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A Critique of Strength of Schedule Rankings

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I visited Kentucky blog A Sea of Blue this morning and saw that they had a link to Rivals' ranking of the toughest college football schedules of 2007. Eight SEC teams were in their rankings:

  1. South Carolina
  2. Auburn
  3. Tennessee
  4. Florida
  5. Mississippi State
  6. Kentucky
  7. Georgia
  8. LSU
You can find the full Rivals rankings here.

As I began perusing these, I quickly came to the conclusion that their ranking system is well...kind of full of crap and seemingly arbitrary even based on their own stated criteria. Obviously there's some deviation in who you play every year within the SEC and sometimes that variation can be quite significant. For example, Florida's 2006 SEC schedule was unquestionably one of the toughest I've ever seen (and they still managed to win the conference and the MNC), but that's also somewhat of a rarity in that it only happens around every six years or so.

This quote especially tells you what the thought process is here and how their selection of eight SEC teams and their ranking is somewhat puzzling:

...the Southeastern Conference dominates the rest of the chart with five representatives in the top 10. Even though many of the SEC schools don't play strong non-conference opponents, the strength of the league itself makes their schedules among the toughest in college football.

By that statement alone, all 12 schools seem to be prime candidates for inclusion in the Top 25. Obviously out of conference opponents are going to figure into the rankings as well as home schedule vs. road schedule. The other factors that they mention are opponents total record from the previous year (which can be an incredibly misleading statistic) as well as the number of teams that played in bowls from the previous year, how many AP Top 25 opponents they play, how many 1-AA teams they play as well as the number of home games they have.  That's the list, that's the stated criteria.

When I saw that Florida's schedule was ranked #7, I decided to take a look at it much more closely and compare it to Alabama's schedule. I knew there was a lot of crossover as far as teams go and similarity as far home vs. road strength. So, let's compare the two shall we?

Team
Schedule Rank
NR
7
D1A Opponent Records
82-59 (.582)
84-56. (.600)
Bowl Teams
7
8
Home Games
7
7
1-AA Opponents
1
1
AP Top 25 Teams
5
4

Same amount of home games, same amount of 1-AA opponents, Florida faces one more bowl team than Alabama, Alabama faces one more Top 25 team than Florida, Florida's opponents had a comined (.018) better overall winning percentage. On their stats alone, it looks pretty even to me.

Let's now break it down by opponent. Alabama and Florida don't play each other this year but have seven common opponents.  We'll look at those first:

Tennessee: Alabama and Florida both get the Vols at home
Ole Miss: Alabama and Florida both travel to Oxford
Auburn: Alabama visits The Plains, Tigers travel to the Swamp
LSU: Alabama gets LSU at home, the Gators play at Death Valley
Georgia: Dawgs come to Tuscaloosa, FL plays them neutral at Jacksonville
Vanderbilt: Alabama plays in Nashville, The `Dores go to Gainesville
Florida State: Alabama plays neutral at Jacksonville, FSU travels to the Swamp

Out of the seven common opponents:

  • Two teams (Tennessee and Ole Miss) are exactly the same for both.
  • I'd say that LSU and Auburn are more or less the same. They both travel to one and get one at home.
  • I'd say that FSU and Georgia are the same. They both get one at home and play the other in a neutral site game in Jacksonville.
  • Regarding Vanderbilt: Alabama travels. Florida doesn't.

The remaining five games I've matched up the conference games in rank of quality for both teams and then I've done that with the out of conference schedule:

  • Alabama plays Arkansas at home, Florida plays South Carolina away
  • Alabama plays Mississippi State away, Florida plays Kentucky away
  • Alabama plays Houston at home, Florida plays Troy at home
  • Alabama plays La-Monroe at home, Florida plays Florida Atlantic at home
  • They both play their 1-AA cupcake at home (Western Carolina for Alabama, Western Kentucky for Florida)

The only difference I see there is that Alabama travels to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State while Florida travels to Kentucky and South Carolina. Considering the fact that Alabama has a combined six losses to those four opponent schools on the road since 1980, I don't see much of a difference there either. Obviously that's a purely quantitative analysis of the non-shared portions of their schedule, so let's add a little bit of qualitative analysis to the mix just to cover all of the bases. Houston and Troy both won their conferences last year. Troy is more likely to repeat than Houston, but Houston plays in a better conference. La-Monroe and Florida Atlantic both suck now matter how you try to slice it. 1-AA teams barely even merit discussion unless you're Duke or Colorado.

The "major" difference that jumps out of me in the two schedules is that Alabama gets Arkansas at home and travels to Mississippi State while Florida travels to both South Carolina and Kentucky. Are the Gamecocks and the Wildcats so much better than the Razorbacks and the Bulldogs to merit one schedule being ranked seventh toughest and another not being ranked? No, of course they're not.

Perception of toughness or greatness obviously shapes these sorts of lists, perhaps gut feeling weighs in heavily as well, but after really looking at it, based on their own criteria, it doesn't make much sense. One of the schedules is either grossly overrated or one of them is grossly underrated.