Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel touch on something I had pondered in the preseason when I came up with my SEC preseason prediction list – the effect of what seems to be a rapidly accelerating trend of football underclassmen leaving early for the NFL draft.
When the No. 1 Bulldogs visit the No. 4 Crimson Tide on Saturday, the only thing bigger than the stakes is the surprise that this game — often an afterthought for the Tide — looms as the biggest in college football this season. The rise of Mississippi State, the inconsistency of Alabama and parity in the SEC can best be explained by, well, college basketball.
How? Think of Mississippi State like Wichita State, Butler or George Mason. The Bulldogs are a cohesive program with a strong system and savvy veterans that’s thrived thanks to continuity, player development and strong coaching. Losing no players early to the NFL Draft the last two years has fortified and stabilized the program.
Consider Alabama — and LSU for that matter — as a football version of Kentucky basketball. Those programs are constantly scrambling to replace high-end talent. Along the way, they’ve occasionally relied on unreliable players. The Crimson Tide have lost eight players to early entry the past two seasons, and LSU lost a jaw-dropping 18 non-seniors to early entry over the past two years.
“The truth of it is in a parallel universe, Alabama and LSU have become the Kentucky of college football,” said Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager who does color commentary for Alabama broadcasts.
In the macro, it’s easy to see why there’s more parity in the SEC and college football overall. According to statistics provided by the NFL, there were 102 players who declared early for the 2014 NFL Draft, including 28 from the SEC. That’s more than double the 46 players from FBS schools who declared early in 2009. It’s even a sharp spike from the 73 players in 2013. (It’s just as eyebrow-raising that 37 early entrants went undrafted in 2014).
What the exodus has done is allow non-traditional programs with strong systems — Mississippi State, Arizona State, TCU, Kansas State and Ole Miss — to be in national title contention alongside the usual collection of blue bloods. Savage runs the Senior Bowl and the most telling statistic about the drop in veteran talent in the SEC this year comes from his invitation list. In each of the last two years, Savage issued more than 30 invitations to SEC players. This year, that number has dipped to 20 (juniors are not eligible).
“With all the juniors [leaving early], it’s really impacted the SEC and beyond,” Savage said. “Look at Alabama, LSU and Florida State. People are saying they’re not as dominant as they’ve been? How could they be? Sure, they have talent, but it takes time to get it all together.”
The comparison is a bit overdrawn in a couple of ways – football rosters are much bigger than basketball ones and football doesn’t have a one-and-done model with regard to its biggest starts – but there is some validity to it. You don’t lose 18 underclassmen in a single draft without taking some kind of hit. And Mullen’s patience in assembling the most experienced squad in the SEC has paid off big time this season. But I’m not sure that’s an automatic thing every season.
In any event, I doubt the trend has escaped the all-seeing eye of Nick Saban. But outside of discouraging his kids from leaving early for the NFL, I’m not exactly sure what else he can do to fight it. Except lobby for college player payment, maybe, to lessen the incentive to move on to the next level. Should be an interesting development to watch.