With the league title bout upon us, it's time to blow up the myth of LSU's formidable schedule. [Yes, this is a joke.]
There are a lot of foregone conclusions swirling about the 20th installment of the SEC Championship Game, with a blowout LSU win being just one of them. You've no doubt heard, and will continue to hear, how Georgia only snuck into the title game thanks to a weak SEC East and a West rotation that allowed them to skirt the best teams, while LSU has earned their undisputed No. 1 ranking thanks to a schedule packed with ranked teams.
Here's the dirty secret: LSU's schedule wasn't any harder than Georgia's.
Sounds like a crazy thing to say, but only if you've been swallowing the approved storyline from the media for the past two or three months. First let's get the two teams' common opponents out of the way.
|Auburn||Won by 38||Won by 35|
|Florida||Won by 4||Won by 30|
|Kentucky||Won by 9||Won by 28|
|Mississippi State||Won by 14||Won by 13|
|Ole Miss||Won by 14||Won by 49|
|Tennessee||Won by 8||Won by 31|
The differences in the Auburn and Mississippi State games are so small as to be statistically insignificant (though it does bear mentioning that Georgia had greater margins of victory in those games). As for the other four, what do Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee all have in common? LSU got to face them without their first-string quarterbacks (John Brantley, Randall Mackey and Tyler Bray, respectively), while Georgia got all three teams' best shot. One of the common explanations for the SEC lacking its usual depth as a conference this year is that overall quarterback play was so spotty; if that's the case, why isn't LSU being called out for getting to skate against backups in three of their most critical games? And why isn't Georgia getting more credit for facing three elite passers away from Athens? Spare me your quibbling over Brantley, Mackey and Bray supposedly having so-so seasons; which are you going to believe, their stats (and your lying eyes) or their star ratings from Scout and Rivals?
So now that we've established that common opponents were a wash, let's talk about the rest of the conference schedule. The other two opponents on LSU's conference slate were Alabama and Arkansas, while Georgia faced Vanderbilt and South Carolina. This is the part where Georgia is taking the most heat, because the Bulldogs enjoyed a supposedly magical scheduling quirk that allowed them to avoid the top three teams from the West. But why isn't LSU taking more heat for avoiding the top two teams in the East (Georgia and South Carolina)?
And why are Alabama and Arkansas being treated like juggernauts anyway? The Razorbacks, for their part, played a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule and got blown off the field by the top two teams they faced. And not only was Arkansas overranked for most of the season, LSU's own athletics website egregiously lists them as having been "#3" when they came to Baton Rouge -- when the very same page lists their season-opening opponent, Oregon, as having been "#3" as well. Look, I've been covering college football for a long time, and it's extremely rare for two teams to end up exactly tied in the AP or coaches' poll balloting. Either we had a little bit of lightning strike the Ducks and Razorbacks this season, or somebody at LSU is playing fast and loose with the rankings; I'll leave you to interpret which one I think happened, but you should know I wasn't born yesterday.
As for Alabama, all the hype over the LSU-Bama game only concealed the fact that LSU was playing last year's fourth-place finisher in the SEC West, a team that couldn't score a single TD against the Tigers in their own stadium. Ask yourself this: If Georgia had welcomed last year's fourth-place team in the East Division (Tennessee) to Sanford Stadium and only ended up winning a 9-6 slog in overtime, would they get any credit? (Heck, the Bulldogs went to Knoxville in October and handily beat a Tennessee team fielding a healthy Tyler Bray, and they're still not getting any credit for it.)
So now that we've collapsed the myth of LSU's superior conference slate, let's attack the last stand of the LSU Kool-Aid drinkers: the Bayou Bengals' supposedly formidable non-conference slate. LSU did play a Football Championship Subdivision team, which we can dispense with right away -- they beat Northwestern State, a team that finished 2011 with a losing record, by 46; Georgia beat Coastal Carolina, a team with a winning record, by 59 (and that was after pulling their starters for the majority of the second half). Both teams also played lower-tier mid-majors: LSU beat Western Kentucky by 33 after struggling with the Hilltoppers for much of the first half, while Georgia destroyed New Mexico State by 47 points -- and that was without the services of the top four running backs on the Bulldogs' roster. If anything, that's a point in the Dawgs' favor.
That leaves LSU's last two non-conference opponents: Oregon and West Virginia. LSU got a lot of cred from beating these two as both games took place away from Baton Rouge and both teams were ranked when the Tigers played them. You know what that sounds a lot like? Georgia's season-bookending games against No. 5 Boise State and No. 23 Georgia Tech, both of which took place away from Sanford Stadium.
No offense to the Mountaineers -- they perennially play with a lot of grit and hustle, and I'm optimistic about what Dana Holgorsen has the chance to build in Morgantown -- but they lost a lot of luster as an opponent when they gagged away games to Syracuse and Louisville (and barely squeaked past Pittsburgh last week). If they lose at South Florida this weekend, they'll finish with the same record as Georgia Tech, only in a substantially weaker conference.
As for Oregon, I like them too: I made my first-ever trip to Autzen Stadium the weekend after Thanksgiving to watch them pummel Oregon State in the "Civil War" rivalry game, and the solid coaching of Rich Brooks, Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly -- along with a stiff dose of cash from alum Phil Knight -- has given that program undeniable sex appeal. But beneath the gloss and glamour of the Ducks' fancy uniforms and scorching-hot cheerleaders, it's hard to make a convincing case that they're that much stronger an opponent than Boise State. After all, Boise beat Oregon the last time they faced off, and in fairly humiliating fashion -- the Broncos held the Ducks' vaunted offense to just eight points and six first downs. With that in mind, you kind of have to wonder how LSU allowed them 27 points in their 2011 opener -- and why that game is credited with establishing the Tigers as national frontrunners. (Besides, when was the last time the defense-optional Pac-12 merited being held up as a yardstick for the SEC?)
Keep in mind, none of this is meant to denigrate LSU as an unworthy team. They're the last undefeated squad left in any of the BCS conferences, and that's an achievement regardless of the schedule. But so's a 10-game winning streak, and Georgia's the only other Big Six team to have one on its résumé this season. And there's just no evidence to support this notion that LSU's road has been any tougher than Georgia's -- or, for that matter, even Mississippi State's or Western Kentucky's. After all, both of those squads had to play the No. 1 team in the country at various points this season. LSU can't say the same.
So while you're taking in all the hype of the 2011 SEC title match and witnessing all the pundits overlook the Bulldogs, rolling out LSU's red carpet to New Orleans as if the conference championship were a mere formality, take a closer look at their schedule. LSU is a supremely talented team, one that's certainly capable of beating Georgia this Saturday. But if they do, it won't be because they were more battle-tested.