The SEC dominated the BCS era in part thanks to its shrewd scheduling. Member schools have systematically reduced the challenges in nonconference games, making sure to minimize losses outside of SEC play.
While the other four Big Five conferences have (Pac-12 and Big 12) or are planning to (Big Ten and ACC) move to nine-game conference schedules, the SEC so far has resisted, as its coaches voted 13-1 to stay at eight games at least through the 2015 season.
As we enter the College Football Playoff era, that scheduling philosophy looks to remain intact until/unless it begins to harm the postseason prospects of SEC teams.
With the 2014 season schedule basically complete (only American Athletic has yet to announce dates of conference games, though all opponents are set), we conducted a thorough examination of the upcoming season's nonconference schedules. We ranked all 124 FBS teams—leaving out the four independents for obvious reasons—on their expected nonconference strength of schedule with the following methodology:
Sagarin Rankings: An average of the opponents' final Sagarin ratings from 2013, which encompass all Division I teams, including both FBS and FCS.
Intended Rankings: We parsed the schedule according to the origins of teams' opponents' conference membership, giving bonuses for playing Big Five conference teams (plus Notre Dame), with partial bonuses for playing AAC and MWC teams, as well as Army, Navy and BYU.
Deductions were given for playing FCS teams, except the six that made the FCS semifinals in the past three years—North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Eastern Washington, Montana, Towson and New Hampshire. We also assigned bonuses for playing nonconference games away from home.
The rankings revealed that on average the SEC schools play the easiest nonconference schedules by a country mile:
|Nonconference Strength of Schedule (2014)|
|Conference||Avg||Hi||Lo||FCS||Top 25||Bot 25|
|Source: Playoff Guru|
Whether this scheduling scheme would change in the CFP era remains to be seen, with two important factors potentially being the most influential.
First, how might the committee members, who are charged with selecting the four playoff and eight other major bowl teams, view the SEC's out-of-conference (OOC) strength of schedule?
Second, how might TV ratings affect the SEC Network, which is due to launch in August, since it most likely will be saddled with the dregs of the schedules?
For 2014, each of the 14 SEC teams will play one of its four OOC games against an FCS opponent (the ACC being the only conference also doing that), with 10 having schedules ranked at No. 81 or lower. In fact, of the 10 easiest OOC schedules out of the 124 teams, a whopping four come from the SEC—No. 115 Florida, No. 119 Alabama, No. 121 Mississippi State and No. 122 Vanderbilt.
Georgia is the only SEC team that faces two BCS conference opponents (Clemson and Georgia Tech). Texas A&M is the only one that plays more than one road game—but it's not exactly a murderers' row with stops at SMU and Louisiana-Monroe.
Six SEC teams don't play any OOC games on the road at all, with Alabama (vs. West Virginia in Atlanta), Ole Miss (vs. Boise State in Atlanta) and LSU (vs. Wisconsin in Houston) playing virtual home games that masquerade as "neutral site" showdowns.
Nevertheless, Bleacher Report SEC guru Barrett Sallee believes that the days of nine-game conference schedules are near. But even if that's the case, don't expect the SEC to make things even tougher by boosting its nonconference schedules.
A few other observations:
- The American Athletic Conference and Mountain West are competing to have the toughest OOC schedules, and this is by necessity. Since neither is guaranteed an automatic entry into the most lucrative bowls, their respective champions must emerge with the highest rankings (according to the committee) among the non-Big Five conferences.
- The much-maligned Big Ten has significantly upgraded its nonconference schedule ahead of going to a nine-game conference schedule—also out of necessity. No Big Ten team appeared in the BCS Championship Game since 2007 thanks in part to the perceived weakness as reflected by the computer rankings. The Big Ten is the only conference that does not have a single team ranked outside of the top 100 in our ratings.
- FBS teams continue to mine the FCS for victories (though sometimes this backfires; just ask Florida) in exchange for a payday. In 2014, only 26 of the 128 FBS teams do not have FCS teams on their schedules, and four teams have two FCS opponents each. USC, UCLA and Notre Dame are the only schools that have never played an FCS opponent.
In our next installment, we will examine the best and worst nonconference schedules, especially among national championship contenders.
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