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Where NFL defensive linemen come from and why it holds the Pac-12 back

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The western states produce NFL defensive linemen poorly for their population.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I have long said it and now have some data to support it... the Pac-12 has struggled to become the top conference in college football and win national championships in recent history for one major reason - the recruiting lands of the western region don't produce enough NFL-caliber defensive linemen. I have spent a good chunk of the off-season gathering data about the hometowns of NFL defensive linemen and not surprisingly, percentage-wise, the western region greatly trails the southeast when it comes to producing defensive linemen who end up playing in the NFL.

Before diving into the data, I have to re-make an argument that I think is integral to understand the conference balance of the power in modern college football. Quarterbacks might win Heismans and get the most attention and offenses might be getting more and more prolific, but defensive linemen still mostly decide who wins national championships in college football and which conferences dominate nationally and this is a primary reason why the SEC has dominated college football the past 10 years or so and the Pac-12 has not.

When you go back and look at the lists of national champions in college football of the past 10 years, there is no arguing that each had the (and if not the, very close to the) best defensive line in America. A great Pac-12-centric example is that USC had incredibly stacked defensive lines when they were dominating the country under Pete Carroll.

Now that we all agree on the importance of defensive linemen in college football (we do, right?), let's take a look at the numbers and why they push the SEC out ahead of the Pac-12.

The first is pretty simple, below is a breakdown of which conference current NFL defensive linemen's alma matter's play in now. (To save space I am only listing FBS conferences).

SEC - 93

ACC - 64

Big Ten - 56

Pac-12 - 48

Big 12 - 27

AAC - 27

MAC - 15

C-USCA - 13

Mountain West 12

Sun Belt 12

IND - 10

Now obviously this gives an advantage to conferences that have more teams than others, but regardless, percentage-wise it is still an enormous testament to the SEC and to a lesser extent, the ACC. Using percentages, the Pac-12 is actually tied for third with the Big Ten based on how many teams are in the conferences, but still greatly trails the SEC.

While these numbers say a lot about the strengths of conferences overall and on the defensive line, I thought looking at the source of where that power actually comes from is much more interesting by looking at the hometowns of these NFL defensive linemen (hometown being where they graduated high school, not where they were born). Included below is a ranking of how well different states produce NFL defensive linemen based on their populations. It can serve as an explanation more or less for why the SEC and ACC produce so many. (The numbers next to the states are the number of NFL defensive linemen per-people in the state and I put a * next to states to take with a grain of salt because of how few they have and their population. For example, Wyoming and Idaho are way too high because they randomly have a or some representatives, but probably not enough to give an accurate reading).

1.       Louisiana - 219,137

2.       Hawaii - 249,009

3.       Alabama - 268,540

4.       South Carolina - 280,872

5.       Utah - 290,087

6.       Mississippi - 298,492

7.       Georgia - 312,255

8.       Florida - 528,455

9.       Idaho* - 531-909

10.   Oklahoma - 550,081

11.   Wyoming* - 582, 658

12.   Connecticut - 599,346

13.   North Carolina - 656,537

14.   Maryland - 658,757

15.   Texas - 661,204

16.   Missouri - 698,948

17.   Arizona - 733,127

18.   Arkansas - 737,282

19.   New Jersey - 741,611

20.   Colorado - 758,623

21.   Ohio - 771,387

22.   Tennessee - 811,997

23.   Virginia - 826,040

24.   Washington - 888,000

25.   Delaware* - 917,092

26.   Nebraska* - 934,258

27.   Wisconsin - 954,399

28.   Washington DC - 976,773

29.   Pennsylvania - 982,600

30.   Illinois - 990,993

31.   Montana* - 1,015,165

32.   Minnesota - 1,084,076

33.   Kentucky - 1,098,076

34.   Michigan - 1,099,513

35.   Oregon - 1,299,784

36.   New York - 1,310,075

37.   New Hampshire* - 1,323,459

38.   Nevada - 1,379,465

39.   California - 1,420,000

40.   New Mexico* - 2,085,538

41.   Indiana - 2,190,300

42.   Kansas* - 2,893,957

43.   Massachusetts - 3,346, 412

The rest of the states do not have a single NFL defensive lineman.

The obvious takeaway is that the southern states dominate producing NFL defensive linemen and that directly relates to why the conference dominates college football. While there isn't really a better statistic that shows why the SEC is ahead of the Pac-12, there are some other findings that I found particularly telling when it comes to why the Pac-12 struggles to catch SEC in defensive line strength.

Hawaii and Utah are growing goldmines due to their high Polynesian populations and the abundance of Polynesian athletes in the Western region (California & Washington have strong communities as well) is one of the main reasons that the Pac-12 is the second-strongest conference in college football. A great example of how skilled Polynesians are at football is that if you used the same formula I used to total the numbers for the states above with American Samoa, the number is one NFL defensive lineman for every 22,000 people. The only problem is that the total population of Polynesian athletes is not that high and schools from around the country have done a great job at recruiting them out of the Pac-12 region in recent years. Also, while Hawaii and Utah produce a great percentage of NFL defensive linemen for their limited populations, their limited populations also means that there are not that many NFL-caliber defensive linemen coming out of these states each year for teams to load up on, unlike the plentiful southern states.

The other thing that jumps out at me in regards to the Pac-12, is how poor the state of California is at producing NFL defensive linemen based on its population. Obviously California produces a large total number, but it is still lower than states like Florida and Texas, which have lower populations and even Georgia. I have not done the research, but I suspect that the state might be better at producing skill position players, but still not as well as the southern states who are already dominating at defensive line as well, negating that advantage. The California metro areas are especially weak in comparison to their population as Los Angeles and the Bay Area average well over a million people per one NFL defensive linemen while the major cities in the south hover around the 150,000-400,000 range.

When it comes to defensive line (and overall really), this is especially troublesome for the Pac-12, as each in the conference depends so heavily on harvesting California for their talent and there isn't much to go around. This limits the amount of depth upon the defensive line that even the elite Pac-12 programs can build unless they can go out of the region to sign talent, and especially holds back the non-elite Pac-12 programs who have to try and recruit after the elite schools have picked through and fought over the small pool of defensive line talent. Throw in the fact that Oregon and Washington do not produce defensive line talent well either, and it is an uphill battle for the Pac-12 to try and compete with the SEC along the defensive line.

The question now is how does the future look for the Pac-12? In California, and up in the northwest, it probably isn't going to turn around any time soon as these states are becoming more and more urban every day and more and more populated by ethnic groups that don't play much footbal. Where the hope resides for the Pac-12 is the growth of the states of Arizona, Nevada and Utah and the ability for its teams to recruit nationally.

Arizona and Utah (and Nevada to a lesser extent) have seemed to produce more and more talent, especially along the defensive line, every year. This has a lot to do with how much Arizona, especially the Phoenix metro area, grew over the past 10-15 years and the strong Polynesian presence in the Utah, especially the Salt Lake City metro area, has become. With this, the Phoenix and Salt Lake City areas have also started to develop some outstanding high school programs, another key factor of producing college football talent. While I think these areas are starting to steady after great growth, I think the Pac-12 is going to continue to harvest them thoroughly and they will continue to produce well in the near future.

What will probably actually be more integral for the Pac-12 in this matter though is the ability of Pac-12 teams to recruit defensive linemen nationally. Stanford's academic appeal has allowed them to already recruit linemen nationally, and it is a part of why they have become so dominant. The Cardinal are not alone in their ability to do this though, USC due to their appealing location and tradition can and UCLA is on the verge of being able to as well and Oregon's national brand sells well outside of the western region.

If Oregon, Stanford and the LA schools can keep doing this (and keep getting better at it), the Pac-12 could break through on the national stage for the first time in a long time. As for the other Pac-12 schools.... well, they might have to hope that they can make do with what is in their backyard.