College football season is underway, so it's time for the punditry to talk about how the SEC is the only conference that knows how to play football. It's a time honored tradition; regardless of the facts of the weekend, talk like the SEC plays a different kind of ball.
So to build off of some of my analysis from the end of last season, I put together some ways of thinking about matchups as we start this season. I think it points to a more competitive field than the SEC partisans would have us believe.
First, I just looked at how many of last year's 10 BCS teams were in a conference's non-conference schedule.
Conference 2008 BCS opponents
Big 12- Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia Tech
SEC- West Virginia, Hawaii
Big 10- USC
Pac 10- Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma
ACC- Georgia, USC
Big East- Kansas, Oklahoma
It's the Big 12 and the Pac 10 that have the most of last year's BCS teams on their 2008 schedule. Scheduling is done in advance; it's not like the SEC chose to only schedule two, or the Big 10 only one. The point is that there's no marquee matchup that overshadows what the other conferences are doing. The Missouri-Illinois and Ohio State-USC games are at least as good (and quite arguably better) than the Florida-Hawaii and Auburn-West Virginia games. In fact, after West Virginia's loss to Eastern Carolina, the show-case SEC game is probably Georgia against Arizona State, a team that didn't make the top ten last season (and was soundly trounced by Big 12 #4, Texas). It's quite likely the SEC (as in, the entire conference) will end the season without a single win against a top-ten team.
Then, I poked around the non-conference schedules of the top four Big 12, SEC, Big 10, and Pac 10 schools.
Best non-conference matchup
Kansas- South Florida
Georgia- Arizona State
Florida- Florida State
Auburn- West Virginia
Ohio State- USC
Wisconsin- Fresno State
Penn State- Oregon State
USC- Ohio State
Oregon- Boise State
Again, it's not that the SEC doesn't play any good teams; the Georgia-Arizona State game, for example, should be a good one, assuming both teams deserve to be as highly rated as they are. Rather, it's that looking at things this way doesn't make it look like there's anything that stands out about the way the SEC schedules. It's not Florida's fault that Florida State and Miami aren't very good this year. But that doesn't change the fact that they aren't. LSU is being talked about for the national championship, but their schedule is weaker than what the Kansas Jayhawks will play, who are traveling on the road against a ranked opponent.
The beauty of the SEC noise machine is its ability to shift the goal posts. Emphasize scheduling when it helps, emphasize records when they're the best, emphasize history when it's useful, point to conference standings when they boost your cause, say a loss within your conference shows how strong your conference is, and then dismiss these things when it helps somebody else.
College football is wide open this year. The fact that two 'ranked' SEC teams have already lost a game doesn't make the SEC a bad conference. But it certainly does make it interesting to suggest those losses are irrelevant and the SEC is better than other conferences that are taking care of business, winning the games they're 'supposed' to win. All of the top teams, after all, from all the conferences, are doing this at the beginning of the season. That's what makes Eastern Carolina's wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia notable. They're exceptions. The only other team aside from ECU with a victory over an AP Top 25 team is Missouri. The other 23 teams on the AP list are undefeated after week 2.
I anticipate spending the season finding fun ways to refute the SEC sales pitch that they're somehow a league apart from everybody else. They certainly could be; but so could others, and we can't give the final word until they actually play the games. This is important because the polls themselves in no small way decide the winners. After all, there are a lot of teams that will pick up a loss or two. It will be interesting to see whether the discussion about the SEC losses sounds the same as the discussions about losses from other conferences.