Last week CBSSports.com columnist Gregg Doyel wrote with his patented abrasiveness that the reputation of college football’s marquee conference, the SEC, is nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme... built upon layers of air” this season. In short, Doyel contended that the league has manipulated the BCS system this year by gorging on cupcakes outside its conference and relying on voters to take it on faith that its teams are good. The implication: The SEC is overrated.
That’s not exactly a groundbreaking theory, and Doyel pounded on straw men to prove his point. His column did, however, re-invigorate the annual bitch session about the league’s timid scheduling practices.
Over the weekend, SEC teams fired back at the critics. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt all played games outside of their league against ACC teams. All came away with wins ranking somewhere between “convincing” and “bloody.” Most notably, Florida went on the road and handed Florida State the Seminoles’ second loss of the season, while South Carolina did the same for Clemson.
It was an impressive run by the league, but does it change anything with regard to the allegations of candy ass scheduling? Actually, I think we'd be better off refocusing the debate.
Form over function
In reality critics like Doyel tend to miss the mark on the topic of the SEC and working the system. SEC teams on the whole probably get an overly bad rap for their scheduling. Either as the result of natural rivalries or conscious choices, almost every team ends up playing one opponent from another AQ conference. This year, for instance, only Mississippi State and Texas A&M decided that they couldn’t make room for a big boy.
Across most of the major conferences, one game against another BCS team would be about par for the course. So, to me, it’s disingenuous to charge SEC programs with outright ducking tougher games.
Instead, the bigger issue between the SEC and its two main competitors as of late, the Big 12 and Pac-12, is the structure of the schedule. Playing eight conference games instead of nine opens up one additional spot for SEC teams to fill outside of its conference, and you can imagine how often Sisters of the Poor shows up there compared to a USC or even a Minnesota.
In 2012 SEC teams have played a total of 42 games against non-AQs, an average of three per team. The Pac-12 played 24 non-AQs, two per team on average. The Big 12 played 23 such games, a little more than two per team. Strength of schedule rankings, such as Jeff Sagarin's system, tend to reflect that discrepancy.
Sagarin Strength of Schedule Rankings
Whereas half of the teams in the Big 12 or Pac-12 must take a loss in that “swing” game, the entire SEC has, in effect, scheduled in a win. On balance, the effect is roughly a half-game improvement in the records of SEC teams. (Occasionally, presumed cakewalks like Louisiana-Monroe don’t cooperate.) In other words, half of the teams have one more win than they would have had if playing a round-robin schedule.
Furthermore, with fewer games against conference opponents, Alabama can have a season like this in which it goes through league play and misses the three best teams in the other division. As Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com points out, is it really a coincidence that the two teams playing for the SEC crown also had the easiest slates in conference games?
The ultimate effect is that the supposed “grind” of the SEC is overblown – quite the opposite, in fact. Not only are teams’ records inflated, they’re playing fewer games of consequence, too.
Crowded at the top
With all that in mind, the glut of SEC teams near the top of the BCS rankings this year is easily explainable. Aside from the extra non-conference game, as Stuart points out, the conference’s upper crust has rolled over the rest of the league this season. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and South Carolina went a combined 30-0 in league play.
Those six teams are definitely some of the best in the country and, for the most part, proved themselves outside of league play. Yet, the bigger dilemma when evaluating their resumes is the massive drop-off in the conference after them.
The middle and lower tiers of the SEC were far worse this year than usual. The group of Missouri, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky went a combined 3-6 against AQ teams, with wins coming against ACC also-rans Wake Forest and N.C. State and a middling Arizona State team.
(Note that four of those eight SEC schools are undergoing coaching changes.)
None of this is to say that the best SEC teams this year aren’t outstanding. Likewise, to call the league a total fraud this season sounds like hyperbole. The winner of this weekend's SEC title game will likely head to the national championship game. Georgia or Alabama will have as good of a claim on that spot as any other one-loss contender.
More than anything, though, the scheduling issue this year further illustrates how the party line that “there are no off weeks in the SEC” generally falls just as flat as the accusations of fraudulence. Going forward, pollsters and pundits should take that into account.
"Strategic"? Pathetic would be a better word for it.
The "writer" is willingly and gutlessly ignoring and avoiding other facts about the non-con scheduling of the SECond rate conference.
Among the 24 "non-AQ" teams scheduled by the PAC12, many of them are teams that can and have beaten "AQ" teams regularly. This year alone the PAC12 played Fresno State (twice), BYU (three times), San Diego State, Nevada, Houston, and I'm NOT counting teams like Duke (usually an AQ weakling), Toledo, Utah State or San Jose State who surprised the hell out of everyone. The PAC12 doesn't hide from the best "non-AQ" teams, they play them, and sometimes suffer the consequences (remember the 1-6 record against "non-AQ" teams like Boise, Fresno, BYU and others a few years ago?).
The SECond rate conference, on the other hand, only takes on the weakest "non-AQ" teams it can find. Who were the "best" of the "non-AQ" teams the SECond rate conference played? East Carolina, Central Florida, Troy (twice), Western Kentucky (twice), Louisiana Tech, Southern Methodist, Tulsa. It hardly compares to the teams the PAC12 played. And the rest of the pathetic schedules included bottom feeders like Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Massachusetts, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Idaho, and New Mexico State. If they had known that Bowling Green, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee were going to do what they did, the SECond rate teams would have cancelled those games (see: Florida running away from a 2009 rematch at Hawaii).
And that's without any mention of the SECond rate teams' abject fear of travelling for away games.
If the SEC is so weak please explain how the BCS final standings have so many SEC teams in top 10? Using all the different polls, the computers, Sagrin and the like the final BCS standings finish with 6 teams from the SEC in the top 10. SEC has no control over those at all. Top 10 standings has #2 Alabama, #3 Florida, #7 Georgia, #8 LSU, #9 Texas A&M, #10 South Carolina. Every SEC team listed in BCS standing had only losses against other SEC teams. How is it that the SEC has won so many national championships pre-BCS, during the BCS and will continue to do so after the BCS is complete and we go to 4-playoff system.
Everyone wanted a new format after LSU & Alabama played in 2011 championship, This outraged all the other conferences; however I am almost certain they are going to regret the new 4 team format because several times it will have 2 SEC teams in the playoff final battle, Using the new format in 2014 how many national championship game will have 2 SEC teams in it? I am certain it will be more than most other conferences.
If instead of just whining and instead done some research and had gone back and tracked the records of all the top SEC teams facing top teams from other conferences and during bowl games the SEC dominates. The stat is around 65% of wins for SEC. That has nothing to do with scheduling. That is the facts and stats. So please stop crying that the SEC is weak. The stats prove beyond a doubt the SEC is best conference in football. Deal with it!
bama should get credit for playing Michigan this year but on the same foot michigan should get credit for playing bama. I am not a fan of either team but fair is fair.
@BlatantHomerism I will say the first year of only 2 cross division games seems to have screwed SC + TAMU, and to a lesser degree UF + LSU
@BlatantHomerism Also, the SEC CG also seems to be the only one done right, and so the headline SEC contender(s) DO play 9 conf games
@gatorsfirst that's part of the reason why i wouldn't have a problem with bama or uga in nat'l champ this year
@BlatantHomerism Good read, but the "SEC-strength-as-self-fulfilling-prophecy" argument works for human polls, not computers
the bcs is a joke ,championships are won on the field not on a computer, in the early days of the bcs you had miami ,florida and florida state with their own personal conferences of cream puffs gauranteeing 2 of 3 could go undefeated, on the west coast theres only one, the pac 10 much stronger and virtually impossible to go undefeated,then you have the case of urban meyer at utah,undefeated 2 years in a row,and left out ,probably thinking,the only way ill get a national championship is to coach at florida the best,players tend to go east too,a 32 team playoff will make schools play each other like notre dame does theyll play anyone anywhere anytime the way football is supposed to be.