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Kyle Gets Contrary: The N.F.L., the S.E.C., and the Need for Less Math

In 2000, when I was co-hosting "The Dawg Show" on local cable television with my brother-in-law, Travis Rice, we introduced a new segment on the program called "Trav Tees Off." The basic premise was: Trav is mad, and he’s going to go on a highly entertaining rant to explain why. If memory serves, we used the segment twice: once around midseason, when Trav said, if you’re going to advocate firing Jim Donnan, give me the name of the guy you want to replace him; then, later, at the end of the year, when Trav said, if you’re not in favor of firing Jim Donnan, what specifically is your problem?

Today, we’re introducing a similar segment here at Dawg Sports, which I call "Kyle Gets Contrary." Granted, today may be a poor day for me to be contrary, what with Terence Moore’s departure (and, by the way, Terence . . . "millenniums"? really?), but I’m going to give it a shot, nevertheless, because we have arrived at a point in the evolution of fan-based media at which we in the blogosphere must be as willing to call each other on our blind spots as we once were willing only to call out ESPN.

Two of the college football blogosphere’s most respected heavy hitters, Dr. Saturday’s Matt Hinton and MGoBlog’s Brian Cook, have expressed a view (one recently, the other historically) about what the N.F.L. draft has to say about the various college football conferences which I believe is mistaken. I trust what follows will be taken in the spirit in which it is intended---heck, I defended Brian elsewhere earlier today---but I want to make sure I do not come across as antagonistic, because I have been misunderstood before.

Matt, citing Brian for support, had this to say about how to calculate each conference’s representation in the N.F.L.:

I dunno, maybe them yankees do a better job of teaching the concept of per capita than they do in the South or West* -- or maybe he's just self-interested because of the team he covers -- but for whatever reason, the Syracuse Post-Standard's Donnie Webb takes the crucial step of division . . .

Now, I understand per capita. I’m an estate planning lawyer; I even understand per stirpes. I have even used such division before, in much more relevant ways. I believe, however, that Brian’s and Matt’s superior skill at counting the trees has caused them to miss the forest, in much the same way that Hooper’s classroom learning and Quint’s practical experience caused them both to miss the basic fact discerned by Brody with his more rudimentary understanding. That, after all, is what enabled the sheriff to kill the shark.

If we’re ranking conferences’ respective recruiting coups by the total number of stars garnered from Rivals, it matters a great deal whether a league has 1,020 scholarship football players (twelve teams at 85 apiece) or 850 scholarship football players (ten teams at 85 apiece). The N.F.L. draft, though, plucks players almost exclusively from the upper echelons and most schools in each conference are recruiting from the same regional talent pool, where there are only so many athletes to go around, no matter how many suitors are extending offers.

That fact remains factual without regard to whether a particular sought-after recruit ("VHT," in Phil Steele parlance) is choosing between Georgia and Florida or between Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana State, and Auburn. He’s still one guy who’s going to go to one school. If he makes it to the next level, he adds one player, no more and no less, to the conference’s total of drafted athletes.

Hang on, though . . . if twelve S.E.C. schools pursue one student-athlete and only one of them gets him, that leaves eleven schools with extra scholarships to dole out, right? Yes, it does, which is one of the reasons why Brian and Matt are right about comparing conferences based on total stars. More teams equals more stars, so, even if the two worst teams in the league sign nothing but one-star players, they’re still contributing to an inflated total that a ten-team conference can’t match.

When we’re talking about the N.F.L. draft, though, we’re not talking about lower-tier recruits, as Dr. Saturday has demonstrated repeatedly. If Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee all keep scholarships available in the hope of snagging the same upper-echelon recruit, two of those schools are going to be disappointed when the kid dons the wrong cap on signing day. The two extra scholarships that leaves aren’t going to be expended on equally upper-echelon recruits in the same recruiting cycle; they’re either going to go to lower-tier players who are still available, or they’re going to be held onto for next year’s recruiting class.

Either way, they’re not affecting the total number of top-shelf recruits entering a particular conference’s member institutions in a given year. Absent early defections (which tend to even out over time), we’re still talking about the same number of highly-touted athletes entering the N.F.L. draft from the ranks of a given league. On the individual level, recruiting always is a zero-sum game, but, at the highest level, this is especially so; one team’s getting a five-star holdout on signing day means the other teams pursuing the same kid aren’t getting any five-star holdouts on that signing day with that scholarship.

For the most part, schools are competing against their own, so the total number of top-tier athletes in any conference in any year is going to be the same, regardless of whether that league has ten teams or twelve. Having more teams spreads the wealth around but does not increase the wealth where the finite resource of athletic talent is concerned. If Vanderbilt withdrew from the S.E.C., essentially all it would cost the conference in raw N.F.L. numbers is Jay Cutler, yet it would have a major impact on the math on a per capita basis.

The raw numbers tell us all we need to know. Division skews the data by using Mississippi State to inflate artificially the denominator by including an integer that is without value in setting the numerator.

Go ‘Dawgs!