Who would have guessed that when Oklahoma and Texas decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC that it would have set off a chain reaction of realignment that would lead to nearly 30 schools leaving their current conference placements? The impact on the NFL Draft may seem significant at the surface. However, when you peel the layers back, you can see many positive and negative possibilities.
Let’s look at how each impacted conference will fare going forward.
THE NEW SEC
It always begins and ends with the Southeastern Conference. The 14-team league will now expand to 16, likely by the 2023 season. The last time the SEC expanded it was for television markets for the then startup SEC Network. Now, the league is just adding two of the biggest brands in the sport.
How will this impact the NFL Draft? The SEC will now further expand its yearly margin of drafted players over the next conference. The Sooners have seen 25 selections over the last five years. The Longhorns have 15. I also expect the league to expand to a nine-game conference schedule, giving us even more of the good-on-good matchups each week you are accustomed to from the SEC.
The Big 12 faced a lot of doom and gloom after losing its flagship schools. However, a quick purge of the AAC later, and the league was back at the actual number in its name. They added the current #6 team in the playoff rankings, Cincinnati, former uncrowned National Champion UCF (haha), Houston, and current FBS Independent BYU. Those four schools are appealing but don’t have the pizzazz of the two they are losing.
The number of players drafted from the Big 12 had been on a steady decline. Despite adding a net positive of two schools, it likely will not alleviate this issue. Over the last five years, we have seen Cincinnati (8), UCF (12), Houston (11), and BYU (8) see their players have their names called. All four combined have less than Oklahoma and Texas.
AAC OR NEW CONFERENCE USA?
The American Athletic Conference liked to call itself a member of the “Power 6”. Well, they can just stop all of that now. After losing their top three programs to the Big 12, the AAC decided to go with the big market approach instead of adding traditional football powers. By adding Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UTSA, Charlotte, and UAB, 12 of the 14 conference teams were once members of Conference USA. Only Temple and Navy never plied their trade there. Only UTSA and UAB (potentially Charlotte) are programs you would say are “ascending”. I kind of feel bad for SMU. Just when their program was starting to find its way and stockpile NFL talent, and then Lucy pulls away the football.
The six schools added have produced a total of nine players drafted over the last five years.
FUN BELT GETS FUNNER
During the last bout of realignment, the Sun Belt was the hunted. This time they decided to be the hunter. And they made their conference better. The SBC strategically picked up four schools that make their new 14-team league geographically divine. Southern Miss will leave CUSA and join the Sun Belt Western division. They will never have to get on a plane to travel to a road game except when playing at Texas State. They get to have a fun new rivalry with South Alabama. The schools are separated by about 90 miles. The Eastern division will add Marshall and Old Dominion from Conference USA and James Madison will take the step up from the FBS CAA where they have been a powerhouse.
I fully expect the Sun Belt to compete with the AAC as the second-best non-Power 5 conference behind the Mountain West. The added attention should also bring in more talent, which in turn, will produce more NFL draftees. The additional four teams have seen eleven players drafted into the NFL over the last five years.
Also, from a completely selfish point of view, this will allow me access to see a lot more of these teams in person. Since I am based out of Mobile, AL, I am within a 90-minute drive of the Southern Miss campus and a 10-minute drive from South Alabama.
While nothing is confirmed as of yet, the MAC is expected to expand its conference from 12 to 14 with the additions of Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. The conference that is mostly situated in the states of Michigan and Ohio is trying to reach into that sweet southern recruiting base. MTSU is the largest suburb of Nashville, which is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. This would be a great move for the MAC.
For Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, the MAC is that floating plank of wood you climb on after your ship sinks. The NFL Draft implications of this one are marginal. The MAC doesn’t see many players drafted anyway. By adding the two CUSA refugees, they are getting schools that have seen five players drafted over the last five years.
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
If WKU and MTSU defect as rumored then Conference USA would have been left with only three members: Louisiana Tech, Florida International, and UTEP. So, the remaining group has gotten desperate. They currently have extended invitations out to FBS independents Liberty and New Mexico State. CUSA is also looking to bring in FCS programs Sam Houston and Jacksonville State. I would also expect that FBS independents UConn and UMass would also be brought into the fold. As well as potentially another FCS program like Tarleton State.
It is a desperate move for a once-proud conference that got greedy during the last bout of realignment. Now, to try to stay relevant they are bringing in a hodgepodge of schools that will be, at best, on par with the MAC. A gaggle of universities that will likely produce less than five draft picks per season.
For the most part, I am looking forward to seeing this all go down. Unfortunately, we won’t see the NFL Draft fallout for a few years. Maybe some of the players Shane has mocked in his 2024 Mock Draft will see the effects?