May 7, 2007

SEC must recover from big draft losses

Atlantic Coast Conference football was left ailing after getting caught in a big draft in 2006. Now, the Southeastern Conference - which is in a similar position - hopes to prove it is immune.

The SEC annually turns out great football players, but this year it mass produced.

NFL teams selected 11 SEC players in the first round of last week's draft and six more were taken in the second round. By comparison, The Big Ten had 11 players taken in the first two rounds combined. No other conference had more than six first-round choices.

But will the SEC's draft day production lead to a victory reduction next fall?

It's a legitimate question, considering the Atlantic Coast Conference's struggle a year ago after its talent pool dried up like a midsummer puddle. A dozen players were taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, and seven more went in the second round.

As a result, the ACC endured a sub-par 2006 season in which its teams were 2-10 against other major conference opponents in non-conference games. Wake Forest, which finished No. 18, was the ACC's highest-ranked team in the final Associated Press poll.

Yet, a similar evaporation isn't anticipated for the SEC, which still figures to flourish rather than flounder.

Tony Barnhart, who covers the SEC for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ESPN, said the SEC is better equipped to handle the loss of upper-level talent than the ACC was.

"When you look at the SEC I don't see a drop-off," Barnhart said. "Look at LSU. They lost four first-round picks, but they have eight starters coming back on defense. I think LSU will be a top-five and national championship-caliber team. Florida lost nine players on defense, but has a lot of great players coming in. I don't see that kind of drop-off because of the overall talent level.

"It's a league a lot of guys want to play in. Are the teams going to be as good as LSU and Florida were last year? Maybe not. But I don't think the league will drop-off at all."

Rivals.com National Recruiting Editor Jeremy Crabtree agreed.

"I think when you're talking about the SEC you're talking about a different animal," Crabtree said. "They recruit the most fertile territory in the country. Look at the draft and all the players from Southern States that were taken. That trend is not going to change.

FOUR SIGHT
Here's a list of teams that in the last 10 years have had at least four players selected in the first round of the NFL draft and how they fared in the following football season:
TeamYearPicksHow fared
Miami2001Four12-0, national champions
Miami2002Four12-1, national runner-up
Penn State2003Four3-9
Miami2004Six9-3, won Peach Bowl
Auburn2005Four9-3, lost Capital One Bowl
Florida State2006Four7-6, won Emerald Bowl
Ohio State2006Five12-1, national runner-up
LSU2007Four???????
"Atlanta is becoming a big area for schools to recruit, and you always have Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. Now you see how Alabama has grown, so I don't think you're going to see a dip. The SEC will still produce high-level kids and still produce victories on the field."

Indeed, there are seven returning SEC players who last year earned All-American recognition from Rivals.com. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, the Heisman Trophy favorite, leads the way. Arkansas center Jonathan Luigs, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett, Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo and safety Jonathan Hefney and Auburn defensive end Quentin Grove will also be back in 2007.

Yet, FSN college football analyst and former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill said star power isn't the main reason the SEC isn't likely to experience a letdown in 2007.

"The difference people don't understand and it doesn't make a difference whether it's at the college, high school or pro level is when you win championships it's not just because of the 'A' players. The difference is your 'B' players."

Sherrill said the speed factor gives the SEC better 'B' list players than many other conferences.

"The SEC probably has more defensive players with speed that are drafted into the NFL," he said. "The one word speed puts them above everyone else. Ohio State thought they had speed until they played Florida. They hadn't played Florida speed."

That speed and the caliber of its 'B' list players figures to propel at least half of the SEC's teams into the top 25 of most preseason polls.

LSU, which had quarterback JaMarcus Russell, safety LaRon Landry and receivers Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis all taken in the first round, is still considered a strong national championship contender and will likely be ranked among the top five.

WEALTH OF TALENT
First round NFL draft selections
SEC: 11
JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU
LaRon Landry, S, LSU
Jamaal Anderson, DE, Arkansas
Patrick Willis, LB, Mississippi
Justin Harrell, DT, Tennessee
Jarvis Moss, DE, Florida
Reggie Nelson, S, Florida
Dwayne Bowe, WR, LSU
Robert Meachem, WR, Tennessee
Ben Grubbs, G, Auburn
Craig Davis, WR, LSU
Other conferences
Big Ten: 6
ACC: 6
Big 12: 4
Big East: 2
Pac 10: 1
That's not too unusual, though. Successful programs attract high caliber talent, so when good players complete eligibility there is often another good player waiting to climb the depth chart.

Seven other teams in the last 10 years have had at least four players drafted in the first round, and of those only Penn State in 2003 followed with a losing season.

However, Florida State did struggle to a 7-6 finish last season after having four first round choices in the 2006 draft.

The caliber of coaching is a major reason the SEC figures to maintain its high-end status. Four coaches in the conference Florida's Urban Meyer, Alabama's Nick Saban, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier and Tennessee's Phil Fulmer have won national championships within the last decade and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville fielded an unbeaten team in 2004.

Accomplished coaches usually assemble acclaimed recruiting classes, and at least five SEC teams had recruiting classes ranked among the nation's top 20 by Rivals.com in each of the last five years. Seven SEC recruiting classes were ranked among the Rivals.com top 10 in 2007.

"The SEC schools can continue to pull more of those guys in," Crabtree said. "Look at the recruiting battles you have to fight. When you think Georgia you don't always think Georgia Tech, you think the University of Georgia. When you think Florida, especially lately, you think the University of Florida. Head-to-head, the SEC wins most of those recruiting battles."

SEC teams still figure to win most of their games, too.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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