Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jumping on the SEC scheduling defense bandwagon

This post brought to you by Little Debbie and her delicious line of chocolate, orange, strawberry and Sun Belt cupcakes.

So last weekend I got about a third of the way into a post responding to this little intriguing-and-yet-oh-so-wrong bit of misinformation from The Wizard of Odds. Plans to finish said post midweek (as they so often do 'round these parts) ganged agley and though Blutarsky had already crafted one response, in the meantime both Kyle and War Eagle Atlanta jumped in with responses that already said almost all I had to say.

Namely: yes, it's hard to look at the numbers compiled in the (admittedly terrific) National Championship Issue post that opened up this debate and not conclude that, in the past, the teams of the SEC probably could have stuck their neck out a touch more here or there. But to charge (as the Wiz does) that the SEC "continue(s) to shy from playing other Bowl Championship Series teams in nonconference games" is an outright falsehood when looking at the 2008 slate. As Kyle has now pointed out twice, 11 out of 12 of the SEC's teams will face a BCS opponent on the road or (in 'Bama's case) at a neutral venue--the highest percentage of any of the six BCS conferences*. The allegedly fearless Pac-10 checks in at 6-of-10**, and that's giving Washington St. credit for going to Baylor.

To be fair, it's also not giving UCLA credit for their hella difficult trip to BYU, which only further proves Kyle's point: you can't look at a bone-simple statistic like "percentage of road games against BCS opponents" and make accurate generalizations about the scheduling practices of an entire conference. To

a) do so at all
b) do so without initially taking the upcoming season into account in any fashion
c) do so while taking the upcoming season into account at your second attempt only long enough to make the most ridiculous cherry-pick conceivable

is to basically admit it's not so much you who's writing the "analysis" in question as it is the bug lodged firmly up your ass. And all these complaints are before we even get to War Eagle Atlanta's perfectly legitimate point that even if you have a great barking dog of a nonconference slate (like, say, LSU's this season) it doesn't mean your conference schedule can't more than make up for it. (I'm not pretending "Auburn 2004" isn't part of my motivation for taking this position. But I'd make this argument on behalf of plenty of teams, including any Pac-10 team you like these days, since they play an extra conference game.)

All that is, as I said, basically a rehash of points made already. I would like to add two quick things:

1. Let's not pretend bowl-eligibility is a factor here, please? The Wiz tries to pin what he sees as the SEC's cowardice on the understandable leaguewide motivation to ... make the Independence Bowl? "Today's business model is to go 4-0 in nonconference play and 2-6 in league play. That gets your team a 6-6 record and trip to Shreveport. Yippee!" he writes.

Note that he doesn't mention any specific teams here, because at least SEC-wise at this point in time, there is precisely one SEC team who would see Shreveport as an accomplishment rather than a disappointment, and that's Vandy. Who plays at Wake Forest and a good Miami (OH) team this year and went to Michigan as recently as 2006. Maybe you could make an argument that after their years in the wilderness, Ole Miss wouldn't mind a sniff of any bowl who would have them--the same Ole Miss that played Missouri each of the last two years and also heads to Winston-Salem this year.

The point: no one in the SEC is likely scheduling with Shreveport in mind, if there are teams that are looking for an easy 4-0, they're doing a bad job of it.

2. Scheduling home games is, by and large, a function of program status rather than conference affiliation. Going back to the National Championship Issue post, take a gander at what three Big 10 teams have the highest percentage of their nonconference games at home: Ohio St., Penn St., and Michigan. Once you get past the legendary Bill Snyder-led snacky-cake philosophy at the Kansas schools, who's got the highest percentages in the Big 12? Nebraska and Oklahoma, not-so coincidentally two of the three biggest names in the league--and this year even Texas (the missing one of the three) has its one road nonleague against UTEP. Give credit to Miami and Florida St. for hitting the road as often as they have, but the next two highest percentages in the ACC? Traditional heavyweights Clemson and Virginia Tech.

So, the highest in the SEC? Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, with South Carolina, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Alabama not far behind. Now, the SEC's highest percentages are a little higher than those in other conferences, since, again, in the past the SEC could have collectively traveled more than it has--for as much as it matters.

But the point here is that with a few glaring exceptions (exceptions named "USC"), as a program's ability to pack out a 75K-plus stadium increases and the fanbase's expectations rise to the point of seeing a national title as a legitimate goal, so naturally does the demand for more nonleague home games. As the above examples show, this is true whether a team's in the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, or even the Pac-10, once you get past the Trojans.

And I don't think it's really debatable that nowhere is the confluence of heightened expectations and rabid attendance greater than in the SEC. You can debate all you like whether Tennessee really ought to enter this season with loftier goals than, say, Texas Tech, but the fact of the matter remains that neither the Vols' checkbooks nor their fanbase will allow for a road trip to the likes of Nevada--exactly who the Red Raiders play Sept. 6. An up-and-coming program like South Florida might need multiple games like last year's against Auburn and UNC or this year's at UCF and N.C. State to further establish its bona fides, but even after the troughs of its past decade, Alabama can do so with a single game against a peer opponent (Clemson, for instance) and leave the rest to reputation.

The bottom line is that the SEC's devotion to home scheduling (such as it is) is a product of its on-field and financial success, rather than vice versa.

*It's also not like these games are lined up against the likes of Syracuse, Duke, and Notre Dame (*cough* Big 10 *cough*). The SEC's road slate includes contests vs. Stassen's consensus Big East champ, Pac-10 runner-up, No. 10 team in the country, Florida St., UCLA, and two each against the ACC champ and ACC Atlantic runner-up.

**If you're interested, the ACC is 10-of-12, the Big East 6-of-8, the Big 10 8-of-11, and the Big 12 8-of-12 in this particular metric of questionable value.


Will Collier said...

One thing nobody ever mentions (certainly nobody on ESPN or the rest of the national media) is that Auburn's 2004 schedule was heavily degraded through no fault of Auburn's. AU was scheduled to play a neutral-site game against Georgia Tech in the GA Dome that year, but Chan Gailey backed out of it when he was hired by Tech. As it's more commonly known, Oklahoma flat-out bribed away Bowling Green, another OOC team on the '04 schedule, leaving Auburn to scramble to pick up La-Monroe and Citadel to fill the gaps.

It's also telling that Auburn has had no success in scheduling Big Televen schools to home-and-home series--because, as reported by Ivan Maisel a few years back, those teams refused to play Auburn. Maisel contacted Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame (technically not a Big Televen school, I know) and confirmed that they had all declined repeated invitations for games with AU over the past decade.

Love My Junk said...

"Note that he doesn't mention any specific teams here, because at least SEC-wise at this point in time, there is precisely one SEC team who would see Shreveport as an accomplishment rather than a disappointment, and that's Vandy."

Ole Miss would kill someone to be there.