The prevailing wisdom in college football the past several years has been that the Southeastern Conference has been extremely smart in its scheduling practices.
Is that wisdom accurate? Is that wisdom wise?
The short answer: Yes.
The SEC's practice of distributing league games throughout the regular season, including and especially in the first few weeks of the season while the Big Ten and Big 12 generally stick to non-conference games, showcases the SEC's product. It generates added publicity for member schools because it puts them in eagerly anticipated games fans relish. The SEC doesn't play all of its non-conference cupcake games right off the bat, something which re-enters the picture every now and then during the middle of the season. Teams that just played important and very grueling conference games -- and lack a bye week -- can play the non-con cupcake at an advanced stage of the season as a way of downshifting and being able to play backups to give the starters needed rest.
The SEC's scheduling methods also become enlightened at the very end of the regular season. Week 13 -- the last Saturday before Thanksgiving -- offers one final round of cupcake games before the rivalry contests in Week 14, when Americans are eating turkey sandwiches and shopping. Providing a light game before the rivalry showdowns which mean everything to schools is another way of confronting minimal bye weeks in a season. The league is willing to take the predictable pounding from pundits (full disclosure: I am and have been one of them) for playing FCS teams in late November because it knows its league champion will still make the College Football Playoff (formerly the BCS). That bet almost always paid off.
The scheduling plan was -- is -- smart on so many levels. In September, October, late November, and then on the first Sunday of December, SEC scheduling moves bore fruit. The downsides very rarely got in the way of the ultimate goals.
As the 2017 SEC season inches closer, the league should still regard its practices as the proper ones... but if results play out in a certain direction, it might be time to begin to consider changes.
Here's the explanation:
It's true that television rights and an expectation of quality games at each point on the schedule will limit maneuvering room, but even modest tweaks in certain directions could carry unforeseen benefits.
First, though, let's address conditions under which scheduling adjustments might be worthy of consideration. Very simply, what if 2016 recurs?
What if every team other than Alabama fails to make a major national splash? What if every other team fails to win 10 games in the regular season, leaving a team such as Kentucky as the best non-College Football Playoff story in the league due primarily (if not solely) to the absence of other good candidates?
The SEC would at least want to consider (with 2018 perhaps being a tipping point on the matter) subsequent adjustments.
First, more cupcakes in week one. This is not some titanic capitulation to the idea that teams should play softer schedules -- it only means, "play the softies in week one." In other words, LSU, go ahead and play Wisconsin at Lambeau Field if you want to, but play the cupcake game first so your quarterback works out some kinks and doesn't play a strong Big Ten defense cold. Play that game in week two. That's an example of a small-scale concession which could reap big-time benefits. The same applies to Auburn's week-one game against Clemson last year. Play that game in week two -- maybe the offense would have improved to the point that it might have scored an extra touchdown.
Second, and on a more general level, play at least a few more cupcakes in September. CBS and ESPN will still want quality games, and so they'll still be played, but league schools -- if hammered on the field in 2017 -- might want to rethink the year-long distribution of important games. Consider as a case in point week three of the 2016 season: Mississippi State at LSU, Texas A&M at Auburn, and most of all, Alabama at Ole Miss. Those are high-leverage SEC West games all played before the turn from summer to autumn.
Again, an overhaul or a dramatic reordering shouldn't be seen as the goal, but buying even one or two weeks on the schedule could enable one or two teams to avoid an early-season loss, while enabling another one or two teams to suffer a loss later in the season, such that it doesn't dent their confidence early the way Ole Miss lost the plot last year.
Third, put more of an emphasis on giving the whole league a midseason breather.
If you look at the October weeks from 2016, the largest number of bye weeks for SEC schools in any single October week was four. Plenty of byes were distributed in October, but not in bulk on any one weekend.
We discussed above that some teams will need to play quality games early in the season, but that more cupcakes should be encouraged early in the season. Given that the SEC plays only eight league games and not nine, however, a lot of teams can still use a basic formula: cupcakes in week one and week two or three, followed by either an October cupcake (if playing an important game in Week 13) or a Week 13 cupcake. That's three cupcakes, the presumption being that every team plays one tough non-conference game, especially in the case of all the schools which play rivalry games. (Teams that play only two cupcakes -- we salute you for being bolder -- should make sure to play those games after cupcake or bye weeks, or perhaps after playing weaker SEC foes.)
in the above paragraph, then, only some schools will be able to play October cupcakes, since many others will take advantage of the Week 13 cupcake, Auburn and Alabama in particular. They'll always want the ability to ramp up for the Iron Bowl.
The suggestion regarding a midseason breather -- tied into an October cupcake game -- is this: Instead of having only four SEC teams on a bye week at once, increase that number to seven and employ that move on consecutive weekends -- either Weeks 7 and 8 or 8 and 9 (not Week 6 -- that's too early in the season, setting up a grueling November). This way, the whole league gets its byes at roughly the same time, with less differentiation.
Following these two (larger-scale) midseason bye weeks, the teams which can play an October cupcake (in other words, the teams which can't play a Week 13 cupcake) should do so. This way, a number of teams will have in effect a two-week break -- perhaps a 1.5-week break -- in the middle of their seasons.
Not all teams will take advantage of this, particularly those which face daunting November schedules. However, if a few extra teams are fresher down the stretch and grab an extra win of value as a result, that could be the difference between a third New Year's Six bid and a Citrus Bowl bid.
The important reminder is that the SEC should wait for 2017 -- and frankly, 2018 -- before arriving at a point where it feels it needs to act. However, if the SEC East remains mediocre and SEC West teams go 9-3 or 8-4 when a scheduling tweak might have pushed their win totals up a notch, the conference with the smartest scheduling in college football might have to realize that yes, its own approach needs a tweak here and there.