Sports, Thrill of Victory

An unbiased look at SEC strength of schedules

SEC FootballWinning national titles and playing in bowl games has a lot to do with the talent on hand, but also a lot to do with scheduling. A team may be the best in the country, but if it loses a couple of games — or sometimes even one — it may not have a chance to play for a national title.

That topic was on the minds of a lot of Southeastern Conference coaches this summer as the SEC’s unbalanced schedule has some potential national contenders like LSU, which plays Florida and Georgia from the Eastern Division, while Alabama draws a much-easier slate in Kentucky and Tennessee.

With the SEC full of minefields already, teams are taking it easy on the out-of-conference slate. This year, each SEC team will play one FCS team, and much of the league’s other out-of-conference game are filled with teams that comfortably rank in the bottom half of the FBS.

So, that got me curious: Who plays the league’s easiest overall schedule? The easiest conference schedule? They’re fun questions to ask, but hard to answer, and I decided to set up as unbiased a system as I could to answer those questions.

First, I looked for power rankings in which all 126 FBS teams (if you include Old Dominion, which is in the process of moving over) were ordered. I found four sources I trusted: Athlons, Lindy’s and Phil Steele’s magazines, and CBSSports.com’s online rankings. (I did not use the major polls because they didn’t rank each team.) I took the rankings of each team’s opponents and averaged them among the four services both in and out of conference, and then did a combined ranking as well.

The issue comes when ranking FCS teams, so here’s what I did: there are two major FCS polls, and I averaged the rankings of each. The polls only rank the top 25, but I tried to rank them further as I could. For instance, Samford (an Arkansas opponent) got the 13th-most votes of the unranked teams in one poll and the 15th-most in another, which essentially made it the 38th- or 40th-best team in the FCS. I averaged those two and ranked Samford 39th.

I then assumed that each of the 126 FBS teams were better than each FCS team, so the No. 1 FCS team would have been assigned a ranking of 127. Because 68 teams got votes, I now had a system that went to No. 194. Because there are another 55 more FCS teams that didn’t get votes that I didn’t know how to rank, I counted each un-ranked team as “average” among the leftover teams and assigned them a ranking of 221. (126 + 68 + 55/2).

It’s not a perfect system — some of the FCS teams are better than their FBS counterparts, and I’m sure there’s disparity among the lower-end FCS teams that doesn’t show up here. Also, playing Arkansas (No. 50) would weight the same as playing Alabama (No. 1) and UAB (100), and I think if you’re an elite team, you’d rather play the Razorbacks twice than Alabama and pretty much anyone else in the country, so LSU, for example, probably has a tougher schedule than what’s listed below. And, of course, Alabama is going to have a weaker schedule than everyone else in the West by virtue of not having to play itself.

But that’s just the nature of how these things work. There was no attempt to build in a bias; I just got curious and wanted some answers.

So, without keeping you waiting further, here’s what the computer spit out.

Toughest overall schedule
(with average opponent ranking in parenthesis)

1. Florida (41.2)
2. South Carolina (44)
3. Arkansas (46.9)
4. Georgia (47.9)
5. Kentucky (49.2)
6. LSU (49.7)
7. Mississippi St. (50.9)
8. Texas A&M (54.4)
9. Missouri (54.5)
10. Tennessee (56.1)
11. Auburn (56.9)
12. Ole Miss (58.9)
13. Alabama (59.3)
14. Vanderbilt (63.6)

Toughest SEC schedule
1. Arkansas (20)
2. Auburn (23.9)
3. LSU (24.4)
4. Kentucky (24.9)
5. Mississippi St. (29)
6. Missouri (29.2)
7. Tennessee (29.6)
8. Florida (30.3)
9. Ole Miss (30.8)
10. Vanderbilt (31.3)
11. Texas A&M (33)
12. South Carolina (34.9)
13. Georgia (35.8)
14. Alabama (39)

Toughest out-of-conference schedule
1. LSU (49.7)
2. South Carolina (62)
3. Florida (69.2)
4. Georgia (72.3)
5. Mississippi St. (94.6)
6. Texas A&M (97.1)
7. Kentucky (97.9)
8. Alabama (99.8)
9. Arkansas (100.6)
10. Missouri (105)
11. Tennessee (109.3)
12. Ole Miss (115)
13. Auburn (122.8)
14. Vanderbilt (128.3)