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The Road Less Traveled: Recent Reflections on Out-of-Conference Scheduling

A little over a month ago, I asked the question, "Which four college football teams are the most overrated in 2008?" I concluded that two of the squads fitting that description were Big 12 teams, Kansas and Texas Tech, and this position drew some retorts from the B.C.S. league to our immediate left.

Perhaps this should not have surprised me, as my criticisms of the Jayhawks and the Red Raiders came only a week after I answered the charge raised by Big 12 partisans that N.C.A.A. baseball suffered from a pro-S.E.C. bias. In any case, when my SB Nation colleagues answered and the subject of Southeastern Conference scheduling came up in their retorts, I fired back:

[W]ho cares how far we travel? Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina are able to take on longstanding rivals from B.C.S. conferences (Georgia Tech, Florida State, Louisville, and Clemson, respectively) without having to cross any state lines. That doesn’t mean we aren’t taking on tough customers; it just means quality opponents from other leagues are readily available in our neck of the woods.

Moreover, from what century is this criticism coming? In 2008, Georgia plays Arizona State in Tempe and hosts Georgia Tech, Alabama plays Clemson in Atlanta, Arkansas plays Texas in Austin, Auburn plays West Virginia in Morgantown, Florida plays Florida State in Tallahassee and hosts Hawaii and Miami (Florida), Kentucky plays Louisville on the road, Mississippi plays Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, Mississippi State plays Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Louisiana Tech in Ruston, South Carolina plays Clemson in Death Valley and hosts N.C. State, Tennessee plays U.C.L.A. in Los Angeles, and Vanderbilt plays Miami (Ohio) in Oxford and faces Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. You’d have to be an N.B.A. referee to claim that isn’t traveling.

This issue, which is a frequent topic of discussion by The Wizard of Odds, is the subject of two recent postings appearing on this sports blogging network, the second of which was written in reply to my earlier posting quoted above.

On Friday morning, Track ‘Em Tigers took a look at the perennial complaints about S.E.C. slates and found that, while the average Southeastern Conference squad plays twice as many "cupcake" games annually (2.83) as the average Pac-10 team (1.4)---which we pretty much all knew already---clubs from the southernmost B.C.S. league actually play fewer such opponents on average than the representatives of the Big Ten (2.91), Big East (3.0), or Big 12 (3.0).

In the course of his exegesis, War Eagle Atlanta tartly answered The Wiz: "He even goes as far as to calculate the distance that Georgia has traveled for away OOC games--358 miles. Anyone know if he used Mapquest or Tom Tom to get that number?" The point, which bears repeating, is that there are numerous reasonable criteria by which to measure the quality of a team’s out-of-conference slate; "distance traveled" simply is not one of them.

While I regret as much as anyone the 40-year deviation from Georgia’s longstanding tradition of national scheduling during the Vince Dooley era, it is unfair to criticize the Bulldogs’ non-S.E.C. slate using an odometer. Throughout Coach Dooley’s time on the Georgia sideline, the Red and Black played Clemson, Georgia Tech, and South Carolina (which did not join the S.E.C. until 1992) annually or very nearly so.

The fact that the S.E.C. shares a geographic footprint with the A.C.C., and therefore is able to get to B.C.S.-caliber competition by bus rather than by plane, is, quite frankly, a silly basis for bashing the league’s scheduling. There is at least as good an argument to be made for the proposition that proximity produces greater intensity, what with familiarity breeding contempt and all, and the converse of the less-than-400-miles-traveled notion is that the ‘Dawgs deserve more credit for having played Virginia in the 2000 O’ahu Bowl in Honolulu than for having played West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl in Atlanta. That notion isn’t just wrong; it’s nonsensical to the point of incoherence.

This brings us to Saturday afternoon’s posting by TB of Bring On the Cats. While wondering what a schedule is worth, TB (upon whom I heaped undeserved disdain in my earlier exchange with the defenders of the Big 12; mea culpa) questioned The Wiz’s conclusions, as well, examining the cupcake contentions in light of, inter alia, attendance figures. Interestingly, both the Auburn and Kansas State bloggers put their teams’ non-conference schedules into context by placing them alongside the accompanying league slates. Wrote War Eagle Atlanta:

So if you're going to mention the cupcakes in some team's schedule, why don't you mention their regular schedule in the same breath? Perhaps list how many of a team's opponents this season were ranked in the top 25 at the end of the last season? Sure, that was last year, but that's all the data we can use in a pre-season analysis. The point is that there's nothing wrong with scheduling a few cupcakes when you play the defending #1, #2, #6, and #12 teams from last year like we do this year, not to mention playing an additional 2-3 teams that will be ranked pre-season top 25.

TB independently concurred:

I suppose the Wiz would say I wasn't getting my money's worth out of my tickets. However, I believe most K-State fans would argue quite the contrary. Both years, we had one good matchup that provided an entertaining game, while the other three games provided tuneups for our powerhouse Powercat machine to prepare for the cauldron that was Big 12 play. Snyder's teams were notoriously slow starters, and for the sake of having a good team ready for conference play, I was willing to watch a few big blowouts. They provided some entertaining highlight reel plays (watching Ell Roberson toy with those defenses was pretty damn fun) and they gave backups a chance to get some experience to prepare for the inevitable injuries that befall a team in conference play.

TB went on to make the following observations, which strike me as quite compelling:

I would argue the biggest scheduling problem facing college football is not elite teams playing weak schedules, but rather the non-uniformity of scheduling. Last year, KU was a perfect example of this. Nobody knew how good they really were, because they did not play a team with a pulse in the non-conference. The 'beaks were further cursed by playing a bunch of conference opponents who were flawed to varying degrees, not to mention they missed Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. Not until the Border War did they have a chance to measure themselves against a truly quality opponent, and for most of the game, Missouri kicked them around the field like Quantrill's men kicked around Lawrence.

We also saw the problem of non-uniform schedules in the selection of Ohio State for the national title game. The Buckeyes played a non-conference schedule that was probably not much stronger than KU's, they beat a bunch of conference opponents who were flawed to varying degrees, and they somehow came out of the mess and faced LSU in New Orleans. We all know how that turned out.

Obviously, I agree with TB about Kansas and Ohio State alike, although I would add the caveat that (as I pointed out in my article for Yea Alabama) the B.C.S. will (and should) reward major conference champions who tackled at least one tough opponent outside of league play. TB, however, makes an argument well worth considering when he contends that "[c]riticism directed at schools scheduling weak is often directed their way by the upper crust of the college football world."

I am no defender of weak out-of-conference scheduling, but I am perturbed when accusations of that sort are levied against whole leagues. Schools set their own non-conference slates, so condemning the S.E.C. for weak scheduling is like condemning all people with the last name "King" for being wordy. Some of us are, but that is no justification for assuming the same about the rest of the family.

At the end of the day, I am willing to tolerate home games against the likes of Western Carolina if that is the price I must pay for Georgia to line up road trips to Arizona State in 2008, Oklahoma State in 2009, Colorado in 2010, Louisville in 2012, Clemson in 2013, and Oregon in 2015 while still playing an annual home-and-home in-state rivalry game against Georgia Tech and facing the toughest opponent in our division at a neutral site every autumn.

That sounds like pretty gutsy scheduling to me, irrespective of what other schools in the vicinity are doing. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Go ‘Dawgs!