Squelching the Myth for Good: The Strength of SEC Scheduling

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Squelching the Myth for Good: The Strength of SEC Scheduling

About a year ago, I wrote about SEC football scheduling. Frustrated by this non-stop chorus of whines, I investigated the previous year to see how the conference matched up. Pretty well, it turns out.

I never had a chance to post that article, so I'm doing that now.

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If you’re an SEC football fan, chances are high that you’re a little sick of fans of other conferences—and the national media—talking about the weak scheduling of SEC programs. The sentiment of weak non-conference scheduling has become so pervasive in the Southeast, that even league bloggers have jumped on board. Apparently it has become an inevitability that the SEC will be moving to a nine-game league schedule because, well, how else will the conference compete with the strength of schedule of the other major conferences?

Turns out everyone is, well…wrong.

Cut scene to my bedroom, a basement in a suburb of Rochester, NY. Frustrated and only partially clothed, I read article after article, tweet after tweet how the SEC must step up. Relying only on playing itself, the Southeastern Conference is cheating its way into National Championships. With the upcoming [thus-far unnamed] four-team playoff on the horizon that will factor in a team’s strength of schedule, surely this must mean the SEC will finally change its ways.

 

I’m a lover of numbers. They’re the last thing I spend time with when I lay down to bed and they’re the first thought that crosses my mind each morning. How can I investigate this claim with numbers? Who was the most efficient player in SEC men’s basketball last season? How does strength of schedule relate to a team’s eventual RPI (i.e. Is playing a difficult schedule worth the risk of losing those games?)

These stories now converge into this blog post. I’ve done some research involving the Elite Four conferences’ performances in 2011 to prod this notion of weak SEC scheduling. First, is this true? Secondly, if true—how has it helped (Six-straight titles proves it hasn’t hurt) the league’s cause?

By the way, if you take exception with only researching the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac 12, contact your commissioner, tell them to make your conference relevant and get back to me.

As a disclaimer, here are the following utilities I used to produce these statistics:

  • Final AP Top 25 (Most popular poll with media)
  • WarrenNolan.com & RealTimeRPI.com (Most reliable sources of SOS ratings)

Side note: RealTimeRPI ranks FBS and FCS. All records are versus non-conference opponents only, and do include records in bowl-games. Records versus Southern California/Miami were considered as versus bowl-eligible teams as both won at least six games, though neither was technically allowed to compete in a bowl due to NCAA sanctions. Conference association was calculated based on the 2011 season.

The numbers are telling.

What caliber of competition is each league playing?

 

Amount of games played versus Top 25 teams:   SEC (10)   Big 10 (7)   Big 12 (5)   Pac 12 (9)
Records in those games:   SEC (5-5, .500)   Big 10 (2-5, .286)   Big 12 (3-2, .600)   Pac 12 (1-8, .111)
Average margin of victory in those games:   SEC (+2.8)   Big 10 (-7.6)   Big 12 (-0.4)   Pac 12 (-16)

Looks like the Pac 12 should’ve stayed home, but we knew that right?

When it comes to scheduling, the SEC led the way with 10 non-conference opponents ranked at the end of the season. It fell just short to the Big 12 in its record versus top competition, but scheduled twice as many of those games. Only the Southeastern Conference held a positive margin of victory versus Top 25 competition.

Amount of games versus bowl-eligible teams:   SEC (26)   Big 10 (32)   Big 12 (23)   Pac 12 (25)
Records in those games:  SEC (18-8, .692)   Big 10 (18-14, .563)   Big 12 (18-5, .783)   Pac 12 (10-15, .400)
Average margin of victory in those games:   SEC (+9.3)   Big 10 (+0.4)   Big 12 (+4.7)   Pac 12 (-5.3)

Again, the SEC fares well in scheduling top teams. The league scored second, behind the Big Ten, in scheduling teams that ended the season bowl-eligible.

The Big 12, though competing well against elite competition, scheduled the least amount of those games. The Pac 12 was an afterthought, as many of their non-fans realized halfway through the season.

Which conferences are most willing to hit the road?

Number of games played on road or neutral fields:   SEC (14)   Big 10 (21)   Big 12 (17)   Pac 12 (21)
Records in those games:   SEC (11-3, .786)   Big 10 (8-13, .381)   Big 12 (12-5, .706)   Pac 12 (7-14, .333)
Average margin of victory in those games:   SEC (+7.9)   Big 10 (-1.5)   Big 12 (+5.2)   Pac 12 (-7.1)

 

Here’s where there might be a legitimate argument. The SEC scheduled three less games on neutral or road fields than any other league, though won nearly as many of those games as any other and finished on top of the stack by winning those games by more than a touchdown on average.

So, these ranking sites…what do they say about all of this?

 Average Strength of Schedule Ranking:   SEC (18.8)   Big 10 (51.7)   Big 12 (13.9)   Pac 12 (60.5)
Best Strength of Schedule Nationally:   SEC (t1st, LSU)   Big 10 (6th, Minnesota)   Big 12 (t1st, Kansas)   Pac 12 (23rd, Arizona)
Worst Strength of Schedule Nationally:   SEC (50th, Arkansas)   Big 10 (125th, Purdue)   Big 12 (40th, Missouri)   Pac 12 (131st, Washington State)

The Big 12, it turns out, has a legitimate argument. The Big 10 and Pac 12, however, contain at least one team with a schedule ranked lower than FCS teams. The Southeastern Conference boasted six teams with better strengths of schedule than any Pac 12 team and three teams with stronger schedules than any Big 10 team.

Michigan State, who won 10 games and finished ranked 11th nationally, finished with an SOS of 46th – lower than any SEC team.

Just for kicks, who’s better?

Teams ranked in the final AP Top 25:   SEC (5)   Big 10 (4)   Big 12 (4)   Pac 12 (3)
Number of teams in bowls:   SEC (7)   Big 10 (10)   Big 12 (8)   Pac 12 (7)
Record in bowl games:   SEC (5-2, .714)   Big 10 (4-6, .400)   Big 12 (6-2, .750)   Pac 12 (2-5, .286)
Average number of wins:   SEC (8.1)   Big 10 (7.3)   Big 12 (7.8)   Pac 12 (6.8)

 

Without a whole lot of debate, the SEC has an argument for the title of nation’s strongest conference, top to bottom. The Big 12 had an impressive year and certainly belongs in the discussion, but the remainder of the leagues should take their seats at the children’s table.

The myth is debunked.

Ultimately, the purpose of this little research project was to fully understand the weight behind the arguments against SEC scheduling. Many, especially fans of the Big 12, will present arguments to a point that isn’t being made here. While these were clearly the top two conferences in 2011, that isn’t the debate.

If what the talking heads—and those of us who think we’re as qualified to have an opinion—is true, the SEC should rank toward or at the bottom of any of these lists. As I’ve now so audaciously proven, it simply doesn’t.

The fact is, the SEC played the most games against Top 25 opponents and second-most against bowl-eligible teams. The six-time national champions have proven themselves by winning bowl games and playing tough competition. There is simply no evidence, of any kind, that something should change.

Beating the best makes you the best, and the SEC is the best.

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