Pac-12 vs. SEC: Strength of schedule, eight or nine conference games?

Michael Chang

We conclude our chat with Brandon Larrabee of Team Speed Kills, the SEC SB Nation site. Give him a follow on Twitter.

Brandon Larrabee: Ah, yes, the "SEC doesn't schedule tough nonconference games." I guess the golden oldies really are timeless.

Here are some facts: If you count the American Athletic Conference, every team in the SEC played a BCS AQ team out of conference this year. Every one. The only teams that didn't play either a "Power 5" (ACC, B1G, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) or Top 15 American team (Louisville, UCF) out of conference were Arkansas and Texas A&M. South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky will all have annual series with ACC teams as of next year, when Louisville joins. As far as scheduling FCS teams goes: The Pac-12 is hardly blameless in that area. Nine of the conferences teams did the same thing in 2013 (Arizona, Arizona State, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Utah, Washington and Washington State).

I think looking at things that way is far more instructive than looking at things in retrospect, at least when it comes to judging how tough a team is scheduling, as opposed to how tough its schedule was for ranking purposes. Alabama had no way of knowing when it scheduled the 2013 game that Virginia Tech would be in the middle of one of the worst stretches of the Frank Beamer Era. (On the flip side, S.C. has no way of knowing that UCF would be a Top 10-12 team when it scheduled its game at UCF.)

I have my problems with Sagarin as well -- South Carolina played a full complement of SEC games, Clemson, Wisconsin, UNC and at UCF, and somehow ended up with the 20th-ranked schedule in the postseason -- but even setting those aside, things aren't as clear-cut as you make them sound. All but three SEC teams had schedules that were within the Top 25, according to Sagarin, and Texas A&M's was ranked 26th. Four of the teams that didn't make the Top 10 had schedules ranked 12th (Arkansas), 13th (Auburn), 14th (Kentucky) and 15th (Mississippi State). No SEC team had a schedule ranked outside the Top 50. It's not like the Pac-12 was playing chess and the SEC was playing checkers.

But let's go to the postseason a minute, in the biggest games of all. The SEC is 27-17 in BCS games, and this year marks the first season since the event expanded to five bowls that the conference finished with a losing record in those games. The Pac-12 is a (still respectable) 21-13. Throwing out the national title = best conference argument (which I'd come to view as a relatively worthless argument even before FSU won), doesn't that say something about the strength of the SEC? And wouldn't it be great if Mike Slive and Larry Scott got together and made a Pac-12 vs. SEC bowl happen?

Avinash: Success in BCS bowls is definitely a point I have to concede in the SEC's favor, particularly in national title games. No one is beating that 90% winning percentage. However,  in the larger picture, the postseason is generally set up for SEC teams to dominate. Almost all of the games are in the south (nine of the ten SEC tie-ins are in SEC country), so they're pretty much semi-hosts for the majority of the contests. The Pac-12 plays two of its marquee contests in El Paso and San Antonio, the Big 12 has two games in Arizona and California, the Big Ten pretty much plays entirely road games.

I would love for the SEC and the Pac-12 to play a bowl game, but with the Cotton Bowl occupied that would probably mean a game in Florida or Georgia because no SEC team feels the need to travel west for anything that isn't Pasadena. I do not see that type of matchup occurring unless the Pac-12 decides to jettison the Rose Bowl tradition that is already being displaced by the new playoff.

I wouldn't disagree that the Pac-12 had a harder schedule than the SEC or vice-versa. I often find such rankings subjective. But I would argue that the disparity that the SEC claims exists between their schedules and everyone else's isn't as clear cut as some have argued. The conference does play tough games, but they do not have a clearcut advantage above the Pac-12 in overall schedule toughness, particularly when they only play 8 out of their 13 conference opponents (whereas the Pac-12 plays 9 out of 11).

The big issue Sagarin raises is the extra non-conference game the SEC plays, which is generally always used to play a patsy. So that means three (sometimes four) games where there's a 99% chance of victory (as opposed to the 1 or 2 the Pac-12 has). If it weren't for the traditional ACC rivalries with Clemson and Florida State (Georgia, Florida and South Carolina really lucked out there), the SEC would really be struggling for marquee games.

LSU played TCU, then put UAB, Kent State and Furman on the schedule.

Alabama played Virginia Tech, then backloaded Colorado State, Georgia State and Chattanooga.

Missouri's SEC title run was backed by an intimidating slate of Indiana, Arkansas State, Toledo and Murray State.

Vanderbilt really made teams sweat with UAB, Austin Peay, and UMass on their plate.

A&M gets Rice, Sam Houston State, Southern Methodist and UTEP. Really don't have room for Texas, do they?

Title runners-up Auburn edged Washington State, then rolled through Western Carolina, Arkansas State, and Florida Atlantic.

The SEC isn't alone in this. The Big Ten does this. The Big 12 does this. The ACC does that. But that's come to their detriment. The lack of big-time opponents (and wins OOC) really has weakened the way they're perceived by most of major college football. The ACC flipped the script a bit this year though, and if the SEC starts losing these marquee OOC games, then that perception could flip back on the SEC.

I feel a lot of the sniping against the SEC would go away if they (along with the Big Ten & ACC) added that extra conference game and standardized the nine game system. That extra game just plays way too much like "extra bye week", which is why we always seem to see those games the week before Thanksgiving. There would be almost no way for an SEC champion to be denied a spot in the playoff with that type of system; the perception for them would be too strong.

Do you think the SEC should consider an extra conference game? Will they?

Brandon Larrabee: To a certain extent, you're preaching to the choir. I've been pretty consistent in calling for the "Saban plan" -- nine conference games and at least one non-conference game against the Power 5, something proposed by Nick Saban. The latter part of the plan was recently and finally approved by the SEC; the part about nine games is something that Mike Slive is trying to make happen, but a lot of coaches and athletics directors are fighting him on it.

Ultimately, I think it will happen for the very reason that some schools are fighting it now: Money. The real reason that some of the power teams in the league don't want a nine-game SEC schedule is because of the loss in ticket revenue. Some of the borderline bowl schools want to keep the eight-game schedule to get into bowls, but that's not what's driving, for example, Florida.

Instead, Florida doesn't want a ninth game because it could cost Florida a chance to have seven true home games every year. They play Georgia in Jacksonville. You have four SEC home games and four SEC road games every year.  They've synced things up so that the years where Georgia counts as a "home" game in the SEC schedule -- thus giving Florida just three true home games out of the SEC -- Florida State plays in Gainesville. When Georgia is a "road" game, the Florida State game is in Tallahassee, so the three non-conference games and the four SEC home games make seven. That balance only works if Florida can guarantee the three non-FSU non-conference games will be at home every year. Home-and-homes and even "event" games at NFL stadiums are out.

If you have  a nine-game SEC schedule and Florida has five SEC road games in a year when Georgia counts as a "home" game, it doesn't matter how you configure things -- it's mathematically impossible to get to seven true home games. If you sync things up to where Georgia counts as a road game in the five road game season -- that's the year that the Florida State game is played in Tallahassee, and you're right back to the situation where you only have six true home games. Trying to fix that situation and fix similar issues with the ACC rivalry games of Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina is three-dimensional chess that requires perhaps even more trust than Mike Slive has gotten from the ADs right now.

If we go to nine games, it's very likely that somebody who doesn't want to end up with six road games is going to end up with six road games at least for a couple of seasons -- and conference solidarity in any conference generally extends the point where it takes money out of your wallet.

What's going to change that? The SEC is about to become a 50-50 partner in a television network. And however hard they might try to work around it, there are likely going to be weeks when the SEC Network is going to have one or two terrible games. When it dawns on the athletics directors and presidents that the SEC Network will make more money with better games -- probably more than enough to offset the lost ticket revenue -- and the quickest route there is to add another conference game, it will happen.

The most likely casualty, though, aren't going to be the FCS games. They're going to be the mid-major games. South Carolina and, as much as I hate being fair here, Clemson started playing in-state FCS programs when a legislator threatened to file a bill forcing them to do so once the NCAA allowed teams to count an FCS win toward bowl eligibility every year instead of every other year. (This is one of the reasons I love my adopted home state. "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.") Given those political pressures and concerns about how grinding the schedule would be, most programs will keep the FCS games and chuck the games against the Eastern Michigans and Georgia States of the world.

But it will be better for the fans, and it might even send the Pac-12 and company searching for something else to complain about. Even if I weren't in favor of it to begin with, that would be two good reasons to reconsider.

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