Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Hi. My name's LD and I'm looking for a fight.

I've been following an ongoing debate/exchange of bitchslaps between Heisman Pundit and Orson Swindle from EDSBS over how shitty the SEC's scheduling is. For the uninitiated, HP is a Pac-10 USC guy, Orson is a Gator. The short version of the debate:

Heisman Pundit says the SEC is "chickenshit" because they rarely leave the region for away games, schedule terrible teams at home instead for cash (which he thinks is no excuse) and the resulting wins unnaturally inflate their win totals and esteem in the national media polls.

Orson disagrees.

Apologies for the long post, but here's my take (in three thrilling parts):

1. "Leaving the region" is a canard.

SEC haters love to talk about how you never see SEC teams travel all that far and play teams "outside the region". John Walters at wrote about it a few weeks ago. Naturally, he had to correct his column the next week because it was a stupid argument. First off, there is no inherent way to place a value on "leaving the region", because "leaving the region" doesn't mean anything. Put this way, Tennessee has gone on the road in recent years to play Notre Dame and Miami. Guess which one is farther away, South Bend or Coral Gables? Here's a hint - one is nearly 400 miles farther away from Knoxville. But wouldn't you know that the longer trip for the Vols would be a "regional matchup". Meanwhile if Kentucky were to travel less than 2 hours by bus to Cincinnati, it's leaving the region. In a similar light, there has to be another dimension to "leaving the region" - as what are the representative qualities of the team traveling or being traveled to? Should the SEC get credit if Vandy were to travel to Stanford for a game with the rough equivalent of two mules fighting over a turnip? Who gives a shit about that game? And what's the reason for the traveling? Big payday by a bottom feeder in a conference going on the road to a big fish? Why give credit for something like that?

The point is that leaving the region doesn't matter. Playing a good opponent on the road if it's less than a couple hours away is every bit as valuable as traveling across the country to play a decent opponent. In fact, I'd argue that it's better to play regional foes. When the schedule goes to 12 games, Georgia has scheduled a home/home with Colorado (more on that in a minute), which is fine. However, scheduling the Buffs is at the expense of getting back to a regular meeting with our closest (as the crow flies) rival, Clemson. Is Clemson any better or worse an opponent than Colorado? Who's to say by then, but now I'd say they're comparable at worst (Clemson's probably a little bit better). And I'd say there is a value to facing regional teams too. Using the Georgia/Clemson example, there are hundreds of Clemson fans in my office and in my community. I know like one Colorado fan. I know when UGA played Clemson a few years back there was genuine excitement around offices because it was a regional matchup. That interaction is missing with cross-country games.

So my point is: what's the big deal with "leaving the region"? It's an easy thing to tabulate and come up with a statistic that seeks to show one conference, by going on the road to play someone in another region, is "tougher" or less "chickenshit" than another. But that statistic is basically meaningless considering that there are no defined regions that make sense and the relative strengths or motivations of the teams playing on the road. A statistic like that proves nothing except that some teams are forced to travel farther than others because there are more schools in certain places. And, like so many debates in college football, that statistic requires someone to compare not just apples and oranges, but rather good apples to mediocre apples to delicious oranges to apples grown specifically for pies to orange juice and so on.

2. Making money is a bigger motivation for SEC schools than others.

I posted a comment about this on the Resource Blog before, but the issue keeps coming up (with Heisman Pundit sidestepping the argument). One of the main reasons SEC defenders use for why they don't travel as much is that they're trying to make more money, which is part of the game (and whether that's good or bad is a debate for another day). HeismanPundit says this is a ruse because other schools (Michigan, Texas) make lots of money and still travel on the road. OK, great for them. The thing is that of the top 10 moneymaking programs, 6 are in the SEC. That creates a microeconomy. UGA, UF, UT, LSU, Auburn and Alabama (and Arkansas, Ole Miss, USC) aren't competing against the rest of the country primarily. They're competing against each other first of all. Here's a hypothetical: say Auburn goes on the road for one more game than they need to, that could be $2M that is no longer in the budget. If Auburn brings in $2M less, and Alabama doesn't make that choice (and takes the money instead), Auburn might not be able to have as large a recruiting budget, or start payments on a note covering a new practice facility. And guess what? Alabama does have that money, from the extra home game. So Alabama puts that $2M into renovating skyboxes, or a new weight room. And when that 5 star D-lineman from Hoover takes a visit to both places and sees the shiny new facilities in Tuscaloosa and the declining ones in Auburn, guess where he's probably going to choose (I know, Tennessee, 'cause they pay him)? Auburn instead doesn't want to take that chance. So all SEC teams have to have at least 6 home games - just to keep up with the Joneses. And there are a lot of Joneses in the SEC. The competition for every last dollar is so much closer in the SEC. And that's what drives all those schools to the top. Greed begets greed. And there isn't a single school that would (or should, if they care about their fans) take a step back. The competition is not the same in the Pac-10. While it might be getting there in the Big 10/12, it isn't quite the same yet. Now, whether this is a good thing or not is another debate all together. But for now this is the reality. And that is why you should never see an SEC team schedule fewer than 6 home games. Of course, I wouldn't expect any team in a major conference to schedule fewer than 6 home games either. (more on this below)

3. Individual scheduling motivations tell a different story from a simple statistic.

One of the worst habits of a college football writer is to paint with broad strokes. As in "the SEC never plays anyone out of conference," or maybe "nobody out west plays any defense." Florida State, Miami, Oklahoma all have been out of conference games for the SEC. And USC has a great defense, and there have been very good defenses out west for years. The point is that when a writer makes an overreaching statement, he's bound to incorrectly include teams, and offering a cherry picked statistic doesn't prevent this fallacy.

With the scheduling controversy, HeismanPundit is way too broad in his statements. He might say once or twice that Tennessee has gone on the road and should get some credit,but then he follows it up with a long tirade against "the SEC". UT is a part of the SEC. If you want to say one thing honestly, you can't say the other. It requires much more effort of a writer, but in college football you pretty much have to address things team by team.

And scheduling is no different. Teams set their schedules with different restrictions, motivations and goals in mind. The SEC is no different from any other conference when it comes to that. Some teams have rivalries that limit the number of OOC games they can schedule. Georgia and Florida play a neutral site game that limits their ability to ensure they get 6 home games. Some teams have financial pressure put on them by major facilities improvements. Some teams get pressure to play close rivalries (like how the Florida legislature got involved to make UF play FSU). So before we go off criticizing the entire league, let's take a look at each team and how each has to set it's schedule and how it's done the past few years in terms of matching up with good teams on the road. FYI: I think 6 home games is minimally appropriate in an 11 game season. In a 12 game season, I think 7 one year, 6 the next is fine:

Alabama: No real restrictions on home games. Had home/home with UCLA and Oklahoma in recent years. Went on road to Hawaii for extra games during probation. Appears to take as many home games as possible, likely for added revenue to pay for the stadium renovations in progress.

Arkansas: No real restrictions on home games. Had h/h with Texas, regional h/hs with SMU and Memphis recently. Major improvements to stadium recently. Has gone for 7 home games (including the Little Rock games) frequently in 11 game seasons. One of the worst "offenders."

Auburn: No real restrictions on home games. H/hs with USC, GT, UVA, Syracuse recently. Typically has 1 very good opponent, 1 decent/mediocre opponent, and 1 terrible opponent.

Florida: Plays UGA in Jacksonville, so in odd years must have 3 home games to get to 6. Plus, has a home/home rivalry game with FSU, so in even years the one away game in a 11 game season is the Noles. The trial 12 game seasons allowed for a h/h with Miami. Pretty much impossible to schedule a h/h with anyone else and still have 6 games.

Georgia: Plays UF in Jacksonville, so in even years must have 3 home games to get to 6. Plus, has a home/home rivalry game with GT, so in odd years the one away game in a 11 game season is the Yellow Jackets. The trial 12 game seasons allowed for a h/h with Clemson, and upcoming with Colorado. Pretty much impossible to schedule a h/h with anyone else and still have 6 games.

Kentucky: Home and Home rivalry series with Indiana and Louisville, so only has room for one other OOC game each year. Wouldn't matter if they went on the road.

LSU: No real restrictions. Has gone on the road to Virginia Tech and Arizona. Usually schedules more than 6 home games. One of the worst offenders.

Mississippi: No real restrictions, but has had a h/h with Memphis (don't think it's really a rivalry though). Went on the road to Wyoming last year, but usually goes for 7 home games. Worst offender.

Mississippi State: No real restrictions. Has had h/hs with Oregon, Tulane, traveled to BYU, Houston, Memphis. Less ability to draw teams without a h/h, so goes on the road. Probably should play more home games for the money.

South Carolina: Has a h/h in state rivalry with Clemson. However, the big crowds tend to force them into scheduling home games. Went for 8 home games in '03. Rarely goes on the road other than Clemson (Virginia in '02). Deserves criticism.

Tennessee: No real restrictions. Has had h/h with Miami, Notre Dame in the last few years. Has had h/h with Memphis too (unsure if required). Has done what HP thinks they should.

Vanderbilt: No restrictions. Has had h/h with Duke, Navy, TCU, GT. Done what they should. No need to schedule more home games because they don't sell out anyway.

So there you have it. Of the 12 teams, LSU, USC, Arkansas and Ole Miss deserve whatever criticism. Alabama could do "better. " UGA, UF and UK are pretty limited in what they can do. UT and Auburn already do what HP thinks they should. MSU and Vandy don't matter really, but go on the road already. Basically, 1/3 of the league deserves the criticism that other pundits cast at the entire league. Awesome.


Basically, it boils down to this. If the criticism is that SEC teams don't play difficult and distant opposition on the road, the response is:

A) Several of the teams do play difficult or comparable teams on the road;
B) Some of the teams, because of schedule limitations, cannot play difficult or comparable teams on the road;
C) Playing distant opposition doesn't benefit a program all that much, and in some cases it is much worse than playing local;
D) There are several reasons to play home games, first of all the competition among SEC teams to have higher budgets.

I await the "USC does this" or "someone else does that" argument. Oh yeah, and apple jolly ranchers kick the balls off orange starbursts.