In these uncertain times around Big 12 country (aren’t all of the times uncertain at this point?), there has been talk of approximately a million different scenarios. Should the Big 12 expand? Which schools should they bring in? Is the conference a dead man walking? Should Oklahoma State just bail and move to the SEC? There have been Twitter polls showing a little over half of OSU fans would like to see a move to the SEC and more than 60% think that’s where the Pokes should go if the Big 12 dissolves, and all for good reason. The SEC has a lot to offer in terms of prestige and national perception and, you know, cash. The fanbase has been swooning over what the schedule would look like if OSU were to move to the SEC.
But what would the roster look like? Let’s be honest here, how much would we care about the names on the schedule if we weren’t fielding a competitive team year in and year out? I don’t hear much from Vanderbilt fans about how great their schedule is, do you? I think a lot of OSU fans are looking past this because, with one notable exception, the Cowboys have fielded a very competitive team every season for going on a decade. And, so goes the general consensus, a move to the SEC would boost recruiting because recruits want to play in the SEC, right?
Signing better recruits means building a better football team. No argument there. And all you have to do is look at the recruiting trends in College Station to find support for the argument that moving to the SEC comes with a signing bonus of 5-starry goodness. Never mind that pesky problem of keeping those recruits in town. The Aggies have seen their spike in recruiting have an impact on the field, as would be expected. Texas A&M averaged seven wins per season over its last six years in the Big 12 and has averaged nine wins per season in its four years in the SEC, against undoubtedly better competition. So the blueprint is there. Move to the SEC, recruit better players, field a better team. A&M did it. OSU can do it too.
But, Texas A&M is just one example. And they may not be the best comparison for Oklahoma State. Let’s not forget (we will never forget!), four teams left the Big 12 for supposedly greener pastures, and I suspect each of them imagined the move would be a positive thing for their football programs, not JUST their pocketbooks. So how are those other three schools doing?
Here’s a look at how each of the four schools who left have ranked in recruiting classes according to Rivals.com. The chart includes class rankings starting in 2007 to show how those schools were recruiting while in the Big 12. Highlighted is the first recruiting class for each school that signed after that school officially announced its departure from the Big 12. I also listed the date of each school’s announcement just because I’m a glutton for punishment. OSU’s recruiting classes are included mostly because I was curious, but also for comparison. It’s an OSU site, okay?
So, using the rankings from Rivals, Texas A&M’s recruiting classes have improved by an average of 14 spots. That seems huge. Taking OSU’s recent average class ranking of 36, that would have the Pokes pushing for a top 20 recruiting class basically every year. Let’s go. But look at the other three. What is going on in Boulder? Colorado’s recruiting classes have dropped off the face of what was already a mediocre Earth. But that’s Colorado. They weren’t recruiting well in the Big 12 either. Okay. Missouri and Nebraska haven’t fallen off, but they haven’t seen the spike that A&M has seen, either. In fact, they haven’t improved at all. Nebraska is essentially the same and Missouri has actually dropped a spot and a half.
For the sake of comparison to OSU moving to the SEC, we can say goodbye (again) to Nebraska and Colorado because they didn’t move to the SEC. So let’s focus on the aforementioned Aggies and Missouri. Between the two, Missouri is actually a much stronger comparison for Oklahoma State, and not just in terms of recruiting class rankings. The schools are much closer in size compared to the behemoth in College Station, and the two were performing remarkably similarly on the field prior to Missouri’s departure. From 2006-2011, Missouri averaged 9.3 wins per season. Oklahoma State averaged 9.2.
Oklahoma State and Missouri are also different than Texas A&M in another way that may be even more critical to recruiting. Texas A&M has the advantage of being located in the state of Texas. OSU and Missouri, you may have heard, do not. #Breaking. And this IS a big deal. Texas is a hotbed of high school football talent. Jake Sharpless did some fantastic work here on where college football players come from. Take a look at this heat map of the hometowns of every single FBS player in the country.
A LOT of players come from Texas. But Gundy & Co. have always recruited the state of Texas well. That’s true. So did Missouri. Until they left the Big 12. Mizzou signed an average of almost nine players from the state of Texas per year in the six years before announcing its departure from the Big 12. That’s about a third of their recruiting class each year. Since then? The average has dropped to less than three players per class. That’s a 68 percent loss. Why? Missouri went from playing multiple games in and around the state of Texas to playing multiple games in the Eastern time zone. The Tigers went from a conference that is based in Dallas to a conference that’s based in Birmingham. And, clearly, that’s had an effect on their recruiting.
Now, there are two important things to note here. One, Oklahoma State’s campus is considerably closer to Texas than the University of Missouri. So maybe proximity alone will help lessen the potential blow to OSU’s ability to recruit from Texas. But if the Cowboys move to the SEC, Gundy will be charged with convincing players from Texas to come play at a school that’s not in Texas and won’t be playing many games in Texas. It doesn’t appear as if the lure of playing in the SEC has been enough to offset that for Missouri. The second thing is that, while Missouri has lost a lot of recruits from Texas since joining the SEC, their overall recruiting rankings have remained pretty consistent. That’s mostly because they’ve brought in more recruits from states like Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida.
Looking at the heat map, there is an abundance of talent in SEC country as well, and Missouri is bringing in some of that talent. But they aren’t recruiting BETTER players. They’ve replaced their Texas players with players from SEC states, but the overall impact on their recruiting has been slightly negative. Why? Sure, the Tigers can go get some kids from Florida because they play games in Florida and they are locally relevant(ish) in Florida now. But they aren’t getting the top kids because at the end of the day, they’re still a thousand miles away.
So, Missouri’s move to the SEC has, up to this point, produced a slight down tick in recruiting and a bump up in level of competition. Seems like a bad combination. And it is. Over its last six seasons in the Big 12, Missouri averaged 9.3 wins per season. Since joining the SEC, that’s down to 8.25. Prior to leaving the Big 12, the Tigers went to seven straight bowl games. They’ve managed only two bowl games in their four seasons in the SEC. Everyone points to the two division titles for Missouri in what was a depleted SEC East at the time, but the truth is Missouri has not been as successful since leaving the Big 12. Even the impact of those division titles and the selling point of playing in the SEC has not helped Missouri recruit any better than it was recruiting in the Big 12.
Can Oklahoma State, a school that so closely compares with Missouri, expect to do any better? There’s a good chance that the effect on recruiting Texas would not be as severe for Oklahoma State as it was for Missouri due to proximity, but leaving the Big 12 WOULD have an effect. As much as we may think recruiting is turning into a nationwide thing, a look at the map Jake Sharpless put together of where every player in the Big 12 came from tells a different story. Spoiler: Big 12 players come overwhelmingly from within the Big 12 footprint. Specifically, they come from Dallas and Houston. So where you are located and where you play games does matter.
OSU can recruit players from Texas now, in part, because the Cowboys play roughly 36 games within five hours of Dallas over a four year span. A move to the SEC would mean the loss of games in Lubbock, Ft. Worth, Waco, and Austin with really only the addition of College Station to buoy the schedule. Missouri has countered that by bringing in players from SEC land, but they’re still fighting just to try to maintain their past level of moderate recruiting success.
It’s easy to look at Texas A&M as the example for what OSU could do with a move to the SEC, but its just as likely, if not more so, that the Cowboys would actually end up looking more like Missouri. And that, if nothing else, is a sobering picture that could damper that SEC excitement just a little.