The Big 12 Lacks NFL Quality Defensive Talent (Part Two)

I decided to write a second part to my original piece after reading that the Big 12 offenses account for 7 of the top 13 2009 Heisman candidates.

In early January as the Oklahoma Sooners prepared to take on the Florida Gators, I penned The Big 12's Passing Offenses are Overrated.  In that piece, I broke down why the Big 12 teams had their worst offensive performances during bowl season.  My results indicated that while the Big12 offenses were indeed good, they benefited heavily from facing a dearth of defensive back talent throughout their conference.  I noted that the Big 12 has the worst defensive back play out of the major conferences.  We noted that there were no Pro Bowl defensive backs from the Big 12.  I charted that the NFL doesn't think highly of the Big 12's DB's, not only shown in their reluctance to take them in the 1st round, but also their outright refusal to take late round shots at these players. 

I also noted that among the 32 starting QB's in the NFL, none came from the Big 12 conference (ACC-5, SEC- 5, BIG10- 5, BIG EAST- 4, PAC10- 3, MID-MAJOR- 10).

Why is any of this relevant to the Florida State Seminoles?  People make evaluations based on raw, unadjusted numbers.  Casual observers will see that FSU was 15th in total defense and 51st in total offense and conclude that the 'Noles defense carried the team last year.  Unfortunately, that conclusion couldn't be further from the truth.  Advanced measures indicate that the Florida State offense was 15th nationally, while the defense was 20th.  That's quite the jump, and it is due to opponent adjustments.

We know that the ACC produces the best NFL talent on defense, and that the Big12 has been the scourge of the league over this past decade. Take Note:

  • No conference has had more players taken over the last three first rounds than the ACC with 25. The SEC is next with 21 with the Big Ten following with 18. And the Big 12? It trails the pack with eight.
  • The first defensive player selected in the last three NFL drafts has been from the ACC. N.C. State’s Mario Williams was the top overall pick in 2006, Clemson’s Gaines Adams went fourth overall in 2007, and Virginia’s Chris Long was the second pick in last year’s draft. Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry could go in the top two or three this weekend.North Carolina’s Julius Peppers was the first defensive player taken in the 2002 draft.

Just a week before the draft, I'll take a look at this year's talent pool and will attempt to draw some conclusions as to whether the Big 12's offenses and ACC's defenses were really as good as their raw data indicated.

Quarterback Play

We know that the Big 12 doesn't have a single starting NFL signal caller.  That will remain unchanged this year.  However, the Big 12 might have a quarterback selected in the first round this year.  Kansas State's Josh Freeman is poised to be drafted in the late first or early 2nd round, and is rated as the 3rd or 4th best QB available in what is a very weak class of QB prospects.  Interestingly, he was only the seventh best quarterback in the Big 12 last year!  Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Missouri's Chase Daniel, both Seniors, aren't considered viable NFL players, despite being the 1st and 3rd rated passers nationally! 

Additionally, the Big 12's next 3 highest rated passers (3, 4, 5) were Juniors who elected to return for their senior seasons.  Texas' Colt McCoy was projected as a 2nd day (4th round) prospect at best, despite nearly winning the Heisman Trophy!  Kansas' Todd Reesing, the Big 12's 4th rated passer (9th nationally) isn't likely to be drafted regardless of how long he stays in college. 

Among the Big 12's passers who filled up the statsheet, only Sam Bradford is regarded as having the potential to be an elite NFL QB.

So, despite having 8 of the top 40 rated passers in the Nation, all of whom are draft eligible, only one will likely be selected in 2009, and it seems very likely that 5 of the 7 will not be playing professionally at all.

So if the Quarterbacks aren't extraordinarily talented, how are these teams able to rack up such gaudy numbers? 

I considered a few possibilities, including superior offensive coaching prowess, great skill position players, and poor defensive back play.  While the skill position players are good, they are no better than the guys produced by the other leagues.

Of the 8 wide receivers in the 2009 pro bowl, the Big 12 had only 1 (Wes Welker, of the Patriots).  They didn't have any of the 5 tight ends.  They did have one of the 7 backs (Adrian Peterson).  20 Skill position guys and only 2 players from the Big 12? 

In the past 3 years, there have been 7 1st round wideouts taken and 16 2nd round wide receivers.  The Big 12 didn't have any 1st rounders.  By contrast, the Big 10 had 3 (Ohio State had 3), SEC had 3 (LSU-2, Tennessee 1), and the ACC had 1).  Of the 16 2nd rounders, the Big 12 had 3.  3 of the top 20 wideouts in the past 3 years came from the Big 12.  That's not all that impressive and casts doubt on the idea that the skill position players from the Big12 are good enough to justify these high scoring games.

The same analysis applies for Big 12 RB's.

Was 2008 any different?  Did the Big 12 offenses light up scoreboards because they had excellent skill position talent?  Possibly so.  They do feature two of the top 8 available wide receivers including the consensus top wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and had another good wideout go down in Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant.  Still, is having 2 of the top 8 (the typical number of wideouts to be selected in the first 2 rounds) really justification for those outrageous offensive performances?  Heck, the ACC didn't feature a passing attack in the top 40 and they have two of the top 8 as well. 

Additionally, it is not as if Big 12 defenses were overly concerned with stopping elite running backs, as the Big 12 doesn't even have a back in the top 20 available

It seems very unlikely that these scores are a result of excellent skill position players when only two seem likely to be drafted in the first 2 rounds.

I also don't think the league is so chock full of offensive genius that the defensive coaches have no shot, though it probably does feature slightly more offensive minded coaches, on average, than the other major conferences. Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Missouri have offensive coaches who are very well respected in the business, but  I don't think that's the explanation.


Poor Defensive Back Play

We've arrived at the true force behind the Big 12 fireworks show. 

Refer back to part one in this series and laugh at the failures of defensive backs from the Big 12. 

This year, the Big 12 again failed to produce any decent draft eligible cornerbacks.  Zero.  None.

Typically there are 30 Cornerbacks drafted in a given year, (including 5 1st rounders and 5 2nd rounders).  This year, the Big 12 does not have a single cornerback rated in the top 30 cornerbacks!  Source #1Source #2.

On average, 12 safeties are drafted per year, including 2 1st-round prospects and 2-2nd round prospects.  This year, the Big 12 projects to have 2 of the top 12 safety prospects, and both are decent players.

This table should help to illustrate the point: 

Conference Total # of Likely Drafted Defensive Backs Total # of likely drafted Cornerbacks Total # of likely draftes Safeties
Mid-Majors (over 20) 12 10 2
ACC (12 teams) 7 5 2
SEC (12 teams) 6 4 2
Big 10 & Notre Dame (13 teams) 6 5 1
PAC 10 (10 teams) 5 4 1
Big East (8 teams) 4 3 1
Big 12 (12 teams) 2 0 2


I wonder how the wideouts of the ACC or the SEC would do against the scrubs that the Big 12 claims are defensive backs?  I don't believe it's a coincidence that Ole Miss and Northwestern had their best offensive games of the year when they met up in their bowl games.  The Big 12 is seriously lacking in defensive back play. 


Is it only the defensive backs who are garbage?

We know that the defensive backs aren't any good.  But what of the front 7 players; the defensive ends, defensive tackles, and linebackers.  Typically, there are 21 defensive ends , 19 defensive tackles, and 33 linebackers selected in the draft (average over the last 3 years).

Conference Total # of Front 7 Players (DE, DT, LB) likely to be drafted DE DT LB
MID MAJOR 16 4 4 8
ACC 11 3 4 4
SEC 11 2 5 4
Big 10 11 4 3 4
Pac 10 9 2 1 7
Big 12 9 6 2 1
Big East 5 0 0 5


This chart is less convincing.  The Big 12 does have some talent in the front 7.  Interestingly enough, 3 of the Big 12's 6 projected drafted defensive ends are at the very tail end (likely 6th or 7th round selections).  Still, I don't see a huge gap this year between the front 7's of the big 12 and the front 7's of the other major conferences-- though the Big East is definitely scary with NO defensive linemen likely to be selected!

The point of this exercise is that advanced metrics that adjust for opponent quality are better measures of performance than raw numbers.  There are differences between the conferences and opponent quality must be given due consideration when evaluating performance.  The lack of NFL quality defenders in the BIG 12 allows their offenses to receive excessive and undue praise.


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