With the season just a few days away from kickoff, there is a bevy of issues and topics floating about – loose conversational ends needing to be tied before getting on with the stuff that matters. That which puts fan posteriors in the stadium interiors. The games. Though this will only close the loop on a few of the preseason spirals, it’s a good place to start.
Right Off Schedule
With the SEC’s 2014 schedules being released a week before the 2013 schedule begins, the hills are alive with the sound of music. Specifically Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone.” Because this is a madhouse. After several years of sharing the distinction of the league’s easiest schedule annually with Georgia, Alabama will again be given nearly as smooth a sail to the SEC title game as one can imagine. They open the conference slate by facing Florida – which should be fearsome in 2014 – but they of course will be hosting that little party. However then they continue to avoid 66% of the Eastern division’s trio of elite teams, skipping South Carolina and Georgia again. Georgia likewise, goes back to their traditional scheduling quirk of rarely having to play ANY of the three best teams from the West.
Florida on the other hand enters the second year of the new SEC scheduling system – wherein teams play only two programs per year from the other division – by playing the two best teams from the other division: visiting Alabama and entertaining LSU. This is nothing new for Florida, of course. Last year it was LSU and A&M. In 2011 & 2010 it was Alabama and LSU. Florida got a break in 2009, playing only the #2 team of the West’s top 3, but in 2008 they had Ole Miss (2) and LSU (3), in 2007 they had LSU (1) and Auburn (2), in 2006 it was Auburn (2) and LSU (3), in 2005 LSU (1) and Alabama (3), and so on through the years.
This is why 2013 is such an opportunity for the Gators. As difficult as the schedule is this year, it is actually a bit of a break as far as the SEC strength of schedule goes. They are only playing one of the projected top-three teams from the West: LSU. There is no Alabama and no Texas A&M on the docket. The Gators’ other West opponent is Arkansas, coming off a pathetic 4-win season and projected to possibly fight it out with the Tigers of Auburn to stay out of the division basement.
But as luck would have it, Miami is back on the Florida slate this year. The Hurricanes do not nearly pose the kind of threat a top-3 SEC West team does, but they are a far cry from the out-of-conference patsies Florida usually schedules before the SEC season gets underway. So while this year’s schedule is a rare half-step less obstructed path to Atlanta, the overall strength of schedule is still daunting as ever. How does it stack up to the rest of the SEC contenders? Let’s take the six SEC teams with a legitimate shot at the national title this year and compare their schedules. Let’s do the first it in terms of games against BCS conference teams that had winning records last year, and then the aggregate 2012 won-loss records of those teams.
Of the six teams, LSU plays the most BCS teams with winning 2012 records with 7. The Tigers have the toughest SEC schedule in the league and step out of conference to play TCU. Florida is right behind with six, as are South Carolina and Georgia. All three of those teams take on two ACC teams this year: Georgia faces Clemson and Georgia Tech, Carolina gets UNC and Clemson and Florida, of course, takes on Miami and FSU. Alabama and Texas A&M only have to face five winning BCS teams each. Alabama takes on VPI, which just barely cleared .500 last year at 7-6, while A&M plays zero winning BCS teams from outside the SEC.
Breaking the tie for the second-toughest schedule is Florida, whose six opponents had a combined record of 61-18. Spurrier’s crew is next at 59-19, just ahead of Georgia at 59-20. Of the two teams facing five winning teams, the Aggies place with the 5th toughest schedule in this group with a record of 47-19, while – to nobody’s surprise – Alabama again gets the easiest path with their opponents combining for a 43-22 mark. For further comparison, Alabama faces two teams that won ten or more games last year; Florida plays twice that many. The most wins by any Tide opponent last year was 11 by A&M; two of Florida’s opponents won 12 last year and another won 11. In fact, the only other SEC team to face any teams with 12 wins last year is LSU, which plays just one.
Whatever Florida’s final record in 2013, they will have earned it. Again.
Death of a Lie
For years after joining the ACC, Bobby Bowden lobbed backdoor smacks across the country toward any top ten program that threatened to take FSU’s potential spot in a national championship game. One can certainly see why, since FSU would have the most talented team in the nation year in and year out yet were constantly on the outside of the national title picture looking in. That’s because they would constantly lose to either Miami or Florida – and sometimes both. The smack talk that Bowden would toss about was something along the lines of, “If they think they’re better than we are, let’s compare out-of-conference schedules.” He essentially proposed that they should get a mulligan for one loss every year because they dared to play two and often three top-15 type national programs from outside their conference.
Trouble was was that their conference was the ACC, which provided no competition whatsoever. Top teams from the SEC, Big 12 and Big 10 did not need to play a few big out of conference tilts to match up to FSU’s schedule, because they exceeded it easily just by playing their normal conference schedule every year. Thus the out-of-conference mantra was a version of The Big Lie.
Bowden was however prescient in his comments, even if not exactly intellectually honest. Because just as his career was winding down, the BCS was ramping up. And with it, the inclusion of computer polls that weighed strength of schedule significantly in the balance of determining who would play for the national title each season. That element of the BCS poll has driven BCS conference front runners to boldly go and schedule more non-conference games against major programs where only patsies and lower division teams went before.
But this ultimately led to an updated version of The Big Lie. Because at the same time BCS programs were bolstering their out-of-conference schedules, the SEC was busy making that practice an exercise in irrelevance. Because no matter how many ranked non-conference opponents a team plays, if they aren’t SEC opponents, they really don’t matter much, if at all. And if they are SEC opponents, they are almost always losing to them anyway.
Take for instance last season’s non-conference exploits of the SEC. The league’s out-of-conference record was a gaudy 86% (48-8). That’s ridiculous even for a cupcake-eating contest. But when you consider that the SEC stepped out last year to play Michigan, Texas, FSU, Clemson (twice), Washington, Louisville, Arizona State, Syracuse, Northwestern, NC State, Georgia Tech, Rutgers and Wake, it’s simply absurd. Twelve of the fourteen SEC teams had winning non-conference records, and no team had a losing record. Eight conference teams – nearly 60% of the league – went a perfect 4-and-0. Compare that to the worst BCS conference, Bowden’s old cohorts in the ACC. With just a 55% winning percentage (33-27), only five of the fourteen teams (including ‘Cuse & Pitt) had winning non-conference records last year. Zero went undefeated. While they did have a number of marquee names on their list of opponents, their losses included Cincinnati, UConn, Louisiana Tech, Minnesota, Army and Youngstown State.
All the other BCS conferences fell somewhere in between, but none came remotely close to the SEC’s record. And this has been going throughout the league’s domination of the national championship game the last seven years. It has reached the point where it really doesn’t matter what out-of-conference teams a program plays: if it isn’t an SEC team, it does not really matter. Because those games cannot compare to the level of competition the SEC faces every week within its own league. The Bobby Bowden fib has become The Big Lie for the entire country.
So…the Toledo Rockets, Huh?
With the time remaining to the season opener now being counted down in hours and minutes, this is what is known as burying the lead. Anyone with their ear to the ground within the borders of Gator Nation knows that this game is causing a lot of fans a goodly amount of agita. Dyspepsia. I-i-i-i-ndige-e-e-e-stion. And it should not.
Toledo is a team that can play with the BCS big boys, no doubt about it. Just ask Arizona, which nearly dropped its season opener last year to the Rockets, narrowly prevailing in overtime. Toledo even beat Cincinnati by six last year, which may explain why the erstwhile Big East had to change its name this year: out of shame.
The Rockets have a nifty offense that can put up some big numbers in its own conference. However against two BCS conference foes (and remember one of them was the Cincinnati Fighting Johnny Fevers), their 32 points per game average dropped to 23. And they will not have faced a defense like Florida’s for many years. They return a talented dual-threat senior quarterback in Terrance Owens, who has a dangerous deep threat with Bernard Reedy and 1,500-yard rusher David Fluellen, along with six other starters returning on offense, so potential to dent a scoreboard will still be there. But despite the fear struck into opponents’ hearts by titan football names like Terrance, Bernard and Fluellen, this offense simply cannot dream of coming into The Swamp and overcoming their defensive issues.
Those defensive issues can best be summed up by two numbers: 109 and 4. Last year the Rockets were ranked 109th in the country in total defense, and they return only four starters. If anyone were looking forward to seeing if Jeff Driskel can open up the passing game in the opener and take some heat off of the running back position that will be without starter Matt Jones, consider that the worst element of the Rockets’ defense last year was against the pass, where it was a lowly 116th in the nation.
While Toledo did win ten games last year, they finished the season losing three of their last four, in the process giving up an average of over 32 points per game and scoring three of their five lowest point totals of the year. And that was against Utah State, Northern Illinois, Akron and Ball State. So along with severe defensive deficiencies and the intimidation factor of playing a top ten team in The Swamp, they were already suffering from a steep slide and a significant blow to team confidence in the program’s direction.
The Rockets come into the season with a legitimate chance of upsetting an opponent from the mighty SEC. But it isn’t the Gators. They visit floundering Missouri the following week, and against the Tigers they just might have a shot. But in Gainesville, the only question is what the Gators’ margin of victory will be. Coach Muschamp will reveal nothing to Miami that he doesn’t absolutely have to. He will no doubt want to test some packages and personnel, but he will play this game very vanilla, very close to the vest and extremely controlled on both sides of the ball. Expect it to be a comfortable but not remarkable victory, which will send some fans into mild infarction but nonetheless will be exactly what Muschamp wants: a conservative, businesslike win, few frills and fewer chills but one that will leave open the mysteries of the Gator season at least one more week. Then the Gators travel to Miami. And the season gets real. Until then, remember that every day is a gift; that’s why they call it the present.