Over time, the SEC has drawn criticism from many fans across the nation for each school's out-of-conference schedule. Defenders of the nation's premier conference point towards the grueling inner conference play as a reason the member institutions should shy away from big out-of-conference games.
In 2004 one of the better teams in the history of the SEC went through the schedule unblemished. Considering the strength of the conference, many would assume that the Auburn Tigers would be a shoe in for the BCS Championship Game.
The 2004 version of the Tigers boasted two of the top five picks in the draft, at the same position, in Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Auburn featured other future NFL stars like Jason Campbell, Quentin Groves, Carlos Rogers, and Marcus McNeill. They truly had it all, or so it seemed.
When it came voting time, Auburn was left out in the cold, in favor of a USC vs Oklahoma matchup that would get ugly fast. This, in my opinion, was the trademark of the outsider's view of SEC scheduling.
Auburn's out-of-conference schedule featured Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel, and Louisiana Tech. While the Trojans and Sooners hadn't exactly scared anyone with their schedules, Auburn's was definitely an eyesore. Leading many to criticize the scheduling done by SEC schools, conveniently forgetting that in the two years prior Auburn had played a home and home with USC.
For many years, several SEC schools have scheduled strong out-of-conference games. Florida plays Florida State every single year, and Miami occasionally. Tennessee has had series with Notre Dame, Syracuse, Miami, Cal, and UCLA. Arkansas has played Texas and USC. South Carolina always plays Clemson and Georgia always plays Georgia Tech.
In spite of all this, the stigma has stood, possibly because in many of these games both teams aren't ranked highly. This season, that's going to change.
On September 5th, Georgia is traveling to Stillwater to face No. 9 Oklahoma State. Both teams starting the season with high expectations and high rankings, this sets up a marquee game that could help the notion that the SEC doesn't play big out-of-conference games.
Though the Georgia vs OSU game is big, it doesn't carry anywhere near the weight that Alabama vs Virginia Tech does in the Georgia Dome that same night. Tech is a consistently good, highly thought of program that is capable of beating anyone at any time, and Bama is coming off a huge year of resurgence.
Alabama have been trying to schedule teams out-of-conference, but since scheduling happens so far in advance, it hasn't seemed they were doing much good. Florida State were down when they played and they beat Clemson so badly that after the game, no one really took the Tigers seriously.
However, no one can dispute Virginia Tech. Every year the Hokies are well coached, disciplined, and tough to beat. The Tide playing them at a neutral site to open their season speaks volumes about Alabama's resolve to step out of the SEC and put an impressive season together.
Unfortunately for Auburn, SEC schools have learned all too late that just winning the SEC is no longer enough to have a given spot in the BCS title game. Teams are having to schedule tough opponents to build a resume equal or greater to that of teams across the nation.
Thanks to the scheduling of Alabama and Georgia, followed by the other teams of the conference, the SEC is once again putting their marquee teams in big games with big schools from other conferences. As long as this trend continues, the SEC will no longer face the "but you only played..." argument Auburn faced in 2004.
This sort of lesson is nothing but good for the college football fan. Whether you are a Tennessee, Bama, Florida, or Auburn fan, you always want to see great college football.
You never like to see a rival win championships while you are sitting at home, but at least with this scheduling, you can feel better knowing they earned their rightful place at midfield holding up a crystal trophy.
Congratulations and good luck to all the SEC teams stepping out and playing those tough out-of-conference games. Being willing to risk a loss against the best to prove your worth as a program is what makes the coming season, and seasons past, so much fun to be a part of.