The 6-1-1 on the SEC, or Why Schedules Matter

Nick Saban & Co. wouldn’t have made the playoffs last year under the BCS’ proposed changes. (US Presswire)

The SEC is having its spring meetings down in Destin, Fla., a lovely slice of white-sand beach down on the Gulf Coast. It’s a fairly casual event, so much so that Nick Saban almost smiled (OK, it’s more of a smirk, but take that smirk and enjoy it, because that’s a close as you’re gonna get). But they have to do a little bit of business down there, if only for tax write-off purposes, and so they’ve apparently decided on how to arrange the football schedule now that Texas  A&M and Missouri have turned the SEC into a 14-team league. According to several reports, they’re going to a 6-1-1 schedule — six games against your division opponents, one against a permanent opponent from the other division, and one rotating team from the other division.

This preserves some longtime cross-division rivalries (Tennessee-Alabama, Georgia-Auburn) and cements a couple of interesting new ones (South Carolina-Texas A&M, Arkansas-Missouri). Les Miles is not that happy about LSU playing Florida every year, but it’s hard to tell whether Les thinks Florida is an unfair challenge, or whether the humidity and alligators of Gainesville are just an inferior version of his daily life in Baton Rouge. At least Lexington has horsies.

The larger point is, in a league with so many good teams, a little break in the schedule from year to year can mean the difference between a national-title run and the Capital One Bowl.

This year, among the teams expected to contend, Georgia and Arkansas catch the breaks. The Dawgs don’t have to play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas during the regular season; if Florida and Auburn are still down, their toughest game looks to be South Carolina at Columbia in October. And Arkansas gets the lightest possible setting on the Cuisinart of the SEC West; Bama and LSU at home, and only four games on the road.

Sometimes huge underdogs can take out a tough field; see “Rocky” at the Oscars in 1976. (It beat “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” AND “Network” for best picture. Robert De Niro is still shaking his head, somewhere on the set of his latest comedy.) And from year to year, the best SEC team is good enough to bulldoze any schedule. Besides the conference grind, Alabama beat Penn State the last two years and opens with Michigan this year. Negotiations are ongoing with the Oakland Raiders for 2015.

In the long term, there’s no way to know if the schedule hurts a team or helps it — not long ago Florida and Tennessee were the SEC’s power teams, and the teams in the West led the nation in nothing but fired coaches. But in the short term, the nuances of the schedule matter a lot — especially if the BCS rigs the four-team playoff (expected in 2014) to include only conference champions. Alabama wouldn’t have made the playoff last year under those conditions. You think Nick Saban isn’t smiling now.

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