For the last seven seasons, we have pored over the SEC schedules, indicating where and when we encounter vast disparities in the number of byes Alabama opponents have before playing the Tide.
It’s not an accident.
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.)
Those were quality teams in 2015, to be sure. But, yes, it very much played into Arkansas’ preparation and the Third Saturday, where Alabama, working on its 8th straight game, was facing yet another rested team. It’s no coincidence that the Tide were physically flat against the Hogs and trailed the Vols late in the 4th.
Last season was somewhat better for Alabama, and for the conference overall with respect to bye weeks. However, the SEC decided that it was better to pick winners and losers through unequal scheduling -- what I wrote would be prophetic:
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 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.
Tennessee did, in fact, start 6-2. Auburn was 8-3 going into Iron Bowl play. Florida played like utter hell in the brutal stretch of a season where it faced seven conference teams in a row, including a listless loss to Tennessee and being smacked around by a terrible Arkansas squad. (Can’t help you about that defense though, Ole Miss. Sorry about jinxing you.)
I’m not Nostradamus here, but we can take a look at the helmet grid and with reflection draw a reasoned inference as to what effect rest and scheduling will have on the conference standings, or at least how they can be a contributor to those final standings.
Now that we have some idea of the predictive validity of unbalanced scheduling and bye weeks, let’s take a look at 2017. (Don’t @ me, stats nerds -- I’m writing for the public not for nerds.)
Below is a comparison of breaks/cupcakes for each team once SEC play starts. We’re not covering the end of year OOC in-state rivalry stuff, or those first 2-3 games for most teams — the analysis begins only when conference play begins:
East SEC balance:
( ) indicates opponents with winning record
UF: 5 SEC teams (3), Bye, 3 SEC teams (2)
UGA: 4 SEC teams (2), Bye, 4 SEC teams (3)
UK: 2 SEC teams (1), OOC, 1 SEC team, Bye, 5 SEC teams (2)
Mizzou: 1 SEC team, OOC, 1 SEC team (1), Bye, 2 SEC teams (2), OOC, 4 SEC teams (4)
South Carolina: 2 SEC teams (1), OOC, 3 SEC teams (3), Bye, 3 SEC teams (3)
Tennessee: 1 SEC team (1), OOC, 1 SEC team (1), Bye, 3 SEC teams (2), OOC, 3 SEC teams (2)
Vanderbilt: 4 SEC teams (3), Bye, 1 SEC team, OOC, 3 SEC teams (2)
West SEC balance:
( ) indicates opponents with winning record
Alabama: 5 SEC teams (4), Bye, 2 SEC teams (2), OOC, 1 SEC team (1)
Arkansas: 1 SEC team (1), OOC, 4 SEC teams (3), OOC, 3 SEC teams (3)
Auburn: 5 SEC teams (3), Bye, 2 SEC teams (2,) OOC, 1 SEC team (1)
LSU: 1 SEC team (1), OOC, OOC, 3 SEC teams (2), Bye, 4 SEC teams (4)
Mississippi State: 3 SEC teams (3), Bye, OOC, 2 SEC teams (2), OOC, 3 SEC teams (2)
Ole Miss: Bye, 6 SEC teams (6), OOC, 2 SEC teams (2)
Texas A&M: 4 SEC teams (4), Bye, 2 SEC teams (2), OOC, 2 SEC teams (1)
Opponent Bye Week Counts: SEC games only
(opponent/s with byes)
Alabama: 2 (Ole Miss, LSU)
Mississippi State: 2 (Kentucky, Texas A&M)
South Carolina: 2 (Vanderbilt, Tennessee)
Texas A&M: 2 (Arkansas, Auburn)
Georgia: 1 (Florida)
Florida: 1 (Georgia)
Kentucky: 1 (Missouri)
LSU: 1 (Alabama)
Teams facing no opponent off bye week: Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Missouri, Vanderbilt
You know me: I’d love nothing more than to complain about the scheduling. But, the simple fact is, this is the most well-balanced schedule the SEC has had to-date in the expansion era. It’s certainly the most balanced one since we’ve been examining them in-depth.
The issue of bye weeks, which has largely improved since 2010 has been addressed throughout the entire league calendar. Aside from the ridiculous six rested foes the Tide saw in 2010, Alabama is accustomed to facing three, sometimes four, league opponents coming off of byes. This year, that number has been reduced to two, including the annual mutual bye with LSU. Also included is Ole Miss’ annual super bowl.
Moreover, the diminished burden upon Alabama does not fall upon any other SEC team. Of the teams with two bye opponents, Alabama and Texas A&M, both face competitive teams, but they are not back-to-back. In fact, none of the teams with two bye opponents do so consecutively. That is surely a first.
Granted, there are teams that benefit from facing their entire slate without a week of rest, but that is why the competitiveness component, must be addressed. Last season, we noted that Florida faced an absurd seven SEC teams in row. The league disproportionately front-loaded Tennessee’s slate. Meanwhile, other teams that traditionally benefit from SEC scheduling were coddled: In fact, we even predicted it with Auburn, a team that had an offense many Pop Warner teams would find shameful.
When competitiveness is taken into account, as defined by the number of teams in a row and number of bowl opponents, you can see that the league tried to balance consecutive games previous-year bowl teams to account for facing opponents not coming off of byes.
Auburn, for instance, begins its slate with five straight SEC teams, three of which went to bowl games last season. Tennessee’s schedule, so heavily front-loaded last year, has been back-weighted this year, but at least reasonably so: the Vols face three SEC teams, have a bye, then wrap up with three more — 2/3rds of that closing schedule were against bowl teams.
As for Alabama, the Tide face maybe the tallest task when adding bye weeks and SEC opponents in a row: The SEC slate begins with five straight SEC opponents, four of which went to bowl games. After a bye, Alabama faces back-to-back bowl teams. Still, six bowl-bound teams out of eight weeks is nothing new for this coaching staff — at least all the opponents are not rested, and if anyone can handle a little extra work, it’s the Crimson Tide. So, while it’s a competitive schedule for Nick Saban and company, it’s not insurmountable or grossly unfair. It’s just life in the SEC.
In fact, there are few schedules here — practically none — that could set off the Spidey sense of conspiracy theorists. Nor has a preseason contender been given a slate so patently one-sided in their favor that we semi-seriously question whether the SEC has rooting interests.
Whoever wins the SEC this season will have to rise or fall based upon their own on-field performances: We can happily report that, a few quibbles aside, conference contenders were not eliminated or assisted by a grid-maker in Birmingham.
That’s all Alabama fans can or have ever asked of the Commissioner. As a result, we are likely to see much crisper, better play across the league throughout the entire season. This is a win for everyone.
Today’s discussion questions:
Pore over the helmet schedule, look at the competitiveness data and the bye week data, and then tell us who you think got off the lightest? Who got hit comparatively the hardest?
For instance, to the latter I say Alabama and Ole Miss. I understand Alabama’s schedule is always going to be a little tougher, whether a conscious decision by Sankey or not. But, I do have a conspiracy as to Ole Miss: The SEC has no incentive to provide a soft landing to Ole Miss, a team that is tearing apart segments of the conference — in fact, this probably does represent punitive scheduling, if we’re being honest and/or conspiratorial. Finally, after babying Auburn through three quarters of the schedule last year, the SEC has given them a much more difficult early slate — at the end of 8 games in a row, the Tigers face five SEC teams in a row, three of whom went to bowls last year. And that’s all before they hit the “amen corner” of LSU, Georgia and Alabama.
As to who may have been given subconscious help: The league seems to have ensured that Texas A&M won’t swoon in November — If the Aggies fall apart, it will be early. Meanwhile, rebuilding Missouri has been given a very manageable chance to be bowl eligible. Similarly, the SEC tried to break up a fairly tough schedule for a Vols team that is rebuilding and got hammered by the league last year. Meanwhile, perhaps also in penance for last year, Florida was given a slightly more manageable schedule than in 2016.
Anyway, hold forth below, and have a great weekend.