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SEC and the art of strategic scheduling

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

Conference Average SoS
Big 12 14
Pac-12 16.6
SEC 26.5

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.

Alabama Crimson TideoFurthermore, 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.

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