Seven years ago, the Big 12 spent NFL Draft night soaking up praise.
Five of the first six picks of the 2010 draft had called the Big 12 home, and none of them were from a Texas team that played for a national title a little more than three months earlier. The talent pool was deeper than ever, with nine picks in the top 24. It was evenly distributed, too: The nine draftees came from five schools.
A lot can change in less than two full recruiting cycles.
During last Thursday's first round, the Big 12 could only soak up a lonely silence. Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes was the Big 12's only player drafted on Day 1. His Red Raiders won five games in 2016.
Just 14 players from the Big 12 were picked in the entire seven-round draft.
Consider that, on Monday, the American Athletic Conference released a "strategic plan" that served as its "core philosophy." It was ambitious, explicitly stating the league's equal footing alongside college football's major conferences, as though it were reality. The conference sought to further establish a less-than-buzzy "Power Six" term that challenges the more common "Power Five" designation. It had a spiffy hashtag (#AmericanPow6R) and everything.
"By virtue of its competitive success and its adoption of autonomous initiatives, the American Athletic Conference has earned the Power Six label," the five-pillar plan's third pillar read.
It was a timely push. The AAC had 15 players drafted, one more than the Big 12. Still, the Big 12 and AAC combined had six fewer players drafted than any other power conference.
- SEC: 53
- ACC: 42
- Pac-12: 36
- Big Ten: 35
- AAC: 15
- Big 12: 14
With 10 teams, the Big 12 is the smallest conference, yes, but even shifting the totals to players drafted per team does little to help.
Revenue numbers -- the Big 12's schools received $30.4 million in league revenue, a competitive number among power conferences -- tie the league closer to the conferences it has considered peers throughout its 21-year history. But sending less talent to the NFL than the American in any given year is troubling.
In 2012, the Big 12 had 26 players drafted, two fewer than the Pac-12 and the fewest among the five power conferences. In 2013, it had 22 players, tied for the fewest in the power leagues. In 2014, the league had 17 players drafted. That was 13 fewer than any other power conference and just one more than the Mountain West, which distributed a little more than $3 million to its members that year. Big 12 members' full share that year was $23 million. In 2015, the Big 12 had 25 players drafted, 10 fewer than the Big Ten and 14 more than the American.
Last season, the Big 12 had 26 players drafted, tied with the 14-team ACC for the fewest among power leagues. Considering the rate of players drafted per team, it was the strongest overall draft year for the conference since the 2010 bonanza, but the Big 12 had just three players drafted in the first round. The American had two. The SEC had eight.
If you want the reason for the decline, the first place to look is realignment.
The Big 12 had 14 drafted players this year. The four schools that left the conference in 2010 and 2011 -- Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado -- combined to have 11 players drafted.
Recruiting is the closely related second reason. Texas A&M's exit from the Big 12 accomplished two things: It strengthened the Aggies' recruiting and opened the floodgates for SEC schools to raid Texas, turning a once-private pool into an overcrowded free-for-all. It undercut the talent base of a conference already struggling to compete for national titles. The Big 12 hasn't won a title since 2005 and hasn't played for one since 2009.
Since the playoff era that began in 2014, the SEC, ACC and Big Ten have all claimed national titles. The Pac-12 played for one. The SEC, ACC and Big Ten have all put a team in the playoff every season. The Big 12 has made the field just once: No. 4 seed Oklahoma lost by 20 to national runner-up Clemson in 2015.
Texas' repeated failures since its 13-0 run in 2009 haven't helped the Big 12, either. Without Nebraska and Texas A&M, the Longhorns stand alongside Oklahoma as the league's only national brands. The Longhorns and Sooners are the conference's only programs with blue-blood status, but Texas has looked anything but that as Mack Brown and Charlie Strong fought off losing seasons before ceding to new coach Tom Herman this offseason.
Since Earl Thomas became the 14th pick back in 2010, Texas has had just two first-rounders. From 2004-10, the Longhorns had nine players drafted in the first round. Only one was drafted later than the 20th pick. In 2014, Texas had zero players drafted for the first time since 1937.
With power programs leaving and one of its two remaining signature programs mired in mediocrity, the Big 12's descent was easily calculated, and changing the perception of a downward trend won't be easy.
In 2017, the Big 12 signed just 27 of ESPN's top 300 prospects. Alabama signed 21. Georgia had 18. In 2015 and 2016, the Big 12 secured 34 of the ESPN 300. Texas signed 14 of the 34 in 2015, eight in 2016 and just five in 2017. So far in 2018, the Big 12 has commitments from 15 players in the ESPN 300. LSU has 10, despite a new, unproven coaching staff led by Ed Orgeron.
It's a troubling trend that's showed up on the field, but when it's reduced to numbers on signing day in February and during the NFL Draft in April, conditions appear far more dire.
The Big 12's stable of coaches include standouts like Bill Snyder, Mike Gundy and Gary Patterson, whose results on the field and in the draft consistently outpace their results on signing day. But none of the three have come all that close to helping the Big 12 to break through its national title drought. Gundy's 2011 team came closest. Doing that, quite simply, requires elite-level talent. Or, the type of talent that's coming to the Big 12 far less frequently in recent years.
They can try to reverse the trend, but nothing makes doing so easier than big wins on big stages. And without talent, it's hard to win big games on big stages.
The Big 12 still has Power Five status, but there's a lot of work to do to make sure that the gap between it and the other four conferences doesn't grow.