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More on the S.E.C., the Pac-10, and Non-Conference Scheduling

This is what I like about West Coast webloggers . . . they give as good as they get, and what they give is grist for postings in multiple parts.

When I expressed doubts about the existence of an East Coast bias, Bruins Nation's Nestor offered a retort, thereby setting off a trans-continental conversation of epic proportions upon that persistent issue. When Nestor explained why he bled blue and gold, it caused me to ask questions and, ultimately, to explain why I am a Georgia fan. When College Football Resource gave credit to Georgia for what I believed to be the wrong reason, I responded and, once again, rebuttals and rejoinders ensued.

The latest addition to this admirable company, of course, is Tightwad, whose throwaway tag line sparked some back and forth, culminating in Tightwad's detailed and statistically-supported exegesis of Pac-10 and S.E.C. schedules, which is too lengthy and finely reasoned for me to do justice to it in summary, so I would strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety.

Rather than coming at him from entirely the wrong angle at the outset, I should have approached Tightwad in a spirit more appropriate to aficionados of the University of Georgia and the University of California, respectively. In that vein, I post this photograph of the LeConte Oak, a tree on the Berkeley campus dedicated to Professors John and Joseph LeConte, who came to the Golden State from the University of Georgia, where they were members of the selfsame literary society of which I also am an alumnus. (Image from Old Postcards Online.)

The gist of Tightwad's conclusion is that we are both right, up to a point; S.E.C. out-of-conference schedules are improving, but the Pac-10 plays demonstrably tougher non-league slates as a matter of course. (He notes that, in 2006, Portland State had a much higher average Sagarin ranking than Western Carolina, but I am less than impressed by that datum. The Vikings lost their two games against Pac-10 teams by scores of 42-16 and 55-12, while the Catamounts lost their one game against an S.E.C. team by a score of 62-0. I'll argue the relative merits of mid-level Division I-A opponents, but there seems to be little point to debating which cupcakes have more empty calories.)

There are reasons why some disparity exists between the two conferences in this respect: Pac-10 teams typically have no permanent out-of-conference rivalries; Pac-10 teams have greater difficulty garnering mainstream media attention, giving Pac-10 athletic directors greater incentive to schedule outside their own region; Pac-10 teams must cross state lines to play teams from other B.C.S. conferences, while S.E.C. country and A.C.C. country overlap; S.E.C. stadiums ordinarily are filled to a larger percentage of capacity than Pac-10 stadiums, even in a good year, giving S.E.C. athletic directors less impetus to schedule Texas, since they know they will get a sell-out for North Texas.

Nevertheless, the fact that there are reasons does not mean that those reasons are adequate, particularly given the size of the gap in question. Because Tightwad raises numerous points, all of which deserve serious consideration, I cannot answer him comprehensively in a single posting and, indeed, I will have to concede some of his points ere our discussion is done.

At the moment, though, I would like to address some particular (and admittedly ancillary) observations offered by Tightwad. Once again, these are small points in a long posting, so I reiterate the need for you to read his analysis from start to finish rather than relying upon any excerpts I might happen to quote.

In other words, don't rely on this! (Image from Dev Hardware.)

Writes Tightwad:

But wait, you say - isn't this apples and oranges since the SEC plays one more OOC game than the Pac-10? (Why they do is a mystery in itself, but let's run with it)

From there, Tightwad adjusts the numbers to account for the fact that the two leagues have differing ratios of conference to non-conference games. His parenthetical aside, though, deserves a reply, because the solution to this mystery helps explain the divergent mindsets in the Southeast and on the Pacific Coast.

The "10" in "Pac-10," unlike the corresponding numeral in "Big Ten," denotes the fact that the league has 10 member institutions: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Southern California, Stanford, U.C.L.A., Washington, and Washington State. In 2006, when the 12-game regular-season schedule became a permanent fixture of the college football landscape, each of those squads began playing a round-robin conference schedule including annual games against the other nine league teams.

While conference membership has fluctuated over the years, the S.E.C. has consisted of 12 teams since 1992: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. Those 12 teams are divided into two geographically contiguous divisions, with each team playing an eight-game conference schedule consisting of the other five teams in its division, one permanent opponent from the other division, and two rotating opponents from the other division. The two division champions meet on the Saturday following the end of the regular season to compete in a conference championship game.

Reasonable college football fans may disagree over which is the better system, but it helps explain the differences between the two conferences' non-league scheduling philosophies. The Pac-10's ability to play a full-fledged round-robin nine-game league schedule on an annual basis is a function of two factors: the 12-game regular-season schedule and a 10-member league. The Pacific Coast conference ceased playing a round-robin schedule when Arizona and Arizona State were admitted in 1978 and did not resume the practice until the addition of the 12th game last season.

Arizona State . . . wrecking more than just the Pac-10's academic reputation!

After Georgia Tech left the Southeastern Conference in the mid-'60s, the league's member institutions typically played a six-game S.E.C. slate in a 10-game regular season. The 11-game regular season became the norm in the early 1970s, at which time Georgia did what Georgia is doing now, taking advantage of the extra game to schedule opponents from other regions.

In 1971, the Red and Black played an 11-game regular-season slate for the first time since 1953. Beginning that year, in addition to annual games against Georgia Tech and nearly annual games against Clemson, the 'Dawgs proceeded to take on Oregon State (in 1971, 1974, and 1987), N.C. State (in 1972 and 1973), Pittsburgh (in 1973 and 1975), California (in 1976 and 1981), Oregon (in 1977), Texas A&M (in 1980), Texas Christian (in 1980 and 1988), Brigham Young (in 1982), and U.C.L.A. (in 1983), among others.

Regrettably, none of those games were played on the road, and many of those teams did not present the challenges then that they would pose today, but the spirit was willing, even if the flesh was weak. Beginning in 1988, the S.E.C. went from a six-game conference schedule to a seven-game conference schedule.

In 1992, divisional play began in the newly-expanded 12-team league, complete with an eight-game S.E.C. slate and a conference championship game. As Nico has noted, that event signaled the start of the decline in S.E.C. scheduling. That is not an adequate excuse, but it does explain the mystery and illustrates the difficulty in drawing direct one-to-one comparisons between the Pac-10 and the S.E.C.

So, yeah, there's a little bit of an apples-and-oranges issue here.

To his credit, Tightwad acknowledges the inherent problems of averaging, but I would be interested in seeing his schedule strength averages expanded to include a team's entire slate, not just its non-league opponents. As I am not one of those S.E.C. fans who derides the Pac-10 (which, after all, has produced as many national champions in the last four seasons as has the Southeastern Conference), I readily admit that I have no idea which conference would be favored by such a calculation, but, since I am more interested in finding out the truth than in advancing my personal agenda, I would be curious to know the results of such ciphering.

Tightwad also notes that "a fair amount of [the S.E.C.'s] 'elite' OOC games aren't discretionary." He states that the in-state non-conference clashes between Clemson and South Carolina, Florida and Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech, and Kentucky and Louisville essentially are obligatory, so those "automatics" artificially inflate the average quality of the league's non-conference slate.

The Pac-10, by contrast, has only one such "automatic OOC game," the annual cross-sectional clash between Notre Dame and Southern California. "Everything else is discretionary," Tightwad observes, "so Pac-10 ADs have to seek out tougher games."

I am not at all sure that this last point follows. The lack of perennial out-of-conference contests requires Pac-10 athletic directors to seek out other games, but not necessarily tougher games. It is to their credit that they generally seek out legitimate opponents, but they are not required to do so.

Of course, teams that dress like this have to play difficult schedules in order to be taken seriously.

Furthermore, I disagree with the characterization of Georgia-Georgia Tech as a "rivalry game [that] could not be discontinued under any scenario." In fact, a dispute between the two schools led to a lengthy cessation of relations between the rival institutions, resulting in the interruption of the series for eight seasons between 1917 and 1924.

Beyond that, obligatory rivalry games are not always on as firm a footing as it may seem. In the recent past, the Bulldogs' border rivalry with Clemson appeared similarly sacrosanct. The Georgia-Clemson game carried as much national significance as any rivalry in the nation in the early 1980s and the two teams established the durability of their series early by meeting annually from 1897 to 1916. The perennial nature of the Bulldogs' rivalry with the Tigers persisted for many years thereafter, as the two teams squared off in all but two of the seasons between 1962 and 1987.

At one time, in my lifetime, it was inconceivable that the teams from the Classic City and from Lake Hartwell would become only intermittent opponents . . . yet that is exactly what happened when the S.E.C. conference schedule expanded in 1988. Barring a bowl meeting in the interim, the 25 seasons between 1988 and 2012 will see just six Georgia-Clemson games.

If it were up to me, they'd be on the schedule at least twice in any six-year period.

These things happen. Historic rivalries fall by the wayside due to changes in conference composition and scheduling. Such traditional series as Florida-Miami and Auburn-Georgia Tech now are played only occasionally. The Gators and the Plainsmen no longer face each other every autumn.

Outside of conference play, such games occur because the schools voluntarily enter into contracts with one another. Non-conference rivals are under no obligation to continue their series with one another beyond the expiration date of their existing deals. While the cessation of hostilities between bitter rivals is unlikely, it is far from unprecedented. Kentucky and Louisville went 70 years without playing one another. A 41-year hiatus once interrupted the Alabama-Auburn series. Never say "never."

That said, it is true that the four S.E.C. teams with in-state out-of-conference rivals all are unlikely to cease hostilities with the opposition anytime soon . . . but, nevertheless, I must confess that this is the first time I have heard the existence of a local non-conference rivalry used as a criticism of a team's strength of schedule.

The fact that Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, and Kentucky-Louisville are rivalry games heightens their intensity, so, if anything, a team ought to get more credit for winning such a game. Florida State and U.C.L.A. were decidedly mediocre teams in 2006, yet the Seminoles played the eventual national champion Gators exceedingly tough and the Bruins upset the eventual Rose Bowl champion Trojans.

I knew Nestor would never forgive me if I didn't include a picture from the U.C.L.A.-U.S.C. game. (Photograph from WKRN.)

These incongruous results are at least partly attributable to the passions underlying such contests. The Yellow Jackets lost winnable games against Georgia, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and West Virginia last year. Ask 100 Golden Tornado fans which one they'd most like to have won, and I'll bet a majority of them would have preferred a win over the 'Dawgs to a victory over college football's most storied program, an A.C.C. championship, or a Gator Bowl win.

The presence of such games on the slate doesn't ease the burden on athletic directors; it makes non-conference scheduling more difficult because it restricts discretion. Whenever Damon Evans goes about finding opponents from other leagues, he starts with the knowledge that eight conference games and the season-ender against Georgia Tech already are on the calendar.

I remain a staunch advocate of improved out-of-conference scheduling, for Georgia in particular and for the S.E.C. in general. (Ironically, I am writing this posting on the first anniversary of the formal beginning of The Movement.)

However, the Bulldogs' annual out-of-conference contest with the Yellow Jackets creates an additional scheduling challenge with which nine Pac-10 schools do not have to contend, and allowance must be made for that reality. I daresay, that, if my radical realignment proposal were to be implemented---if Georgia-Clemson and Georgia-Georgia Tech were conference games and Cal were forced to go outside of the Pacific Coast Conference to play Stanford---the 'Dawgs would find it easier to schedule tough non-conference road games, while the Golden Bears' efforts to do so would be made considerably more difficult.

These, though, are somewhat tangential concerns. Tightwad's larger point is a serious one, to which legitimate attention must be paid, and I will endeavor to address his valid observations later in the week.

Go 'Dawgs!