Does the S.E.C. Benefit From a Baseball Bias?

Last Saturday, my SB Nation colleague, James Quinn of Rock Chalk Talk, published a posting in which he charged that college baseball’s tournament selection committee is infused with a pro-S.E.C. bias. Although James characterized this as a "rant," he sold himself short, as his argument was articulate, intelligent, and temperate. In some respects, moreover, he undeniably was correct.

Nevertheless, I have a quarrel with some of his points, which I wish to address in this, the lull between the regionals and the super regionals of the N.C.A.A. baseball playoffs. While I will quote from James’s posting, I would, as always, encourage you to read his thoughts in their entirety, as the excerpts reproduced here will not do his position justice, however much I may endeavor in good faith to represent his thoughts fairly.

Let the debate begin! (Yeah, all right, I know this is a picture of the signing of the Constitution, after the convention debates were over, but I’m trying to work toward consensus here, and, besides, they still had the state ratifying conventions to go, didn’t they? Well, O.K., then.)

Let us start with the part of James’s posting with which it is most difficult to argue; namely, his observation that "Oklahoma’s selection attracted more negative commentary than" the inclusion of Arkansas, a team that had a losing record in conference play (14-15) and made the N.C.A.A. tournament field without first having made the S.E.C. tournament field.

What little room there was to object to this contention dissipated during the regional round, according to the blogosphere’s home for college baseball coverage, Corn Nation. There, Corn Blight reported the ugly truth while echoing James’s sentiment on behalf of a disgruntled Big 12:

Arkansas goes 0-2. They didn’t make the SEC post-season tourney and yet they were selected for the NCAA tourney. Clearly they did not belong. I hate it that the SEC just automatically gets a gob of teams in the tourney because they’re the SEC.

League loyalties aside, I find it hard to take issue with that assertion and I concede James’s point that the selection committee would better serve the goal of promoting the sport nationally by selecting deserving "mid-major" squads rather than giving undeserved berths to marginal teams from familiar conferences.

How, though, are we to square James’s valid criticism of the Razorbacks’ inclusion in the tournament field with his grousing about S.E.C. scheduling? He writes (with emphasis added, by me):

In 2008 the twelve teams of the SEC played only 24 non-conference games outside the region. In these contest they went 11-13. Arkansas accounted for nine of those games, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt played three each. Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina never left the south. The SEC played 97% of their games in the South. Win-loss records built on schedules like this are deceptive. The performance of the SEC in the College World Series over the last ten years bears this out.

Let us leave aside James’s concluding (and conclusory) claim concerning what the success, vel non, of S.E.C. squads in Omaha purportedly bears out (which I do not believe can be squared with his subsequent claim that one of "[t]he big winners so far" is the A.C.C., which annually achieves much but which hasn’t won a College World Series in more than half a century). Besides . . . what business do the Big 12 faithful have carping about the supposed region-wide home field advantage of a tournament that culminates in Nebraska every single year?

I simply don’t believe you can reconcile James’s entirely warranted objection to Arkansas’s inclusion with his overemphasis upon non-conference games played outside one’s native land, in light of the fact that the Hogs played over one-third of all the games S.E.C. teams played outside the South. Well, which is it? Is it important for a program to rack up the frequent-flyer miles or isn’t it? If it is (and I do not believe it is), how can you deny that Arkansas deserves credit for having played so many of the games James derides the rest of the league for having eschewed?

Relax; they’re just going to a road game.

I am all in favor of national scheduling in major sports, but, at the end of the day, the quality of a team’s opposition matters much more than its Z.I.P. code. If James disputes that claim, then why did he bother comparing Oklahoma’s R.P.I. to that of four S.E.C. squads? What does R.P.I. matter if the real question is how many state lines a club crossed in the course of non-conference play?

What made this criticism particularly galling was the following comment, which was left after James’s posting by Rock M Nation’s rptgwb:

The SEC’s scheduling philosophy sounds familiar…

See: non-conference schedules for their upper-echelon football teams.

To be fair to rptgwb, he goes on to offer the reasonable concession that climatic conditions have much to do with S.E.C. teams’ February and March slates. In a subsequent comment, James acknowledged this point but downplayed its significance, countering:

Most SEC teams never travel. Arkansas was the only SEC to play more than three games outside the region all year. What stops Kentucky from going to Stanford or Texas for an early series? Georgia risked an early series at Oregon State this year. They lost. Oregon State finished second from last in the Pac-10. That was the only time Georgia left the South all season.

James’s facts are technically correct but misleadingly presented. Yes, the Diamond Dogs lost their series with the Beavers on the opposite side of the continent, dropping a two-run decision and a one-run decision while sandwiching a five-run victory in between. Yes, O.S.U. finished near the cellar, but they started as the two-time defending national champions. Between February 22 and March 29---the period during which Georgia faced Oregon State---the Beavers went 13-7.

Heck, that’s good enough that I’m not even going to make fun of their uniforms.

As I pointed out over the weekend, this portrayal of the Red and Black’s scheduling betrays nothing more than outmoded attitudes which smack of anti-S.E.C. bias every bit as much so as James claims the selection committee’s decisions carry the whiff of pro-S.E.C. bias. (Evidently, this skewed view is common among Big 12 partisans, as indicated by Corn Blight’s observation---the italics are his addition, not mine---that "[m]ost definitely I’ll be rooting against the SEC.")

Georgia opened the 2008 campaign with a three-game set against Arizona, the No. 1 seed in the Ann Arbor Regional, which will meet Miami (Florida) in the super regional round this weekend. Should that series be dismissed as unimportant because it was played in the Classic City on the weekend before Georgia traveled to Portland? Does the intervening exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves, which did not count in the standings but may have had an effect on the Diamond Dogs’ play two days later, vanish from all significance because it took place in Lake Buena Vista?

The Red and Black split a two-game midweek clash with Florida State in Tallahassee, site of the regional hosted by the No. 4 national seed. Was the Bulldogs’ victory over the Seminoles inconsequential because F.S.U.’s home field is in an adjacent state? Did playing at Clemson and at Georgia Tech on consecutive Wednesdays in April amount to naught because those ancient rivals’ campuses may be reached by automobile rather than by airplane?

Were games against Oregon State, Purdue, and Southern California on the first three weekends of the 2007 season unimportant because they were played in Athens? Did it matter that the Trojans were returning the games from Georgia’s trip to Los Angeles in March 2006, or did a road trip to face U.S.C. by the Pacific Ocean not count as an out-of-region junket because the Diamond Dogs were playing the University of Southern California?

To be fair, the Men of Troy’s sideline mascot does ride a mount named Traveler, who shares his nomenclature with Robert E. Lee’s horse.

The added jab at "non-conference schedules for their upper-echelon football teams" from rptgwb is what made the sideswipe at the Red and Black so aggravating, though. I think it’s fair to say that Georgia is an upper-echelon S.E.C. football team and the Bulldogs’ upcoming out-of-conference slates include trips to play at Arizona State in 2008, at Oklahoma State in 2009, at Colorado in 2010, at Louisville in 2012, and at Oregon in 2015. Do two treks to non-Texan Big 12 country, two treks to Pac-10 country, and one trip to a Big East border state in the next eight seasons seem particularly insular? Are criticisms of Georgia’s non-conference scheduling in football seriously being endorsed by a fan of the Kansas Jayhawks?

Accordingly, I have a real problem with this statement from James’s posting:

Both LSU and Georgia were given super-regional seeds while no Big-12 teams were similarly honored. Super regional status, (a top-eight seeding) is not just an honor, it also provides the awarded team with a significant competitive advantage by granting them home field advantage through the first two rounds of the tournament. Three Big-12 teams which appeared stronger than Georgia were passed over.

To reiterate, I concede James’s point about S.E.C. teams such as Arkansas, but the Hogs’ inclusion in the field is a problem arising at the bottom between flawed teams of dubious worthiness, none of whom---those who get in, as well as those who don’t---really can claim that they earned the No. 4 regional seeds they received or were denied, as the case may be.

At the other end of the spectrum, on the other hand . . .

Regarding regional hosts and national seeds, however, the Big 12 has no legitimate gripe with the S.E.C. Regular-season conference champion Georgia and conference tournament champion Louisiana State garnered the last two national seeds; both earned their way in, and both advanced . . . which is more than might be said for the Big 12. How much good would it have done Nebraska and Oklahoma State to have been given the opportunity to host the super regionals in which they did not thereafter earn the right to participate?

James makes his several points in a cogent manner with a reasonable tone, and much of what he says cannot be gainsaid. As right as he is when it comes to the squads at the bottom, though, he is glaringly wrong about the teams at the top. The N.C.A.A. selection committee should heed his wisdom when selecting No. 4 seeds, but the decisions made regarding regional hosts and national seeds have been borne out by the results.

The selection committee knew what it was doing when it rewarded Georgia and its Golden Spikes Award finalist Gordon Beckham with the right to host the first two rounds of the playoffs, as evidenced by the Diamond Dogs’ impressive postseason rebound. Say what you will about the existence of a supposed S.E.C. bias, but, as the students on Kudzu Hill so eloquently put it, you can’t spell "super regional" without U-G-A.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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