).

    Because of all this, the Big 12 takes its spot at the bottom of the Power Five conferences. It is almost as close to the top conference from the "Group of Five," the AAC, as it is to the conference above it.

    If Louisville hadn't left the AAC and been replaced by East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane this offseason, they might have been neck-and-neck.

4. Pac-12

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2014 Draft Picks: 34 (3rd)

    Total Representation: 305

    Players Per NFL Team: 9.5

    The Pac-12 finishes fourth on this list with 305 active players in the NFL, but that is a bit misleading.

    The ACC and Big Ten both have 14 teams while the Pac-12 has…well, 12. If you take the number of active NFL players the Pac-12 has produced per team, it finishes second behind the SEC with 25.4.

    Even though the Pac-12 retained second place in active players per team, however, it was not a welcome sign that the ACC had 11 more players taken in 2014. Perhaps that might be a sign of things to come.

    Or perhaps it won't be.

    The Pac-12 is loaded with young talent returning in 2014 and should once again start pumping players into the league during the 2015 and 2016 drafts. So long as the current players stick, it is not at great risk at getting jumped by the ACC in that department.

    It may never be able to compete in terms of total players, but such is the way of the post-realignment world. The Pac-12 can hang its hat on being the second-most efficient in terms of talent production.

3. Big Ten

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 31 (4th)

    Total Representation: 319

    Players Per NFL Team: 9.9

    The Big Ten's lack of success at the top end of the draft has been well documented. This handy stat on its top-10 pick drought—which started in 2009 and continued through 2014—went viral during the first round of the draft Thursday evening, and with good reason.

    However, the league still continues to produce a modest depth of talent and finished with more than 30 players drafted. As for the top-10 pick thing, well, like Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer wrote:

    There are always exceptions, and assuming the Big Ten has struggled to produce quality NFL talent over the past six seasons is false. It has. Not everyone has been J.J. Watt in terms of production, but the conference has delivered players at various positions who have turned into solid NFL pros.

    Kramer's whole piece is worth reading and includes some good numbers on where the Big Ten stands as a talent producer. It doesn't recruit the way it used to, but it is still easily among the top four.

2. ACC

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    Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    2014 Draft Picks: 45 (2nd)

    Total Representation: 339

    Players Per NFL Team: 10.6 

    The ACC finishes second with 45 players drafted in 2014, nearly topping the can't-be-topped SEC. It also places second with 339 active players in the NFL once you count those draft picks.

    The Pac-12 may produce at at a higher rate per college team, but the ACC still has bigger total footprint in the league.

    The ACC is also still reaping the fruits of the early-2000s Miami dynasty, which contributed in large part to the Hurricanes' 47 active NFL players before the 2014 draft—best among all college programs.

    When that begins to regress, the ACC could be in trouble. However, if Florida State continues its progress toward becoming Alabama-lite, it could do now for the league what Miami once did before it.

1. SEC

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    2014 Draft Picks: 49 (1st)

    Total Representation: 422

    Players Per NFL Team: 13.2

    The SEC remains the SEC, and one lost national title since January 2007 is not enough to change that. This is still without question the best conference in college football, especially where the NFL is concerned. 

    Already leading the field (by a lot) in terms of active NFL talent, the SEC once again came out first with 49 draftees in 2014. Included among those draftees were the first two picks and four of the top seven.

    Having 14 teams isn't the reason for this dominance, either. The SEC's average number of players in the NFL per team (30.1) is tops in the country and almost five players higher than that of the Pac-12. It would place among the top 15 programs in America.

    Again, that's its average!

    Hard to argue with numbers like that.