Schedule Fairness Bypasses SEC West
Thanks to conference expansion and a reconfigured championship format, the topic of scheduling never has been more relevant and impactful.
When asked about his schedule during SEC Media Days, Les Miles had this to say: “A key piece to every conference is that we'd be able to describe the path to a championship in an equal and direct manner. In fact, scheduling should not in any way decide championships repeatedly or throughout.”
What coach Miles is saying, if you can squeeze out a translation, is that some teams in the SEC have a distinct advantage over other teams due to their conference schedule. For example, LSU will play Georgia and Florida from the East Division this year. Those teams combined to go 14-2 in conference play last season. The two teams from the East that defending national champion Alabama is playing, Kentucky and Tennessee, combined for a 1-15 conference record. Clearly, there is a difference in the level of competition.
The University of Florida is LSU’s permanent cross-division opponent from the East Division. In the past, LSU has expressed an interest in either changing their opponent from the East or doing away with the notion of a permanent cross-division opponent all together. The problem is centered on four big-time universities: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee. The Alabama vs. Tennessee matchup as well as the Auburn vs. Georgia contest are among the oldest and most prominent rivalries in the South. None of those universities or their fan bases want to lose these annual showdowns.
So there’s one of the issues facing the SEC when it comes to scheduling. Another issue is a possible move from an eight-game schedule to a nine-game schedule. It’s something many of the Power 5 conferences already have begun. The Pac-12 and the Big 12 play nine games in-conference. The Big Ten will begin a nine-game slate next season in time for the first College Football Playoff. By playing nine conference games, it would appear to give those teams an advantage in strength of schedule when the four participants of the College Football Playoff are chosen.
Only the ACC and SEC are sticking with an eight-game schedule. Alabama’s Nick Saban is the lone SEC coach in favor of the move to a nine-game conference schedule. Most coaches, especially those in the East Division, are strongly against the move because most of the East Division teams play a quality opponent from the ACC every year. Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina end the season by playing a strong team from the ACC. Kentucky’s game against Louisville will be an SEC vs. ACC matchup starting next season. Even Vanderbilt has gotten in on the action by closing their season with Wake Forest the last few years.
In other words, it’s not very fair to the teams in the East to play nine games against conference opponents and then play a 10th game against a quality ACC program. That’s 10 games against stiff competition, year in and year out. What will this do to the scheduling of other marquee nonconference games? How likely are Georgia and Florida to play another team from the Power 5 if they’re already playing the likes of LSU, South Carolina, Auburn, Clemson, and Florida State?
There appears to be no easy solution when it comes to fair scheduling. It’s virtually impossible to ensure that all 14 conference teams play an equitable schedule. Some coaches and members of the media have offered their ideas of changing the divisional formats or making exceptions to certain teams like Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee when it comes to cross-division opponents. This means the scheduling of a permanent cross-division team could be dropped, except the four teams listed above.
In the meantime, LSU will have to contend with another brutal schedule, which could help the Tigers in the long run. If LSU were to lose just one game during the season, their strength of schedule is predicted to be so strong that they could overcome that one loss, just like another team from the SEC that made it to the last two BCS Championship Games.
Keep in mind the last time LSU won the national crown they did so with two losses. Playing such a tough schedule does have its benefits.