This title of this post is merely a rhetorical question; obviously, NFL-caliber talent alone is not enough to win college football games. That talent must be coached and work together as a team. Cal’s most recent draft class is a cautionary tale; 6 players were drafted off of a team that finished above just one team in the conference. Ignoring the rhetorical nature of my title, however, I had actual, interesting questions regarding the relationship between the NFL talent on a college team’s roster and that team’s success on the field. These questions led to some online research, as well as me playing with numbers for a couple days. That, in turn, led to this post.
Because I only have so much time on my lunch breaks, I had to limit my research; I ended up looking at the Pac-10 during the last 10 years, encompassing the 1998-2007 seasons (1999-2008 drafts). Also, because each team played a widely variable non-conference schedule from year to year, I limited my ‘team success’ rating to conference games only. From there, I began to ask questions. Which teams were the most stacked with NFL talent? Did those teams win the most games? Who squandered their Sunday talent on Saturdays, and who made the most out of relatively meager prospects?
The talent rating proved a little difficult to settle on. Should I simply count the number of players drafted? That seemed too simplistic, as a Marshawn Lynch is clearly more valuable than most 7th-round picks (I won’t pick on any here). How much more valuable? I don’t actually know, so I guessed. I eventually decided to assign 7 points for a first-round pick, 6 for second, and so forth, on down to 1 point for a 7th-round pick. Cal’s draft this year, for example, featured a second-rounder, two thirds, a fourth, a sixth, and a seventh-rounder, for a total score of 23 (6 + 5 + 5 + 4 + 2 + 1 = 23). How accurate is this? On an individual level, not terribly. One can come up with all sorts of exceptions where low-round picks turned out to be better than top-rated ones (Tom Brady and Ryan Leaf being overused examples). However, at an aggregate, team-wide level, it does tend to give us a pretty good indicator of how much pro-level talent was on a college roster. Throughout this article, I’ll be referring to this number as a team’s ‘Draft Score’.
USC dominates the Pac-10 on the field and on draft day
By any standard, the Pac-10 was loaded with NFL talent this year. 34 Pac-10 players were drafted, the most in the past 10 years, and their aggregate score of 129 was the second-most this decade. (The 2002 draft scored slightly higher, 132, with only 32 players selected, due to more of those players being taken in the early rounds.) This year’s success, however, was driven almost entirely by USC, which had 4 of the conference’s 6 first-round picks, and 7 of the 11 first-day picks; their 10 picks earned a Draft Score of 53, more than double the score of the next-best Pac-10 team, Cal.
Indeed, USC’s dominance in this matter has bordered on ridiculous. Only two teams in the Pac-10 have had more than 6 players drafted in a single year: this year’s ‘SC team, and the 2005 edition, which had 11 players taken in the ‘06 draft. They’ve had 40 players drafted over the past 6 years for an aggregate Draft Score of 199; Cal ranks second in the conference over that time-period, with 24 players taken for an aggregate Draft Score of 92, less than half of USC’s. Cal’s 6 first-rounders over the past decade also ranks second, as does their 9 players in the first two rounds combined; USC has had 13 first-rounders over the past 10 years, and another 14 taken in the second round.
Over- and under-achievers
Of course, at least USC has made full-use of their ridiculously loaded roster, going 59-23 in the Pac-10 over the last decade. The same cannot be said for Cal, which rode all those NFL prospects (36 in all) to a less-than-stellar 38-44 record, good for just 6th over the last 10 years. Yes, Tom Holmoe was coach during the first four of those years, but underperformances like what occurred this past season played a part as well. Other notable underachievers include Stanford (30 draftees, just a 32-50 record) and Arizona State. where 31 draftees, tied with Oregon for 3rd in the Pac-10, produced just a 40-42 conference record.
Oregon, however, was a notable overachiever. Over the last decade, they had the same number of pro prospects as ASU (31) and a lower Draft Score (129 to 118), but went 53-29 in the conference. In finishing just 6 wins short of USC, they did it with far less talent; USC had 55 draftees for a Draft Score of 254, more than double what the Ducks managed. Also notable is Oregon State, who has a winning record over the past 10 years (44-38) despite having just 24 players drafted. Only Arizona and the Washington schools had fewer, and none of them were close to finishing the decade above .500.
|Team||Conference Wins, ‘98-’07||NFL Draft Picks, ‘99-’08||Draft Score|
For the most part, the players drafted were distributed fairly evenly amongst the 7 rounds of the draft. Two exceptions, however, were notable:
- USC had 27 of its 55 draft picks (almost half!) taken in either the 1st or 2nd round. I don’t know why this is, exactly, but I can think of two plausible explanations. 1) USC is *so* loaded with top talent that it doesn’t have room on its roster for even late-round prospects. Stars at any other school end up riding some pine for Pete Carroll. 2) USC’s excellence over the past 6 years has caused teams to overdraft ‘SC players out of line with their talent; simply put, being a Trojan might bump you up a round or two. I have no way to verify either explanation, however.
- Arizona, on the other hand, saw 9 of its 23 prospects (39%) taken in the 7th round. For a team that has generally lacked the top talent of most of the teams in the conference, it has to be concerning that even its best players were mostly marginal pro talents. Of course, you could perhaps argue that perhaps the Wildcats’ ineptitude on the field hurt their player’s draft status, though that didn’t stop the San Diego Chargers from taking Antoine Cason in the first round of this year’s draft.
A better assessment of roster strength
If you look at where a team finished in the Pac-10 in any given year and then compare that to how their players did in the draft the following April, you often don’t get a lot of correlation. This, of course, is because teams are not made up exclusively of seniors; underclassmen will always play a significant role. To get a better picture of actual roster strength (in terms of NFL-caliber talent), I decided to create a rolling Draft Score for each team, where each season would get a Draft Score that totaled the scores from that season’s draft as well as the next two drafts. (I stopped at three because freshmen rarely make a huge impact on a football team, and when they do, they’re usually so talented that they declare for the draft after their junior seasons [i.e. Marshawn, DeSean]).
As a illustrative example, consider the 2000 Oregon Ducks, who finished that season in a three-way tie for first in the Pac-10 at 7-1, earning a Holiday Bowl berth. However, their Draft Score for that year was just 3, as the only Duck drafted in 2001 was backup quarterback A.J. Feeley, taken by the Eagles in the 5th round. This is because most of the best players on that team, including QB Joey Harrington, wouldn’t be drafted until 2002, after the Ducks won the conference outright and came within a Nebraska screw-job of playing for the national title. Combining Draft Scores from the 2001, 2002, and 2003 drafts gives the 2000 Ducks a very respectable score of 37, much more indicative of the overall talent level of that team.
The strength of left-coast football
Of course, even these rolling Draft Scores don’t tell the whole story; they need to be placed within the context of the league as a whole. As an extreme example, Stanford won the Pac-10 in 1999 with a rolling Draft Score of just 30; just two years later, Cal would go winless in the conference with the exact same Draft Score. The reason? In two years, the league got a lot deeper. In 1999, the highest draft score, excepting massively underachieving Arizona State, was Oregon’s 37. Two years later, 5 teams broke 40, and Cal’s score of 30 was better than just one team, woeful Arizona.
|Total Draft Score||293||321||352||383||368||364||344||356|
The chart above details the total rolling Draft Score for the Pac-10 for the seasons between 1998 and 2005. As you can see, the Pac-10 was at a relative low point in 1998, when UCLA managed to run the conference table at the tail end of their 20-game winning streak (one that nearly put them in the national title game). Remember, this was during a period of great parity in the Pac-10, as 7 different schools represented the conference in the Rose Bowl in the 7 seasons between 1994 and 2000. Conference strength (in terms of pro talent) quickly swung upwards, however, jumping by more than 30% in peaking during 2001 season. That season, of course, was the one in which a Cal team that would see 8 players drafted over the next three years, including first-rounders Kyle Boller and Nnamdi Asomugha, couldn’t manage to win a single conference game. The talent level has remained high ever since, though never as evenly distributed as that year, as USC built its dynasty and began to horde more and more of the West Coast’s best prospects**.
** I have left the most recent two seasons off the chart, as that data is incomplete pending the next two NFL drafts, but the partial data strongly suggests that recent trends have continued unabated.
More Trojan dominance
Armed with rolling Draft Scores, USC’s dominance becomes even more apparent, and one can begin to see how it might really be hurting the rest of the Pac-10. Between 1998-2001, only 4 teams achieved a rolling Draft Score of at least 50; ASU in 1998 (50) and 1999 (56), Oregon in 2001 (52) and USC in 2001 (52). Even in ‘01, the most draft-loaded year of the Pac-10’s last decade, both Washington and Washington State tied for 2nd in the conference with a Draft Score of just 35. Parity was king.
The next year, USC would tie for the conference title and earn a berth in the Orange Bowl. Their rolling draft score? 72. No one else topped 45 that year. Even that, however, was nothing compared to the rolling Draft Scores the Trojans would post over the next three seasons: 102, 101, and in 2005, 127. Cal managed a high of 48 in both 2004 and 2005, while no one else topped 44. For the record, that’s 26 draft picks factoring into the Trojan’s 2005 score, the kind of nigh-unstoppable juggernaut that could only be derailed by some sort of super-human intervention (i.e. Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns in the 2006 Rose Bowl).
What’s more interesting is that not only is USC stockpiling talent at an unheard-of rate, but that they’re actually making the rest of the conference weaker in doing so. Yes, USC is renowned for its ‘national’ recruiting strategy, regularly going across the country to pluck out another state’s top recruit, but the heart of their success still lies in mining the rich southern California talent pool, a vital recruiting area to any Pac-10 program with pretensions towards the conference throne. Even as conference talent levels reside near recent highs (see the chart above), the combined pro-talent level of the 9 teams not USC has dipped below late-90’s levels, as the chart below illustrates.
The blue line represents the total rolling Draft Score for the Pac-10, while the red line represents USC’s Draft Score. The yellow line represents the rolling draft score of the other 9 Pac-10 teams (basically, the blue line minus the red line).
Good for the conference?
One item I’ve often heard debated is whether USC’s dominance is good for the conference. Sure, they carry the Pac-10’s banner nationally, annually debunking the myth that good football isn’t played west of the Rockies, and they’ve given the conference their only BCS National Champion, but they’ve also led East Coast critics to deride the conference as ‘USC and the Nine Dwarves’. At best, I think it’s been a mixed bag.
While the Trojans have certainly played a part in the rise of the Pac-10’s talent level, much of their success had certainly come at the expense of their fellow conference members. If the Pac-10 is to truly rise towards the top of the college football heap, more teams must engage in the kind of ‘national’ recruiting programs that USC has built. Oregon has, to some extent, done this, and Cal is beginning to do the same. However, Stanford has always been the only truly national recruiting program, and I think it’s no coincidence that the conference’s overall talent level peaked around 2001, the last year of Tyrone Willingham’s successful run on the Farm.
(Actually, Stanford’s NFL talent level would remain high for several years after Willingham’s departure, due in part to the slow dwindling of Willingham’s stocked cupboard. In fact, given the Draft Scores for Stanford during Buddy Teven’s three years (45, 38, and 44, good for 2nd, 4th, and 2nd in the conference, respectively), it’s amazing that the Cardinal managed to win just 5 conference games, as inept as Teven’s coaching might have been. At least he never lost to UC Davis!)
Anyway, I found this to be a very interesting tool for exploring the various talent levels of college teams, independent of how well those teams performed on the field. If some of my conclusions made you go ‘duh’, then that’s a good thing; if whatever these numbers tell us jibes with what we already know, we can infer that these numbers are grounded in reality. In general, good teams have lots of NFL talent, while bad teams have less. Some coaches (Mike Price, Ty Willingham, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson) were able to win with less talent. Wherever we see relatively loaded teams do poorly (ASU and USC in ‘98-’00, Stanford in ‘02-’04), those coaches (Bruce Snyder, Paul Hackett, Buddy Tevens) are soon fired.
The lesson? NFL-caliber talent ain’t everything, but it sure makes life easier. Like I said, ‘duh’.