For the 10th season, we are taking a look at how the SEC league office has managed to work around bye weeks to try and create reasonably balanced schedules in the league. This is a task that is often made infinitely more difficult by the pitiful OOC stretch scheduling of some of the league’s contenders.
It seems a silly thing at first blush — nearly every foe in the SEC is a tough one — but sitting here in May you can foresee with some reasonable degree of accuracy the foul fruits that too many opponents with byes produce, or the effect that playing too many bowl teams in a row will have.
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.
How did that pan out? 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.
But, over the past two years, we were generally laudatory of the job that the folks in Birmingham did.
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.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the some of the factors playing into both competitiveness (defined by consecutive opponents and returning bowl teams) and bye weeks.
SEC Opponents Coming Off Bye Weeks
Maybe the secret all along was to start the season earlier and have two bye weeks? With one notable exception, it’s hard to find much to complain about here.
- Alabama: 3 (Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M)
- Arkansas: 2 (Auburn, Kentucky)
- Auburn: 1 (Ole Miss)
- Florida: 1 (Georgia)
- Georgia: 4 (Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee)
- Kentucky: 1 (Arkansas)
- LSU 3 (Alabama, Arkansas, Vandy)
- Missouri: 1 (Tennessee)
- South Carolina: 1 (Texas A&M)
- Tennessee: 2 (Georgia, Mississippi State)
- Texas A&M: 1 (Alabama)
- Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt: These teams face no SEC opponents coming off of bye weeks.
Bye Scheduling Observations:
The only team that has serious room to complain here is Georgia, which faces half of its league opponents coming off a bye. Of those, two are reciprocal byes (UT, Florida), leaving the always-dicey South Carolina game and bitter rival Auburn as the SEC teams well-rested and with an extra week to prepare. The ‘Barn game especially is iffy: it’s on the road. Still, that’s just two opponents in a 12-game schedule, hardly the inequities we’ve seen in schedules past.
The composite schedule is also notable for eliminating a great deal of the teams facing no opponents coming off of byes: In 2017, for instance, there were seven teams that faced no league opponents with a bye week.
And, as much as it will pain us Gumps who love to complain, even Alabama’s three bye weeks isn’t too grisly to overcome — two of those are reciprocal byes (A&M, LSU) and the third is the team that always takes its bye before Alabama: the annual Mississippi State hangover game.
Sorry to deprive us all of some excellent off-season grumbling :(
Consecutive SEC Opponents
For a change, we don’t have to delve too deeply into the consecutive-opponent issues that plagued the SEC schedule in prior seasons. The 2016 Florida schedule, with seven straight SEC opponents instantly comes to mind.
Three teams may find reason for concern in 2019 though: Florida, Auburn, and Ole Miss.
- In Ole Miss’ case, the Rebels play eight teams in a row. Three are non-conference though, another two missed bowl games. That leaves a manageable three serious SEC opponents in the first 75% of the schedule. It is also offset by the fact that Ole Miss faces zero rested and prepared teams. Being crappy has its benefits. And — after all — it was Matt Luke’s decision to take half of the last month off so as to concentrate on the LSU and Auburn games.
- Auburn is a bit different than Ole Miss, in both the number (the Tigers face seven consecutive opponents) and the circumstances. Yes, there is the Tiger’s usual bye week before Georgia, but with a schedule that feature three-of-four on the road in the first half of play, you can see why Gus would want a breather before a stretch run that includes LSU, Alabama and Georgia — if he’s even coaching by Halloween.
- Florida’s schedule is weirdly tough. There’s no way around that. While the SEC did them a solid with byes (just UGA before the WLOCP), the Gators bookend their season with two in-state rivals: Miami and Florida State. And getting out of the gate is gonna be tough — the three SEC bowl teams in a row isn’t that bad, it’s the three-of-five on the road to start the season that are. Mercifully, a bye does come after that...and the reward is a Georgia team many expect to be a playoff participant. If Florida runs the table, Mullen is SEC coach of the year hands-down...And, vice versa for Kirby.
- A few other teams play six opponents in a row, but those are largely front-loaded with non-conference opponents (see Alabama, for instance). In this respect, there are a lot of nondescript schedules, without too many games in a row against SEC opponents (and this is especially true in the West.)
Quality of Competition and Observations
The last component of our regular scheduling analysis ties into the above: the quality of the consecutive competition. Seven league games in a row is tough; facing five opponents off a bye is tough. But, without knowing the quality of the opponent, it’s hard to tell where the real pitfalls lie. We give no regard to whether these runs are broken up by byes: facing six SEC bowl in seven weeks is rugged no matter how good your program may be. That said, here is the maximum number of consecutive SEC bowl teams that programs will face in 2019 — a sort of quality index, if you will.
- Alabama: 2 (LSU, MSU) Alabama’s schedule really sets up nicely, with quality opponents broken up by OOC games or teams who had losing records last season. We should qualify, however, that despite UT and Arkansas missing bowls last year, this could wind up being a tougher schedule than it looks on paper if those teams rebound (and I suspect that at least the Hogs will, and UT has more than a puncher’s chance to do so).
- Auburn: 3 (A&M, Mississippi State, Florida). It’s a front-loaded schedule for the Seven Million Dollar Man. That’s an Auburn problem though, not an SEC one, and a 3-3 start is very possible on the Plains. Then again, so is 5-1. It’s this kind of year — where Malzahn has a veteran offensive line and little buzz — where the Tigers tend to thrive. The quarterbacking is going to be less than optimal though.
- Florida: 6...with an asterisk. (Auburn, LSU, USCe, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Missouri.) With just one bye before the Cocktail, the Gators face three quality SEC teams in a row. And they do so twice in a season. This could be brutal.
- Georgia: 6 (USCe, Kentucky, Florida, Mizzou, Auburn, Texas A&M). The four byes were bad enough — now, throw this string of contests into the mix. And, it gets worse still: this doesn’t even take into account that the game before this murderer’s row begins is Tennessee, a rivalry game against a team that should be improved and be bowl eligible this year. Along with their critical losses on the roster, that’s why in my post-spring predictions, I have Florida representing the East and not UGA. The Bulldogs could very well be a 13-2 team lurking behind a 9-4 record — and no result anywhere in between should surprise you.
- Kentucky: 3 (MSU, USC, Florida). The week after this slate, UK-Arkansas face off, and the same caveat about Arkansas applies as previously stated. But, hey, at least it’s a mutual bye. Otherwise, it’s a very manageable schedule for a rebuilding Wildcats team hoping to capitalize off of last season’s momentum.
- LSU: 4 (Florida, MSU, Auburn, Alabama). Just a straight-up decent schedule here. Two on the road, two at home. Nice breather of Ark/Ole Miss before the season finale against Aggie. Typically tough-but-manageable SEC slate, in other words.
- Mississippi State: 2...with an asterisk. Not only do the Western Bulldogs get the benefit of playing no team coming off a bye, they only face two, two-game stretches against bowl teams (UK/Auburn and LSU/A&M). But, here’s where the asterisk comes in: Should UT and Arkansas be bowl eligible, Bully’s schedule becomes the hardest in the SEC with seven straight quality opponents: UK, Auburn, Tennessee, LSU, A&M, Arkansas, Alabama. Yikes.
- Missouri: 3...with an asterisk. This is probably the friendliest schedule in all of the SEC. If Mizzou is half-competent they can squeak out an 8- or 9-win season. The schedule is backloaded a bit with Kentucky, Georgia and Florida, where the Tigers will likely lose two. But UK isn’t Goliath, and Mizzou has a habit of beating someone it shouldn’t every year: Dawgs beware; we’ve seen that secondary. The asterisk crops up with the next two games thereafter: Arkansas and Tennessee close out the year.
- Ole Miss: 3 (Mizzou, A&M, Auburn). Like LSU and Alabama, this is a nicely balanced schedule that breaks up cupcakes, OOCs, no-hoper games, and games where the Rebels should be competitive. If Matt Luke wants to try and break .500, this isn’t a bad season to do it — but prepare for a rough October.
- South Carolina: 5 (Alabama, Mizzou, UK, UGA, UF). Think that’s bad? Following this up is a trip to Neyland. Man, who did you piss off, Will Muschamp? There are not a lot of teams in the conference that could handle this swath of terror. And, with less than zero buzz or momentum or excitement or talent going into 2019, you can see the Gamecocks getting down early in the year and then the wheels falling slap-off. The tough slate is mitigated with a bye after the first four weeks, and the fact that aside from a mutual bye with A&M, USC faces no opponents off a week’s rest.
- Tennessee: 5 (UF, UGA, MSU, ‘Bama, USC). This certainly isn’t what you look at with glee in August if you’re a reeling program trying to get up off the mat. I think Tennessee can be a bowl team this year. But there is zero margin for error. The Vols will need to pick up at least one and perhaps two wins over this early stretch for Baldy to quell the hillbilly mutiny. It complicates matters greatly that one early OOC game is very losable (BYU), as is its late paycheck game (UAB.)
- Texas A&M: 3 (USC, UGA, LSU) Like Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, the Aggies have a really well-divided schedule that apportions difficult games with gimmes. The opener at Clemson and those final two games — both on the road — aren’t a joke, though. A&M could be a much improved team this season and still finish with a very Aggie-ish 8-4 record.
- Vanderbilt: I shudder to even put Vandy here. If there is one coach that I think will not be back in 2020, it is Derek Mason. He could perhaps be joined by his peers at Missouri, Auburn, Ole Miss, and South Carolina to ring in Christmas on the unemployment line. When you’re Vandy, especially this Vandy, every game is tough one. In fact, looking at the schedule, there’s only one guaranteed win on the schedule — East Tennessee State. Even NIU and a rapidly improving UNLV represent a threat.
I know it may be really hard to say this for some, but man, overall this was a good job, SEC. I think the two bye-week scheduling really makes it a lot more flexible the league to work around most of the 14 members’ rivalries, ordinarily established byes, quality OOC games, and the like.
There are some schedules that are brutal, to be sure, and they’re largely in the East. Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia have the most difficult paths. But, that is naturally to be expected. The downside of the East improving is that the road grows more difficult for those accustomed to a two- or three-game schedule. So, no: it’s not nefarious, it’s just the East finally experiencing the brutal parity that has plagued the Western division for decades.
And, it is hard to sympathize with the Gators. Florida sort of brought this on themselves with the bookend in-state rivalries and their own selected byes. And, yes, UGA should be applauded for scheduling a home-and-home with Notre Dame in September. But, leaving the Domers out of this for a second, the Dawgs still have among the toughest climbs in the conference. As for South Carolina? Can’t help you — you just have to get better.
That said, with an extra week of rest the second bye affords, decent degrees of scheduling parity, no overloaded byes for most teams and just a few teams with overloaded consecutive quality opponents, I suspect the level of play across the SEC will be exceptional and healthier teams should continue playing quite well deep into November.
Now, it’s your turn. Speak out on the scheduling. What are your takeaways? Should the SEC go to two bye weeks, particularly in light of the fact that almost half the conference is aiming for 14 or 15 potential games? Who has the toughest path? The easiest? Who has been set up for failure right out of the gate?
P.S. For your records, here is the 2019 Football Schedule Grid.pdf