First, lest one suspect me of being a college football heretic, I confess my belief that the Southeastern Conference is the strongest in college football.
But (and this is what will get me in trouble in my adopted home state of Tennessee), the SEC isn’t nearly as good as the BCS Standings suggest.
Thanks to Texas A&M’s upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, and Syracuse’s less celebrated win over previously undefeated Louisville, the number of college football’s unbeatens fell to three. To no one’s surprise, those three teams—Kansas State, Oregon, and Notre Dame—top this week’s BCS Standings.
The next six teams all come from the SEC: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M, and South Carolina. These six teams are particularly notable because they have only beaten one another. None has lost a nonconference game; and none has lost a game to a league opponent not ranked in the BCS top 10.
No conference in the history of the BCS has placed 6 teams in the BCS top 10 at any point in the season. So, nice going, SEC.
BUT, the SEC has 14 teams.
Prior to this season, no major conference had ever had more than 12. (The MAC has had 13 for a while now.) In addition to giving pollsters more SEC teams to choose from, the 14-team roster gives members of the conference a scheduling advantage.
Each SEC team plays only 8 of the other 13 teams: 6 divisional opponents, one cross-division rival, and one other cross-division game. So any given team doesn’t have to face 5 of its conference mates.
The Big 12 is similar to the SEC in that most of its teams are perfect in nonconference games, their only losses coming at the hands of conference opponents. Big 12 teams are an impressive 26-4 against nonconference foes (with Kansas accounting for half of those losses).
But unlike SEC teams, Big 12 teams play a full round robin. They play a 9-game conference schedule and must face every other team in the league.
This doesn’t mean that the top teams in the Big 12 are as strong as the top teams in the SEC. With the exception of Kansas State, they probably aren’t. But it does show that the teams in the strongest conference don’t necessarily play the toughest conference schedules.
- Alabama doesn’t play Georgia, Florida, or South Carolina during the regular season.
- Georgia doesn’t play Alabama, Texas A&M, or LSU.
- Texas A&M doesn’t play Georgia or South Carolina.
- South Carolina doesn’t play Alabama or Texas A&M.
Florida and LSU both have played 4 of the other 5 elite teams.
Unlike previous seasons, this year’s SEC also has three legitimate bottom-feeders. Kentucky, Auburn, and Tennessee all are without a conference win. Georgia, who will represent the East in the SEC Championship Game, had the luxury of playing all three. Georgia’s second-best conference win—and second-best win overall—came against Vanderbilt.
(I won’t get into non-conference scheduling, but 5 of the 6 SEC teams in the BCS Top 10—everyone but LSU—are playing against FCS teams this weekend.)
I live in a part of the country where radio personalities and callers often wonder aloud whether the nation’s top teams could survive the SEC “gauntlet.” But when you consider the SEC’s number of teams and scheduling structure, you find that the gauntlet isn’t as punishing as the rankings suggest.
Yes, the SEC is the nation’s best conference. And, yes, the league has 6 teams that are among the nation’s best. But these teams also benefit from the imbalanced schedules that are inevitable in a 14-team conference.