For the fifth straight year, I write this address about the scheduling inequities in the SEC.
The bellwether year, 2010, obviously was one of the harshest in recent memories. That still does not mean that conference has done the Crimson Tide any favors of late. As I wrote a year ago in this same spot:
[Alabama plays] twice as many [opponents off of bye weeks] 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.)
It's déjà vu all over again, as the quotable Yogi Berra once said.
This year, there are two teams who again feel the brunt of the unequal scheduling (stop me if you've heard these names): Florida and Alabama, arguably the SEC's flagship brands and standard bearers of their respective divisions. Florida faces three SEC opponents coming off of byes. Alabama faces just two, but that is deceptive.
Florida plays Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas off of byes. Florida, as does Alabama, takes its bye before the season's marquee game, a grudge match in the WLOCP versus Georgia. Alabama, meanwhile, faces LSU and Texas A&M off of byes. Moreover, it faces three other teams that may as well have had a bye, and the Tide play two of those on the road: Ole Miss hosts Wofford, Arkansas hosts Alcorn State, Auburn hosts Alabama A&M. Throw in USC, and again Alabama faces half a slate where opponents have faced zero (or qualitatively zero) competition the week before.
Florida seemingly has a similar or harder road with its three bye opponents. But, the Gators play only one team that has a patsy before meeting McElwain's squad, when the Vols host the Ohio Bobcats.
As with last season, Georgia is again the beneficiary of the inequitable scheduling scheme as far as byes/opponents. The Bulldogs face just one team coming off a bye (Florida,) and just one other team who had a paycheck game the week previous (Missouri against Eastern Michigan.) Contrast those numbers with what the Volunteers face, for instance. The Vols, a 10-win team on paper, have been saddled with a schedule that gives them the Tide as its eighth opponent in a row, and the final foe in a four-game SEC stretch of: Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, Alabama. The only team with a tougher four game schedule are Mississippi State and Vanderbilt (both are going to get massacred down the stretch.) The rebuilding 'Dores end with: at Auburn, at Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee (yeesh,) and the Dakless Bulldogs wrap up with: Texas A&M, at Alabama, Arkansas, at Ole Miss (yeesh, ibid.)
Here is the composite schedule via FBSschedules.com (pdf.) Below is a converted image of the document.
But, they fixed the bye weeks. Why are you complaining?
Did you see how some teams are back-loaded and set up to fail before Labor day even rolls around?
But, there is another crucial analysis here too, an overlooked one, and that is the number of consecutive conference opponents that teams must face. Florida plays an ungodly 7/8ths of its conference schedule in a row, broken up only by the WLCOP bye. Georgia is worse: The Dawgs play all eight conference opponents in a row, also with a WLOCP bye. Arkansas also faces seven SEC teams in a row, as does Kentucky, Alabama faces six.
A surprising beneficiary is Ole Miss. The golden parachute for the Oxford Bagmen is that they face no more than three SEC teams in a row.
But, by far the winner of the SEC's scheduling lottery here are the Auburn Tigers. In what will probably be High School's last season on the Plains, the Tigers (like Ole Miss) somehow manage to not play more than three consecutive SEC foes before getting a bye or a despicable out of conference opponent. But, that is a deceptive three-game swing, with the sole time Auburn faces three consecutive SEC teams concludes with Vanderbilt. Well done, Auburn. Gaming the system since 1957.
What to make of 2016?
The SEC is to be commended to some extent for addressing the most glaring bye week concerns. Are consecutive conference games the answer to fixing the bye week debacle? Plainly not, as the schedules of A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn show. The league can plainly work around that.
There are pervasive issues here, many of which may arise unconsciously, some may be more deliberate.
Georgia has, since time immemorial, gotten the kid glove treatment from the conference. Is that a conscious decision by the SEC since the Dawgs typically bookend their season with Power 5 teams? Very probably.
But, the flipside is that the SEC's standard bearers for the past 15 years, Florida, Alabama, LSU, have drawn the disproportionate brunt of the scheduling snafus as well. LSU was saddled with the bridge schedule for two years in a row...and it very well may have cost them an opportunity at a national title. Alabama notoriously faced six conference teams (and eight overall) coming off of a bye in 2010. This year, Florida, who is just coming up off the mat, is absolutely set up by the SEC to fail. The same can be said for Alabama's slate where 50% of the schedule includes opponents playing cupcakes and bye-weeks the prior week. Those scheduling issues are very much more likely subconscious -- "oh, X is a power team, they can handle it."
Still, the issues remain and they must be addressed. When Tennessee is gassed and hiccuping to a 6-2 start, when Florida drops 2-3 games inexplicably, when Ole Miss is a 10-win team, when Auburn is deceptively 8-3 going into the Iron Bowl there is a reason. And that reason is not simply one of Xs and Os or Jimmies and Joes -- the SEC has had had its quiet say before the first snap.