Monday, August 31, 2009

Is the SEC faster?

So we've established that the SEC and ACC are producing more NFL rushing yards than the other conferences. There's also been a long established rumor of SEC speed. I thought I'd dig into this a little. One way to model the quality of athletes in a region is to look at total population, as defined in the US Census. There are 1700 NFL football players and roughly 300M Americans. In theory (although soon to be disproven), there should be one NFL player for every 175,000 Americans. To model this, I've constructed a very crude model of conference recruiting regions (notice the BE in pink):

Some assumptions:
1) Programs receive the vast majority of their players from the regions on the map
2)Florida is 50/50 SEC/ACC. I realize that the ACC has more schools but UF seems to be getting the lions share of the recruits
3) States where one program dominates (Ohio, Penn) are listed in a single conference's region even though another conference (Big East) will try to poach players. I'm assuming the best players (future NFLers) are generally going to the top programs in the state. In Ohio, I think this is a very reasonable assumption (who was the last player to diss OSU for Cincinnati?)

You could spend all day poking holes in this model. Essentially it assumes that all the players on these teams come from the listed Geos. While this is largely true for small time programs (read Michigan State) and geographically gifted major programs (Florida and Texas), it certainly less true for the national, regionally challenged programs such as UM. Still, its a starting point. If we look at census data for the given regions, we find a surprising result:

US Census Data: Total Population
The Big 10 has the largest recruiting region! This means that, by statistics, the Big 10 should recruit and train the most NFL players. However, we've already shows that this isn't really the case, especially in regards to impact NFL RBs. So what's missing? First, college football does not recruit across all age and gender demos. It focuses on Males, 17-23. So lets look at the population breakdown among this group:

US Census Data: Males 17-23
Even with this cut, the Big 10 should be producing more talent than the rest of the country. (I guess the theory about the aging upper Midwest is somewhat apocryphal). So why isn't the Big 10 producing 23.5% of NFL running backs? This is where you get into some controversial territory. It seems NFL ability isn't distributed equally to all races. There's a great post on this topic in the Minneapolis city pages ( Essentially NFL starting line ups very quite a bit by race and position:

Quarterback (32 starters)

26- White (81 percent)
6- Black (19 percent)

Wide Receiver (64 starters)

59- Black (92 percent)
3- White (5 percent)
1- Other (2 percent)

Running Back (32 starters)

32- Black (100 percent)

Fullback (32 starters)

21- Black (66 percent)
10- White (31 percent)
1- Other (3 percent)

Tight End (32 starters)

18- White (56 percent)
13- Black (41 percent)
1- Other (3 percent)

Offensive Line (160 starters)

79- White (49 percent)
72- Black (45 percent)
8- Other (5 percent)

Defensive Line (119 starters)

94- Black (79 percent)
21- White (18 percent)
4- Other (3 percent)

Defensive Back (128 starters)

123- Black (96 percent)
4- White (3 percent)
1- Other (1 percent)

Linebacker (105 starters)

78- Black (74 percent)
23- White (22 percent)
4- Other (4 percent)

Placekicker (32 starters)

32- White (100 percent)

Punter (32 starters)

31- White (97 percent)

1- Black (3 percent)

At the running back position, 100% of week 15 starters in the 2008 football season were African American (sorry McGuffie). If you believe that African Americans are more likely to have the physical and mental disposition to play running back in the NFL, you should examine young African American demographics to understand the conferences relative strengths at this position (I'm making no inferences to starting left tackles here -- Jake Long). So if we breakdown the census data by African American males ages 17-23 we see that:

US Census Data: African American Males 17-23
Wow. Suddenly the numbers look ugly for the Big 10. ~26% of this group lives in SEC country. In fact, Georgia has more young African American men than California. So I think this begins to explain the SEC speed myth. The SEC has more men likely to make NFL running backs than the Big 10. Now is this analysis perfect: not even close. According to this, the Pac 10 should be the worst, and we know that's not true (although take away recruiting from LA and Oakland and you might see a pretty bleak picture). There's really a lot more nuance to this discussion that can be answered in this blog. The ACC, for instance, performs better than the numbers above would indicate (some tweaking of the FL model might even this up a little though).
In reality, recruiting is not so geographically confined as this analysis permits. Still, it does explain why RR and crew are spending a lot of time looking for "speed" players in the Southeast (I'm assuming that speed is euphemistically used instead of African American). Demographically, there's simply a higher concentration of the population there. Eventually I'll get around to linemen recruiting and hopefully we can explain why the Big 10 produces 2x as many NFL centers as the SEC.

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