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The (Alleged) Problem:
It is no coincidence that Gus Malzahn and other Auburn officials have whined about the scheduling of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Losing 11-of-15 since the series was moved to season’s end has that effect. For the ‘Dawgs, who have the creamiest of cream puff November schedules, the last month has consisted of little more than dodging a few Georgia Tech chop blocks and then focusing on the Tigers (more on that in a moment.)
But, here we are: With Georgia not only agreeing to accommodate Auburn, but with Kirby Smart enthusiastically on board. Beginning in 2020, the SEC has agreed to change the dates of the series. This will be done by moving the Georgia-Tennessee series to November. The Vawls-Dawgs have traditionally played at the end of September/first of October. Meanwhile, of the 123 meetings in the DSOR, all-but five meetings have been in November. In fact, the two Eastern foes haven’t met in November since 1973.
What that does to Auburn’s schedule is still up in the air; we do not know yet which late September/early October game will be replaced. The September scheduling has been all over the map lately. In 2018, it was LSU and Arkansas; in 2017, it was Mizzou and Mississippi State; 2016 was LSU and Texas A&M. There’s no clear pattern. Though, we generally do see the Tigers tackle one of three teams in that window: Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State. For Auburn, then, does that make it easier or more difficult? Is a November with LSU/’Bama appreciably better than ‘Bama/UGA? And, should the Mississippi State game be moved, how fair is it to backload the Bulldogs with Alabama, LSU, and A&M all in the same month? For Arkansas, is it more equitable to load the ‘Hogs up to face a November slate of Auburn/LSU/rival Mizzou?
Still, for the ‘Barn, this is the bed they wish to lie in, and the SEC will permit it, despite clear detriment to the rest of the division.
But, Georgia? For the Bulldogs, the schedule becomes an outright disgrace down the stretch. A century-plus of SEC tradition versus two rival programs will be jettisoned by the league, making UGA’s already-cupcake November softer than a toddler’s diaper after a chili dog.
Let’s look at the numbers and what it does to the strength of schedules.
First, a few assumptions and data points:
- This comparison uses S&P+ — Sorry, John Feinstein, it’s simply the best metric to determine the quality of a team.
- The comps will only be for the last six seasons. Prior to 2014 (and particularly in 2012-2013), the SEC had bridge schedules for some teams which resulted in a lot of wonkiness, including UGA traveling to Auburn twice in a row. Even in 2013, there were some bridges — such as LSU’s well-documented, well-whined-about 2013 campaign, that included UGA and Florida in the same season.
- This will only a four-team comparison. We’ll have to see how the rest of it shakes out — ‘State, Aggie, and Arkansas could seriously get the screws put to them. But, since the focus of this piece is on the effect schedule jostling will have on contenders, there has to be some cutoff. With apologies to the cheatin’ Ole Miss years, and the blip on the radar that is post-Urban Meyer Florida, this is basically a four-card Monty of elite teams who stand to lose (or gain) the most: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia.
- LSU, unique of the four teams, plays four SEC games in November — and usually the first one is Alabama. Meanwhile, Alabama and Auburn play three conference games. Georgia only plays two. So, to equalize the comparison somewhat, we’ve selected the final three SEC games where possible, and if not, then the final three FBS games, be those conference or cross-state matchups. When we refer to “strength of schedule” we will generally be speaking of those last three SEC or last three FBS games. Where appropriate, we will specify otherwise.
Throat-clearing aside, here are some strength of schedule breakdowns, as measured by S&P+ since the 2013 season. (NB: I could have used 2014 when there were no bridges for any squads, but the analysis is not impacted in any meaningful way).
Alabama on average has, and will continue to have, the hardest November stretch of the four teams. Auburn is a very close second, and some years has the more difficult November. LSU is reliably almost always behind those two. However, facing four SEC teams in a row at season’s end, with Alabama usually beginning the month, is nothing many coaches are going to sign up for. We’ll give them a slight pass here.
Georgia has by far the weakest schedule here: it already has a scornful November slate: one that boils down to a one-game month — perennial cellar-dweller Kentucky/Mizzou, outmanned Georgia Tech, a body bag game, and then one meaningful opponent, Auburn. In fact, had LSU’s opponents Arkansas and Tennessee both not cratered in 2017, resulting in new coaches, Georgia would have had been dead-last in opponent quality every single year...and by a wide-damned margin.
Final Foes (S&P+ in parentheticals)
Alabama: LSU (11), MSU (41), Auburn 6) — Average: 19
LSU: Alabama (2), Arkansas (67), TAMU (16) — Average 28
Auburn: Tenn (57), UGA (7), Alabama (2) — Average 22
Georgia: Kentucky (74), GT (37), Auburn (6) — Average 38
Alabama: LSU (11), MSU (10), Auburn (6) — Average 9
LSU: Alabama (1), Arkansas (31), A&M (15) — Average 16
Auburn: Alabama (1), TAMU (15), UGA (3) — Average 6
Georgia: Kentucky (51), Auburn (6), GT (33) — Average 30
Alabama: LSU (11), MSU (21), Auburn (23) — Average 18
LSU: Arkansas (14), Ole Miss (3), TAMU (24) — Average 14
Auburn: TAMU (24), UGA (19), Alabama (2) — Average 15
Georgia: Kentucky (78), Auburn (23), GT (43) — Average 48
Alabama: LSU (5), MSU (56), Auburn (22) — Average 28
LSU: Arkansas (47), TAMU (27), Florida (20) — Average 31
Auburn: Vandy (71), Georgia (42), Alabama (1) — Average 38
Georgia: Kentucky (78), Auburn (22), GT (48) — Average 49
Alabama: LSU (11), MSU (19), Auburn (8) — Average 13
LSU: Arkansas (63), Tennessee (67), TAMU (36) — Average 55
Auburn: TAMU (36), Alabama (1), UGA (4) — Average 14
Georgia: Kentucky (61), Auburn (8), GT (38) — Average 36
Alabama: LSU (5), MSU (8), Auburn (7) — Average 7
LSU: Alabama (1), Arkansas (53), TAMU (11) — Average 22
Auburn: TAMU (11), UGA (2), Alabama (1) — Average 4
UGA: Kentucky (25), Auburn (7), GT (74) — Average 35
How do those stack up over the course of the last half dozen years? Let’s rank the above in order of difficulty:
Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia
Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Georgia
Auburn, LSU, Alabama, Georgia
Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia
Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU
Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Georgia
By way of illustration, look at those numbers a different way. Here, have a simple frequency chart of the schedule strength of the team by the number of times they’ve finished 1-through-4
|TEAM||SOS Rank: 1||SOS Rank: 2||SOS Rank: 3||SOS Rank: 4|
|TEAM||SOS Rank: 1||SOS Rank: 2||SOS Rank: 3||SOS Rank: 4|
Down-the Stretch Opponent Quality S&P+ (average)
No./% of Foes outside Top 40: 2 (11%)
No./% of Foes outside Top 40: 3 (17%)
No./% of Foes outside Top 40: 5 (28%)
No./% of Foes outside Top 40: 7 (39%)
Georgia already slides out of the season, and potentially into Atlanta — at home, I add, in already far better condition than any of the four. Alabama and Auburn and LSU, meanwhile, are in a grinding, circular firing squad.
But, only one of those Western contenders is going to see relief.
At first blush, it seems odd then that Georgia would go out of its way to change its schedule to accommodate Auburn, when the ending is supremely cushy as-is. Why accommodate Tiger whinging, when AU’s only justification is “we don’t want to ‘play back-to-back games.’” This completely ignores that since expansion, only once have the UA-UGA games been back-to-back — and Auburn was the home team in that Bridge Year of 2013. The games simply are not sequential and have not been for half a dozen years. Nor for Georgia, is there an issue of sequential conference games to end the season. The prior two seasons, the ‘Dawgs have scheduled similar to Auburn and Alabama: Conference Game, Body Bag, Rivalry Game. So, even though the Tech and AU games are either home/home or away/away, there is a sensible break between them.
So, what is the ‘Dawgs’ motivation? Perhaps a look at the 2019 schedule explains it more. Like their 2017 campaign, in 2019 Georgia worked in a marquee OOC game which has resulted in front-loading its cupcakes. Making that worse, the Bulldogs decided to take their bye immediately after the Notre Dame contest — in Week 5. The result is eight straight games. And, you know what? Only then does Georgia’s conclusory schedule begin to approach the difficulty of the Western teams who have longed faced rugged November grinds, landing exhausted in Atlanta.
Here’s what this season’s concluding SOS looks like based on Bill C’s preseason S&P+ projections, but let’s take a look at the entire second-half of the schedule (FCS omitted). And this time, we’ll even make it more expansive:
2019 Second-Half FBS Schedule:
Alabama: Tennessee (21), Arkansas (49), LSU (4), Mississippi State (10), Auburn (8) — Average 19, Median 10
LSU: MSU (10). Auburn (8), Alabama (1), Ole Miss (39), Arkansas (49), TAMU (13) — Average 20, Median 12
Auburn: Arkansas (49), Ole Miss (39), Georgia (2), LSU (4), Alabama (1) — Average 19, Median 4
Georgia: Kentucky (37), Florida (6), Missouri (16), Auburn (8), TAMU (13), GT (89) — Average 28, Median 15
For the first time since the Bridge era, Georgia has a reasonably comparable SEC West slate to finish the season, and even then, is is because that SOS is largely buouyed by a cross-division matchup with A&M. Yet, this is what Georgia was eager to flee? This is what the SEC was quick to agree to? The possibility that Auburn plays as tough a final schedule as Alabama? That Georgia may, just may have scheduling parity with the West by season’s end?
And, if it is because of the ND intersection game, why then is the conference rewarding a self-inflicted wound? Georgia has traditionally taken their bye mid-October, near the WLOCP. Teams control their off week — this was manageable as well.
The problem isn’t Auburn’s schedule as presently constituted, it’s Georgia; it has always been Georgia — and this proposal will only make the matter worse. Diluting the concluding SEC games for select contenders weakens both Auburn and Georgia’s degree of difficulty, while retaining it for LSU and Alabama and placing those two at a competitive disadvantage.
If the UGA-AU game must be moved, such that the DSOR is played when everyone is healthy, and the season’s legs are fresh, then so too must LSU and Alabama. The Tide can enter its stretch run with Arkansas or Ole Miss as easily as it can LSU. The Tigers can play Auburn in the conference opener. Their Mississippi State series can happen just as easily on Labor Day.
And think about who else loses here. Depending on how it’s juggled, this could really put the screws to Mississippi State, to Arkansas, and to Texas A&M. But, we do know as of today, for an absolute fact, Alabama and LSU are impacted most detrimentally.
The frustrating part is that there are several easy fixes to this “problem” that is exaggerated at best, and manufactured at worst:
- Option 1: The game need not and should not be moved. Period. There is little reason for the purposes of scheduling parity or competitiveness that this game ought to disrupt series and rivalries that have been 120 years in the making.
- Option 2: Rearrange other games in the West, such as LSU-Alabama. If spreading out elite, long-standing rivalries works for the goose, then this gander definitely wants in on the action. Failing that, then modify other contests, such as the timing of the Mississippi State-Alabama series.
- Option 3: The SEC could simply move Auburn to the East, as former AD Jay Jacobs long maintained is where the Tigers belonged. Then the burden of this morass becomes the problem, and falls upon the shoulders, of the teams whining about it — it becomes a division game and will not, as presently constituted, require placing the entirety of the SEC West at a competitive disadvantage, all while making Georgia’s path to Atlanta even easier.
This simply was not thought out by the league office. And it is plain that a lot more analysis will need be done, more ink will need be spilled to impress upon the SEC that more is at stake — and far more parties affected — than simply Auburn and Georgia’s November rivalry.
Again: You cannot blame Auburn for wanting to skate out of a tough month. You can’t fault Kirby for wanting his Bulldogs to face Auburn early in the season, when they are traditionally not as difficult an opponent. But, if making the road easier for some is a thing, then LSU and Alabama are queuing up for this preferential treatment as well.