While I aim to be fair here, I admit up front my disdain for the argument that I am opposing. I am so utterly sick of the "weak schedule" meme (there is such a thing in the SEC?), and, in particular, I am so utterly sick of the argument from South Carolina fans that the schedule difference between the Gamecocks and the Georgia Bulldogs is what allowed Georgia to win the East last year. I am really, really tired of this argument.
Now, having admitted the state of my passions regarding the issue, let me turn to my argument, which is itself quite rational. In fact, to be clear, that's just the problem with the "South Carolina got screwed by the schedule in 2011" argument: it is patently, objectively irrational. Here's why.
First, as a general rule, the schedules even out over time, except for your locked-in annual rivals. And Georgia’s locked-in rival is usually a stronger team than is South Carolina’s. Auburn is, as a matter of objective fact that I don't think any rational person could dispute, a stronger program than Arkansas since the two teams have both been members of the SEC beginning in 1992, over the last ten years beginning in 2002, and over the last five years, and over the last three years. I don't think a rational South Carolina fan would want to re-write history having played Auburn every year for the last 20 seasons rather than Arkansas. And I know a rational Georgia fan (if losing the rivalry with Auburn was of no concern to him) would rather have played Arkansas. This is the only part of the schedule that is actually different between Georgia and South Carolina in a way not subject to mere random variation. We'll return to random variation in a moment, but just jot that fact down, please, for the love of all that is rational. Auburn is (usually) better than Arkansas.
Now, I don’t think any grand conclusions can be drawn from this as far as bragging rights or anything. I am responding to an argument others are making about the schedule, not proposing my own basis for using the schedule against South Carolina. I actually think the difference between Auburn and Arkansas is marginal in the grand scheme of things, in that a victory over either team in almost any given year is something that does not come easily. The real difference is that, every few years, Auburn is really, really good, and that does not happen nearly as often to Arkansas. This is, at the end of the day, a slight disadvantage to Georgia in the long run, and nothing more. It's not worth getting in a twist about, though.
On the subject of only marginal differences in quality normally separating most SEC teams, this is why looking at combined schedules of West opponents in a given year is a largely useless way to measure how hard Georgia and South Carolina respectively had it. It really is not very significant that in, say, 2007, Georgia played an Ole Miss who went 0-8 (instead of, say, 2-6) in conference, while South Carolina played a Miss State team that went 4-4 (instead of, say, 2-6). If either of us are worth a darn in 2007, shouldn’t we both win either of those games handily, anyway? Again, these differences in records often indicate far more marginal differences than we want to acknowledge once we aggregate them together.
But to be both more specific and more precise, schedule differences don't determine divisional champions. It is logically possible that it could happen if everything just happened to work out a certain way in a given year, but it hasn't happened as of yet, and it certainly didn't happen to South Carolina in 2011.
One nice thing about a college football conference schedule is that you play so few games (whether 8 or 9) that it’s hard for anybody’s schedule to be that much stronger or weaker than anyone else’s. Honestly. For this reason, *winning your head-to-head matchup* is always the best thing you can do to beat a team for the division. If you do that, but then lose the division anyway to that team you beat, then it is almost certain that you *screwed up hard* somewhere along the way. To repeat: it's not that you had some monstrously unfairly more difficult schedule than they did, it's that you screwed up. Big time.
Before discussing how this happened to South Carolina in 2011, let's talk about what this "logically possible" way is that a schedule difference between two divisional rivals could end up deciding the division. The only way for that to happen is if:
1. Team A beats Team B, AND
2. Team A plays 2 teams from the other division that are each much more difficult than any team that Team B played from the other division, AND
3. Team A loses both of its games to those 2 difficult cross-division teams.
Now, if those three things were all to happen, then it is absolutely true that Team B would be in the driver's seat to win the division, and that it really wouldn't be due to Team B having a better season than Team A. It would be dumb luck on Team B's behalf, and to Team A's detriment. Note: of course Team B stil has to win all of its other games, and if they do so then there is also a case to be made that they "did what they needed to do," and the like. But the point is that, in a situation like this, Team B has an opportunity to pass Team A that really isn't set up by any particular mistake on Team A's part, or by any particular good showing on Team B's part. In that circumstance, fans of Team A could certainly point out with justification that "the schedule" played a significant factor in giving Team B the division title, and that Team A was seemingly the "better" team.
Here's the thing, though. That three-part situation up there? It's never happened.
It certainly didn't happen in 2011. Let's look at the 3 parts. (1) Yes, South Carolina beat Georgia head-to-head. But did (2) South Carolina also play *two* hard games against the West that were significantly harder than *any* game that Georgia played against the West? Clearly, the answer is no. (And so, we don't even get to part (3) of the situation described above.) South Carolina played *one* team from the West in 2011 that was significantly more challenging than any team that Georgia played from the West. That team was Arkansas, who was a legitimate top 5 team in 2011. But there is no second such team that South Carolina played.
This is important, because while South Carolina did lose their game with Arkansas, all that should have resulted from that loss was a tie between South Carolina and Georgia. Both teams should now have had one loss. But this is no problem whatsoever for South Carolina, because they owned the tiebreaker over Georgia as their reward for winning that game head-to-head. So, for the rest of their SEC games both schools played against very similar calibers of opponents (Indeed, their other 6 opponents were exactly the same in this case; but that isn't necessary for the point being made here. As long as their opponents were comparable to each other in strength, the basic schedule situation would be the same (most differences at the level of the SEC are only marginal, remember? I.e., if they both played 2 pretty good teams, or they both played 2 pretty bad teams, etc.)). What happened, then? Why didn't South Carolina end up winning the East in this situation? They lost to Auburn, at home. Auburn, a team Georgia *also* played, and crushed. (But if Georgia had beaten a different team in the ballpark of Auburn's quality, the point would be the same.)
This is the problem, plain and simple, South Carolina fans. Beat Auburn, and you win the East last year. You didn’t. That has *nothing* to do with our “unbalanced” schedules. It has to do with you screwing up. I am sorry, but that's just the truth.(And, not to rub salt in the wound, but given that in this case we *did* both play the same team, Auburn, and given that in this case we just happened to rock them like mama like a wagonwheel or whatever, you don't really even have a very good case for being the "better" team compared to us. If we had only squeaked out a win, maybe. But against the portions of our schedules that were similar (i.e., excluding the Arkansas game for you and the Ole Miss game for us), you beat us close but we crushed a team that beat you.)
But be of good cheer, South Carolina fans. Just looking at things on paper going into this season, it really is possible that lightning will finally strike and the an unbalanced schedule will play a significant role. I doubt it actually goes down that way, but it is possible. It's an oddity of the new schedule and the fact that we only play 2 games across divisions now, but you actually do have a decent chance of getting to moan about the schedule disparity *this* year. In our respective two games against teams from the SEC West, Georgia plays Ole Miss (presumably bad) and Auburn (presumably okay but not great), while South Carolina plays LSU (presumably great) and Arkansas (presumably great). So, IF all of the following things happen this year, then you can blame the schedule with some justification:
1. South Carolina beats Georgia on October 6 in Columbia, AND
2. The presumptions about Ole Miss/Auburn/LSU/Arkansas all turn out to be accurate, AND
3. South Carolina loses to both LSU and Arkansas.
South Carolina fans, if all that happens, and Georgia takes care of business (other than losing to you, of course) and wins the East, then I will come on here and acknowledge that the schedule really did have a big part to play in us winning it. (I won't feel bad about it, because random variability and all that, what'chya gonna do? But I will acknowledge the schedule point has merit.) But, notice that there really are a lot of IFs up there. You know how flaky preseason presumptions are, right?
The clearest potential problem for this narrative coming to fruition is (2). Remember, marginal differences. How much better is a top 10 SEC team than a barely unranked SEC team, really? What is the difference, really, between a great SEC team and a bowl-bound but not great SEC team? How much has to change for two teams who fit those descriptions last year to move and meet in the middle this year? Not very much at all, frankly. Consider, as great as Arkansas was last year, all it really takes is for them to be a little bit worse, and for Auburn to be a little bit better, and those two teams are basically the same in strength (even if one goes 5-3 and the other goes 6-2, or whatever; the precise records are not very useful due to small sample size). How sure are we that that isn’t going to happen this year, especially now that Arkansas lost its coach in April and Auburn hired a great defensive coordinator? I wouldn’t moan about any of this at this point in the game, personally.
Let’s just tee it up on October 6 and figure that the winner has the inside track to Atlanta. Because that’s how it works.