SEC Eight Game Schedule Will Backfire
They say you can schedule more victories than you can coach in college football. While that may be true, the same does not go for gaining respect. If it were only about victories, we might have seen a school like Boise State play for a national championship by now. After all, they had back-to-back perfect regular seasons in 2008 and 2009 but never got the chance to play for a national crown. Committees in particular are capable of discerning between a weak and strong schedule. The RPI, used to select college basketball teams for the NCAA tournament each year, is three quarters strength of opposition and just one quarter about your own win-loss record. You can trust that the football committee will look at who teams have faced.
So for the Pac-12 or Big Ten to complain that the SEC will play only eight conference games each year while they play nine seems to miss the mark. You can bet that any major conference school that goes undefeated will be among the final four invited to the college football playoff. The same probably goes for Notre Dame. After that, it becomes a beauty contest of one-loss teams.
You could say the recent love for SEC teams would be enough to push any one-loss SEC school ahead of a one-loss school from another major conference. If that were certain, then the eight versus nine argument might make sense. But when the field is only four teams, you're going to look closely at the whole schedule.
Alabama's nonconference schedule includes four teams that all had non-winning records in 2013. The conference slate also includes four losing teams. Among the rest, Ole Miss doesn't get a ton of respect and Texas A&M could take a big step backward without Johnny Manziel. That leaves basically two quality opponents with a home date against Auburn and a road game at LSU. Now if Alabama goes 11-1 with a bad loss at LSU but a home win over Auburn, how might that compare to a field that includes an undefeated South Carolina (who beat LSU in the SEC title game), Florida State, and Oregon, along with a one-loss Michigan State team.
In this scenario, let's imagine the Spartans' only loss is a narrow one at Oregon early in the year but that means they beat Nebraska (ten wins), Michigan (ten wins), a one-loss Ohio State team, Penn State (9 wins), and a one-loss Wisconsin team for the Big Ten Title. The Spartans would also be conference champions in that scenario while 'Bama was a runner-up in its own division and conference. Do they really slide 'Bama ahead of Michigan State in that scenario? That's hard to imagine.
Now imagine if Alabama had swapped out a weak non-conference opponent and instead won at South Carolina early in the year. Would that change the thinking of the selection committee in 'Bama's favor? It sure might. And South Carolina might still have advanced ahead of Michigan State in that scenario, making the 8-game decision a costly one for the SEC.
The truth is, no one can forecast with much certainty how a conference's scheduling decisions will impact playoff selection. In hindsight, it's fair to say that if Boise State had gone undefeated in non-conference games against Oregon, LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in 2008 and 2009 that they would have found there way into the national championship game. But that only works if they win those games. A team generally is best served by the toughest schedule it can win against. Losses always take you down a peg, but it's the strength of schedule that becomes a tiebreaker. And there will surely be ties. If it works out about the same over time, wouldn't you rather have a better schedule? If your job is selling tickets or getting ratings, then the answer is pretty clear.