This just in: According to Phil Steele, Alabama has the easiest schedule in the SEC.
Yes, you heard that right…preseason No. 2 ranked Alabama has—according to football’s statistical genius—the easiest road to the SEC title. That is, at least in terms of who they’ll have to play to get there.
Here’s how Steele has the 2014 SEC schedules ranked from toughest to easiest: Tennessee (No. 2 most difficult in the FBS), Arkansas (No. 3 FBS), Auburn (No. 5), Texas A&M (No. 12), Kentucky (No. 15), Ole Miss (No. 20), South Carolina (No. 30), Missouri (No. 31), Florida (No. 32), LSU (No. 33), Georgia (No. 35), Mississippi State (No. 56), Vanderbilt (No. 58) and Alabama (No. 61).
This puts Alabama’s schedule on par with Wyoming’s (No. 59), Virginia Tech’s (No. 60), Tulane’s (No. 61) and NC State’s (No. 63).
Shocked? Well, here are a few facts about the Crimson Tide’s 2014 slate that justify the ranking.
How much does the schedule ranking matter? Take a look at Alabama’s place in Steele’s scheduling rankings versus the results it achieved over the last four seasons.
2010: No. 15 FBS/No. 4 SEC = 10-3, won Capital One Bowl, final AP rank No. 10
2011: No. 24 FBS/No. 6 SEC = 12-1, won BCS National Championship, final AP rank No. 1
2012: No. 28 FBS/No. 8 SEC = 13-1 won BCS National Championship, final AP rank No. 1
2013: No. 40 FBS/No. 11 SEC = 11-2 lost BCS Sugar Bowl, final AP rank No. 7
2014: No. 61 FBS/No. 14 SEC = ???
This makes two things clear: First, Alabama’s strength of schedule is in a downward trend, even though the Tide continue to get credit for playing one of the most difficult slates in college football.
Next, the results do reflect Steele’s ratings. The only time Alabama missed out on a BCS appearance in the past four seasons was also the same year its schedule was the most difficult. As for last season, the Crimson Tide were one crazy, returned field goal against Auburn away from the SEC title game and a repeat appearance in the BCS championship.
Ask yourself this: Would Florida State have beaten Alabama in the title game last season? And then ask yourself again: Are you sure? If the Tide would have pushed Auburn into overtime and won, beat Missouri in the SEC title game and then triumphed against the Seminoles—then suddenly they’ve won three national championships in a row at the same time that their strength of schedule plummeted.
To further illustrate the importance, Steele ranked Florida State’s 2013 schedule at No. 64 coming into last season. That was No. 13 in the ACC and on par with UConn at No. 63 and Temple at No. 65.
Which ACC team had the easiest schedule coming into 2013? Well, that was Duke, which ended up going 10-4, the most wins in the history of the program.
Finally, here’s a look at the Top Ten teams in the 2014 Coaches’ preseason poll and their Steele ranking in scheduling.
#1 Florida State (No. 46), #2 Alabama (No. 61), #3 Oklahoma (No. 49), #4 Oregon (No. 48), #5 Auburn (No. 5), #6 Ohio State (No. 36), #7 UCLA (No. 11), #8 Michigan State (No. 50), #9 South Carolina (No. 30) and #10 Baylor (No. 57).
So, not only is Alabama’s schedule the easiest in the SEC, it’s the easiest in the preseason Top 10. In fact, the only preseason Top 25 team with a schedule rated below the Tide’s is #14 Wisconsin, which earned a No. 72 rank.
Add in that Alabama has recruited better than any team in the nation over the last four years (Rivals rated all four classes from 2011-14 at No. 1) and you get the picture: It’s not like watching your brother-in-law win the city golf championship on the short, wide-open municipal course. No, it’s more like unleashing Rory McIlroy or Adam Scott on the same tournament at the same course.
That said, there are two hypothetical roadblocks for Alabama that aren’t accounted for in the schedule ratings: The SEC title game and the first-ever playoff game in the new championship mini-bracket.
Both potential challenges will force the Tide to play high-ranking, powerhouse programs to move on to the next step towards a national title game appearance.