Sooner freshmen say SEC banner was alluring

Sooner freshmen say SEC banner was alluring

OU wants the word out. The Southeastern Conference is the place to be. Since July 2021, the Sooners have been recruiting towards their 2024 entry into the nation’s hottest conference. OU is selling the SEC to ticket-holders, to sponsors and, most of all, to recruits.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 22, 2024, 2:13pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 22, 2024, 2:13pm CDT

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)

NORMAN — Nigel Smith came armed with information when he joined his fellow first-year Sooner football players for a mass interview session a couple of weeks ago.

“The SEC is the best conference in college football right now,” said Smith, a defensive lineman from Melissa, Texas, in Dallas’ outer suburbs. “Puts the most draft picks in, year in and year out, the most money made in the NFL salary wise, so playing against those guys definitely will help.”

The most draft picks? Sure. Everybody knows that. The most NFL money made? I would have guessed the SEC, but I didn’t know how accessible or reliable was such information.

So I asked Smith for his sources. And he came clean. OU personnel had distributed the information to the first-year Sooners, a day or two earlier, in preparation for the interviews.

OU wants the word out. The Southeastern Conference is the place to be.

Since July 2021, the Sooners have been recruiting towards their 2024 entry into the nation’s hottest conference. OU is selling the SEC to ticket-holders, to sponsors and, most of all, to recruits.

“It was definitely a big attraction, being able to play on the biggest stage,” said freshman defensive back Michael Boganowski of Junction City, Kansas. “Going against the best people every week, that was a really big factor.”

The Sooners are SEC-bound for many reasons, the foremost of them financial. Schools these days would join the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen if it made them $14 more. But OU also sought the SEC for recruiting purposes. 

The SEC’s preponderance of talent has gone from a trend to an absolute. The hype has become the reality. Texas A&M discovered that when it bolted the Big 12 13 years ago; the Sooners plan to reap the same bounty.

And arriving on campus in January were the first batch of OU freshmen recruits who will not play under the Big 12 banner. I was curious how much of an impact the SEC had on the newcomers’ decision to wear crimson.

The answer is, lots. Not total. But lots.

“It was a big step to coming here,” said Ivan Carreon, a wide receiver from Odessa, Texas. “I just think it’s the best league in college football.”

That was the prevailing sentiment, but it wasn’t unanimous.

“I think it’s obviously going to be great going into the best conference in the nation,” said wide receiver Zion Kearney, from Fresno, Texas. But “I didn’t really think about it too much. Oklahoma’s been so good for so long; I think Coach (Brent) Venables and the staff here will do whatever they need to do to win anywhere.”

The Sooners have been recruiting nationally for decades, but they seem to be recruiting less regionally more than ever. Venables’ staff signed seven Texans and six Oklahomans in the 2024 recruiting class while adding players from Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Arizona, California, Minnesota, Kansas and the United Kingdom. 

Many of those players connect with the SEC even more-so than players in the Southwest.

“It was a really good thing, ‘cause when I was young, my whole goal was like, one, I wanted to play college football, and two, I wanted to play in the SEC,” said offensive tackle Isaiah Autry-Dent, from Fulton, Mississippi, and whose mother played basketball at Tennessee. “I grew up in Mississippi. State, Ole Miss and all them. I grew up wanting to play SEC.

“Finding out OU was going to the SEC the next year, that was really good for me. I was really excited that we were going to play in that new conference. The atmosphere in the SEC is something I really want to be in.”

Interestingly, defensive back Jaydan Hardy’s father also played at Tennessee (football).

“I grew up watching the SEC,” Hardy said. “It’s the biggest, physical-est football. If you can make it in the SEC, you can make it in the league.”

Ah, yes. The National Football League. Players don’t want to play in the SEC so much as they want to play in the NFL. Hence that conveniently planted nugget about SEC alum salaries in the NFL.

By the way. OU’s intel is accurate — SEC players earned $1.9 billion in the NFL in 2023. The Big Ten is next at $1.2 billion, with the Big 12 fifth at $873 million. But you can make numbers do all kinds of things.

The Big 12 had just 10 members from 2011-22. In average salary per school, the Big 12 ranked as high as any conference outside the SEC. The Big Ten averaged $87.5 million per school, the Big 12 $87.3 million, the Atlantic Coast Conference $78.7 million and the Pac-12 $74.2 million. The SEC’s average was $135.9 million.

OU actually ranked fourth on the list of individual schools, with $243.6 million earned. That’s what happens when you put quarterbacks in the NFL. The Sooners were behind Alabama, Ohio State and Louisiana State, but ahead of Clemson, Georgia, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Mississippi State and Wisconsin.

And that’s the point. OU has been holding its own in recruiting and producing NFL players. What can it do with the SEC logo on those jerseys?

“It’s an opportunity to be part of a team that’s going for it in the SEC and have a dominant run,” said defensive lineman Wyatt Gilmore, from Rogers, Minnesota. “The level of competition, you look at the NFL, most guys are drafted from the SEC.”

Not most guys. The most, from any particular conference, but the SEC accounted for just 21.6 percent of NFL players on Week 1 rosters last September. But the Big 12 accounted for just 12.2 percent.

“It made a pretty good impact,” defensive back Reggie Powers III, from Centerville, Ohio, said of the SEC on his recruitment. “I know the competition is going to go up, joining the best league in college football.”

Rest easy. The new Sooners expressed connection to more than just the SEC.

The SEC “wasn’t a huge factor, because regardless, this is one of the top dogs in college football,” said quarterback Brendan Zurbrugg of Alliance, Ohio. “The coaching staff here is definitely going to make me the best I can possibly be at football. Just the football culture, blue-blood program, really good football program, lots of championships, they know how to win.

“I think going to the SEC is really cool, though. Best conference in football, highest level of football.”

That’s what the Sooner move is all about. One of the top dogs trying to turn SEC fuel into being the top dog.

Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma sports journalism. He joined Sellout Crowd in August 2023. Reach Berry via email at [email protected], via Twitter/X at @berrytramel and via phone at (405) 760-8080.


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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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