With the advent of the College Football Playoffs, scheduling quality opponents (or, at least playing in a quality conference with a championship game) has become the gold standard for committee's "eyeball test" evaluation.
Eyeballs are certainly helpful, even though not quantifiable by any stretch. For instance, you can see how a solid West Virginia team played well against Alabama, and then beat Baylor, the latter who then beat TCU, and you can then arrive at some (probably meaningful) mental calculus that "Alabama is probably a better team than Baylor or TCU." You can watch Ohio State utterly dismantle Wisconsin 58-0 and think "that is a team that no one wants a part of."
But, eyeballing teams and results week-to-week is only helpful to the extent that the contenders are on roughly even footing. Forgetting that the B12 or the B1G are in no way as difficult a draw as playing in the SEC-West, one way in which contenders remain on decidedly unequal footing is in the preparation afforded to their opponents with bye weeks.
This has been an issue for the past several seasons (most notably 2010, when a full half of Alabama's slate was coming off of bye weeks. Alabama went 3-3 against those opponents.) This season, as last, is no different as Alabama once again plays more teams coming off of byes than anyone in the nation, and twice as many as the next teams in the conference. Here's how it shakes out:
Alabama faces four opponents coming off a bye, three are in conference play, and, worse, all three are in a row in late Oct/Early Nov.: At Texas A&M, Tennessee, LSU. Two of those are divisional competitors, and, with some overlap, two are historical Alabama rivals. Alabama has its bye, as usual, the week of the LSU game. But, to get to that point, the Tide will have to navigate a month that includes visits to the Hate Barn, Athens, hosts Tennessee, and plays a feisty Arkansas team on Homecoming.
No one in the conference or nation faces such a gauntlet. For comparison, only two teams in the conference even face two opponents coming off of byes: LSU (Alabama, Ole Miss) and Auburn (Kentucky and Arkansas.) Three teams face no opponents coming off a bye week (Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Arkansas.) The rest of the conference (including presumptive East champion and playoff contender, Georgia, play only one team coming off a week's rest.)
How does that fare nationally, though? Only two teams in the nation come close to facing as many well-rested opponents with the additional week's preparation: Notre Dame (3) and Virginia Tech (3.) Tech perhaps has the second worse draw in the nation, as all three of its bye week opponents are also ACC opponents (and two are divisional foes.) Notre Dame, like Alabama, is expected to contend for a playoff spot, and like Alabama, a certain conference has done them no favors. Two of the Irish's three bye-week opponents also come from the ACC, where ND plays a quasi-conference schedule.
There is literally no other conference aside from the SEC (and, arguably, the ACC) that hamstrings its marquee products and competitors, particularly in a format where week-to-week excellence is valued by the committee. For funsies, here's a list of the other generally accepted playoff contenders and their numbers of opponents coming off of bye:
- TCU: 1
- Baylor: 1
- Boise State: 1
- Oregon: 1
- USC Trojans: 1
- Georgia: 1
- Ohio State: 0
- Auburn: 2
- LSU: 2
- Notre Dame: 3
- Alabama: 4
As the season progresses, and we get to the middle of the conference grind, remember what you are seeing: Alabama has a schedule with a 1/3rd of its opponents (and nearly half of its conference schedule) where the opponent has another week to rest, another week to prepare, another week to get healthy. This will affect play; it does impact the bottom line; it can result in injuries; it does make one team look tired until the 60-minute war of attrition is in full swing. Likewise, when Ohio State is blasting through their nougaty-soft schedule, where no one gets an added week to prep for the defending champions, so too remember that.
I'm not sure the solution at this point, but in a conference where everyone has players, where most teams have depth, where road wins are damned hard to come by, where a breather is non-existent, starting each season behind the eight ball is as counterproductive as it is unfair. So, keep whining about scheduling all you want, LSUs of the world. No one gets it stuck to them by their conference quite like the Tide.